An unexpected Christmas present for California’s school children came two weeks early when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in an address to state leaders declared the union leadership of United Teachers of Los Angeles an “unwavering roadblock to reform.”
The mayor acknowledged that his own career included stints as a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Association and as a union organizer for UTLA. Yet facing schools that have become, in the mayor’s words, “drop-out factories” comprised mostly of Latino and African-American students, Villaraigosa grew a spine that probably signals his belief that more political mileage can be derived from shifting his allegiance away from teachers unions and toward students and their disenchanted parents.
While the mayor mentioned the predictable liberal litany of things that harm California’s public education system—inadequate funding and the under-representation of Latinos and African-Americans in the University of California system—his fire was directed primarily at UTLA as “the most powerful defenders of the status quo.”
The mayor noted that UTLA had fought against the city’s “Public School Choice program that is now allowing non-profits, charters, teacher groups—anyone with a proven track record of success—to compete to run new or failing schools.”
The fact that only 50 “choice” schools are anticipated for 2012 in the huge Los Angeles district shows the general success of UTLA in maintaining a stranglehold on the area’s K-12 system. And no wonder. Comparisons with charter schools are deadly for their bureaucratic, union-based counterparts—as Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard’s Tom Kane have shown in their analyses of charter students in New York City and Boston.
Villaraigosa went on to note the passage of legislation in Sacramento that allows communities to shut down or take over failing schools based on petitions signed by a majority of parents. According to his honor, “At every step of the way...UTLA was there to fight against the change and slow the pace of reform.
What is true of UTLA is also true of the California Teachers Association and its local affiliates. As Michael Piscal of the Inner City Education Foundation noted in the summer of 2007, “I’m a Democrat, but, overall, I’m appalled by the power of the CTA and how it wants to stop charters.”
Whether Villaraigosa and other Democrats are willing to take this reformist rhetoric about the tenure-driven “dance of the lemons” to the next level is uncertain. A key indicator will be whether the mayor puts merit pay, parental empowerment, and placing quality teachers in every classroom above the union-driven insistence on more pay and smaller classrooms—“reforms” that not coincidentally increase union membership, dues, and power.