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Far more is at stake in Los Angeles than a traditional contract struggle in the stand-off between United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and LAUSD.

LA Teachers Union Standoff

What even conscientious followers of media outlets likely don’t know is the reforms LAUSD has demanded in Los Angeles schools are based on a decades-long effort to turn education into a market for investors. This project, advanced by wealthy executives and their foundations, has advocated reforms nationally–and internationally–seen in LA schools already:

  • using standardized tests to control what and how children learn;
  • creating charter schools to weaken neighborhood schools and undermine parent loyalty to public education;
  • creating new revenue sources for corporations to profit from the education marketplace; and
  • weakening teachers unions.

The “portfolio model” LAUSD will adopt if permitted has already been tested in many cities. The reform fragments the school system into networks operated by private charter management organizations, and though the model is said to provide “choice” for low-income children of color by privatizing school management, we have ample evidence privatization has increased school segregation and racial disparities in educational outcomes.

Across the nation, states have punished districts with low standardized test scores for students with “takeovers,” disenchfranchising low-income communities of color by denying them the right to have elected school boards.

Across the nation, from New Jersey to Louisiana, Massachusetts to Michigan, states have punished districts with low standardized test scores for students with “takeovers,” disenchfranchising low-income communities of color by denying them the right to have elected school boards. In many of these takeovers, states have imposed the “portfolio model” in which a small number of students have increased educational opportunities, but as is clear in New Orleans, the vast majority of schools and teachers flounder. As will likely occur in Los Angeles if this model is implemented, a few elite and well-funded public schools will exist the whitest and most affluent parts of the city. A handful of low-income students may find spots in these schools but most will languish in charter schools that are virtually unregulated by central authorities.

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As teacher union influence has waned, especially among Democrats, who have adopted the pro-privatization views of their largest donors, teachers have become angry about their unions’ inability to stem deteriorating conditions in schools. Activists in both national teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have developed a reform agenda and networks to support one another. These activists have a dramatically different idea of what makes a union powerful, seeing its strength emerging from a mobilized membership and formation of mutually respectful alliances with community, not relying on “friends of labor” who will reward the union’s loyalty with economic improvements for members.

The current UTLA leadership campaigned and won office with a program of action that puts it within this reform network. Examining UTLA’s current contract demands shows this new orientation: hiring more counselors; lowering class size; and ending punitive disciplinary procedures that feed the “school to prison pipeline” and do nothing to improve school climate, essential for safe schools. Wage, benefits, and traditional “bread and butter” are in this contract but members themselves have told the leadership conditions for learning and teaching have deterioriated and must improve.

LAUSD wants a privatized public system funded by tax dollars that its supporters say will simultaneously boost profits and cream “the best” to succeed in a competitive system. UTLA is committed to a system of public education that is democratic, one in which parents, students, and teachers reject the role of consumers, instead as citizens demanding the power to create “choices” that serve all elements of its diverse population equally well.

What’s at stake in this contract fight is the future of Los Angeles, not just UTLA.

lois weiner

Lois Weiner

Lois Weiner is an independent researcher specializing in teacher union transformation. She is on the editorial board of New Politics.