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L.A. Teachers Are Engaged in a Visionary Battle Over Much More Than Their Own Wages

The Union Power slate of activists say the teachers will win community support when they fight for better schools, not just a raise.
 
 
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For Los Angeles teacher Alex Caputo-Pearl, if there was ever an example of how his union needed to change direction, it was November’s “Rally for a Raise.”

While he agrees raises for teachers are critical, the single demand rang hollow in light of two years without a contract, teachers still reeling from years of layoffs, hours and hours of standardized tests, and myriad school reconstitutions and charter takeovers.

“We’ve got to put out our own vision for quality schools,” said Caputo-Pearl, who’s running for president in the local’s February election.

A rally focused solely on raises is not likely to inspire parents and community to join in support, according to Caputo-Pearl. Worse, it could play into the argument made by foes of public education, who claim that union teachers care only about their next paycheck and not the best interest of students.

The Union Power slate Caputo-Pearl heads, which is critical of President Warren Fletcher’s go-it-alone vision for the rally, was there with its own message, "It's time for a raise and a whole lot more": fully staff schools and classrooms, and think about what else students need.

Teachers waved signs saying, “A raise would be great but I’ll settle for a nurse and a librarian” and “Kids need librarians, counselors and nurses, not iPads.”

“If we are fighting for good schools, schools that the community will celebrate,” said Rodney Lusain, a Union Power candidate for board of directors, “then the salary, the working conditions, the student-teacher ratios will come with it.”

Union Power includes current officers, members of the Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) group, and other activists.

L.A. is the second-largest school district in the country after New York City, and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), with 35,000 members, is the second-largest teachers local.

The district has destabilized its own schools. Since the recession it has been laying off teachers, bringing in charters, and reorganizing with a vengeance. L.A. now has more students enrolled in charter schools than any other city.

The district also recently sank $1 billion into a deal (with Apple and education software company Pearson) to give iPads to every student. The plan has had a bumpy rollout and mixed support.

Leading by Example

The Union Power slate brings together teacher leaders who already have experience teaming up with parents.

“What we are trying to do this year is more comprehensive than we ever have done before,” said Rebecca Solomon, one of 25 on the slate. Nine candidates are running for president, but Union Power is the only slate running for all spots.

They have a beef with Fletcher’s approach to the expired contract, which has been to bargain and sign off on contract issues piece by piece. Most recently the union agreed to a new teacher evaluation system. “That has utterly failed,” Caputo-Pearl said. “Small-room negotiations don’t help you in terms of building power on the ground.”

Solomon and Caputo-Pearl were among the founders of PEAC, which now backs Union Power. That group formed in the 1990s, after No Child Left Behind increased the emphasis on tests and on punishing “failing” schools. Members worked with parents to fight against closings and for better schools.

While he was teaching at South Los Angeles’ Crenshaw High, Caputo-Pearl fought the district’s “reconstitution” efforts there. A partnership of teachers, parents, and students sought to improve the school from within.

The efforts built teacher-community bonds, but the district ultimately converted Crenshaw to a magnet school and laid off much of the staff. Caputo-Pearl now teaches at nearby Frida Kahlo High.