UTLA Is Striking Against Itself

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

United Teachers Los Angeles is a strange teachers’ union. But it has never done anything stranger than its new strike, which is less an action against the Los Angeles Unified School District and more an attack on itself.

UTLA is strange because of its structure; it’s a rare teachers’ union that has long been affiliated with both national teachers’ unions, the AFT and the NEA. It also has a history of eccentric leadership that has seemed interest in global causes and social justice than on education. When I attended sessions of UTLA’s House of Representatives, its internal legislature, as a labor reporter for the LA Times, I was struck by how almost nothing on the agenda was actually about schools.

UTLA has had strikes in previous generations. But this strike is profoundly different. Because the educational system UTLA is striking against is one that the teachers’ unions authored and defend.

UTLA wants more money so that schools have full services—a worthy goal. So why haven’t the teachers’ unions used their power to get more money for public education?

Think about the just concluded 8 years of Jerry Brown’s administration. The governor did essentially everything the teachers’ unions wanted. He dismantled the state’s accountability system and replaced it with a Potemkin village that will put little pressure on teachers to perform. He got rid of categorical programs, freeing up more money for teacher salaries and benefits. He protected pensions even as unfunded obligations grew.

And he backed Prop 30, a ballot measure developed in large part by UTLA and teachers’ unions, to raise taxes. Some Californians, including this writer, thought the schools needed more money, but the unions worked against a competing ballot measure by Molly Munger that would have produced far more in revenue.

More profoundly, UTLA and teachers’ unions were behind the passage – and the still continuing defense—of Prop 98, the educational funding formula enacted in 1988. Prop 98 has essentially put a cap on school funding. It’s a formula entirely divorced from the needs of schools and students—the very things UTLA says it is striking over. It’s long been clear that Prop 98 should be replaced with constitutional protection that is based on educational needs. But UTLA, its fellow unions and the education lobby haven’t done it.

Teachers’ unions also say—correctly, it says here—that state and local governments should be collecting more in taxes for schools. And the state badly needs a tax reform that produces more and steadier revenues; there are many proposals that would accomplish that. UTLA and its fellow unions have opposed every single one.

Now, instead of fixing the system in which they have so much power, UTLA is attacking that system. And it’s blame-shifting, claiming that charter schools and rich people like L.A. Unified superintendent Austin Beutner are the problem. Beutner can be annoyingly arrogant, but he didn’t write Prop 30 or defend Prop 98 or resist tax or pension reform. UTLA and its allies did that.
UTLA seems to think the strike will be galvanizing. And it may be, but not in the way the union thinks. The strike is likely to highlight the fact that retiree benefits for teachers are gobbling up money for today’s teachers and students—in effect, that UTLA’s retired members are being protected at the expense of its current members and their schools.

The strike also could make a pretty good advertisement for those independent charter schools that stay open during the strike because its teachers aren’t union members. (Some charters’ teachers are covered by the union contract and thus participate in the strike). And with school districts like L.A. Unified suffering from declining enrollment (largely because Californians can’t afford to have many kids), the strike is a message to anyone with a choice: if you need to make sure your kid’s school is open every day, don’t send him or her to L.A. Unified schools.

Still, it’s never too late to do the right thing. UTLA, stop this absurd strike, and use your power and resources to remake the educational system you made.

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