Lack of Trust Imperils Student Success

On October 29, 2012, the day that United Teachers Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District failed to agree on the district’s Race to the Top proposal for $40 million in federal funds, Los Angeles Education Partnership convened an education salon to discuss whether unions drive or restrain student success. In a lively discussion, panelists agreed that a lack of trust characterizes the district-union relationship, often to the detriment of Los Angeles students.

Ellen Pais, LAEP’s president and CEO, commented, “At points in Los Angeles’ history, people have been able to come together for the benefit of students,” she said. “How do we make now one of those moments? Who are the leaders in Los Angeles who are going to make this happen?”

The Education Salon panelists and audience members raised topics that included the

  • need for inclusive conversations about education reform
  • tendency for all parties to focus on areas of disagreement rather than larger areas of agreement
  • exclusion of parents from the larger discussions about education and reform
  • barriers to reform found in the union’s House of Representatives
  • importance of education to solving the problem of poverty
  • length of the teachers’ union contract

“This Education Salon is structured to bring together a variety of viewpoints in a civil discourse,” said Jane Patterson, LAEP senior director, in her introduction. “The students of L.A. deserve nothing less than that from the adults who are the decisionmakers for their schools.”

LAEP Board Chair Rod Hamilton moderated the discussion among Warren Fletcher, president of the UTLA teachers union; Jordan Henry, LAUSD teacher and co-founder of progressive teachers group NewTLA; Alicia Lara, vice president of community investment at United Way Los Angeles; and David Abel, president of ABL Inc., a public policy consulting firm, and LAEP co-founder and board member.

In his opening remarks, UTLA’s Fletcher noted that teachers unions are often caricatured, but “the union is a vehicle to make sure quality education is provided for each kid.” Henry countered that NewTLA wants to give a voice to the 37,000 LAUSD teachers who are not members of the union’s governing bodies in order to build a reform movement. United Way’s Lara called for “a more grown-up conversation about improving schools” that involves parents and includes the impact of poverty.

Abel provoked his fellow panelists by playing a short video of striking Chicago teachers with five facts, including Chicago’s high median teacher salaries and Chicago’s shortest school day and year in the nation. Fletcher refuted the facts in the video, terming it “propaganda” and saying, “This doesn’t deal with the issues of urban education or what really happened in Chicago.” Henry urged Californians to vote yes on propositions 30 and 38, or Los Angeles would soon have the shortest school year in the country instead of Chicago.

Lara pointed to mistrust on all sides. “Charters aren’t the way to fix things,” she said. “Where do we see the greatest success? Pilot schools.” Pilot schools are small district schools with charter-like autonomies from LAUSD, including a “thin” contract for teachers. Lara called for the teachers union to ally with parents to break through the bureaucracy at LAUSD.

“We are not just a teachers union,” Fletcher responded, “We are teachers. The union is protecting the standards of the profession.” He defended the 270-page union contract as necessary to protect teachers in labor issues, such as the disastrous redesign of the LAUSD payroll system by a contractor five years ago. Fletcher pointed out that the last UTLA strike in 1989 was as much about reforming school governance as pay and benefits. “We established school-based management, which was the great-granddad of pilot schools and charter schools.” The teachers union had the support of parents in that strike, Fletcher said, because the reforms gave parents input in school management. “UTLA has a sterling record of being ahead of the curve,” he added, “not that we are always ahead of the curve.”

Audience member Yvonne Chan, principal of Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima, the first district school in the country to convert into a charter school, spoke up about teacher contracts. She pointed out that when Vaughn became a charter school in 1993, the teachers’ contract was one page long, not 270. The union leadership was willing to work with her, but she took issue with UTLA’s House of Representatives.

NewTLA’s Henry said, “Teachers care. UTLA cares.” But all parties make the mistake of communicating their positions to the press rather than developing relationships with each other, he stated. But he added that the relationship between the district and the union does not drive instruction in the classroom. “The management-labor relationship between the principal and teachers is the one that matters,” Henry said. “Politics be damned.”

In her concluding remarks, Pais reflected on the themes that came through in the salon. “People want to have different relationships to make education better for kids.”

Among those attending the salon were representatives from state government, the LAUSD school board, charter schools, foundations, nonprofits, higher education, school administrators, parent and teacher groups. After the panel, they formed small table groups to talk about the issues. Each table reported on its discussion, including these opinions:

  • Standardized testing does not measure the important things. Educators need to have a citywide conversation with parents about what they want their children to know. Standardized testing is too easy a measure and too punitive.
  • The conflicts between adults in education distract them from the real issue: what is best for children. UTLA should be more proactive and advocate for quality instruction.
  • The antagonistic parties in education need to build trust in order to negotiate solutions. The best way to secure teachers’ position and to enhance the profession is to put children first.
  • Because of the way its meetings operate, UTLA’s House of Representatives includes insufficient numbers of full-time, active teachers. It has to change so that classroom teachers participate and help establish policy. The district and teachers have to stop vilifying each other so they can negotiate and help students.
  • Unions have the power to be instruments of change. But the debate always centers on small areas of disagreement rather than the larger areas of agreement.

LAEP plans to hold future education salons and meetings on important issues that impact public schools. To receive information on future events, sign up for LAEP’s newsletter at here.