LA Teachers Union: Striking Out?

UTLA is planning to walk out over a mess that it helped to create.

The case is being built for a teachers’ strike in Los Angeles. The next step in the contract negotiation process is mediation, whereby a state-appointed mediator will try to get the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) to reconcile their differences. If no progress is made during those sessions, scheduled for March 26th, April 6th and April 15th, the fact-finding stage is next. Anything that comes out of this part of the process is not binding, but could be influential in the last step in which the district makes its final offer. At that point, the union can accept the deal, or reject it and call for a strike vote.

There are a number of issues on the table, but the main sticking points are as follows:

UTLA wants a bigger raise than LAUSD is offering. The district’s offer is 5 percent, but the union, after originally asking for 17.5, has lowered its demand to 8.5 percent, retroactive to July 2014.

The union wants smaller classes. Due to budgetary constraints, the district wants latitude in determining the number of teachers on the payroll. The union wants the district to commit to a hard and fast teacher-student ratio. Fewer teachers, of course, translate to larger classes.

The union does not want an imposed teacher-evaluation system. In light of a lawsuit settled in 2012 that mandated substantive teacher evaluations, the district came up with a simple four-level teacher-evaluation plan which it instituted in 2013. But the union pushed back successfully, claiming the district single-handedly imposed the process, prompting an administrative law judge to rule that LAUSD had to repeal it. The decision came in response to an unfair labor practices charge that UTLA filed three months later. The union is demanding to be a part of any new evaluation system for its teachers.

Moving away from the bargaining table, the leaders of the two warring factions have gone public with their case. In January, LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines called the union’s latest demands “entirely unrealistic” and asserted that they raise “serious ethical and equity issues” for the district. He pointed out that

… all the district’s other unions have agreed to new contracts within the current economic landscape, he chided UTLA for its bargaining stance over 16 negotiating sessions, saying, ‘It is regrettable that the current UTLA leadership has gone in an entirely different direction.’

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl has been mouthing off to the press all along, lambasting the district and everything else he can think of. At a rally in downtown LA last week, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, he bloviated,

The recession, the cuts to the bone at schools, the attacks on public service, the increasingly savage racism and economic inequality that our students face, John Deasy for three years, all of them have set us back. And we are not going to take it anymore.

Okay, now here is the reality: LAUSD is mired in fiscal purgatory. Dealing with a $160 million deficit, Cortines said just 11 days ago that he has already begun cutting programs for next year, and layoffs are next with the first round of pink slips due to go out March 15th. (Worth noting: $160 million is almost the exact figure LAUSD is paying to the victims of one teacher – sexual predator Mark Berndt, whose wretched legacy owes a nod to the teachers union which traditionally has insisted on laws that make it practically impossible to get rid of incompetent and debauched educators.) When asked what’s most likely to be cut, Cortines said, “Everything.” LAUSD officials added that giving the union everything it is asking for would pile another $800 million of debt on the district.

If layoffs become necessary, Cortines will be painted as the goat, but it is the union that bears the majority of the responsibility. In good economic times, UTLA – and most teachers unions – demand that school districts use up all available resources to hire more educators. Then, when the inevitable economic downturn hits, layoffs become necessary. Also, it’s not just teachers who are hired when the economy is robust; more support personnel are invariably a part of the package.

The fiscal situation is even bleaker for the district than the $160 million deficit and additional $800 million the union is demanding the district spend. Due to recent legislation, school districts in California now have to come up with a greater proportion of retired teachers’ pensions. This will cost the district an additional $1.1 billion over the next seven years. The annual salary for LAUSD teachers who have taken some professional development classes and taught for 10 years is $75,592, which the union says isn’t enough. But while union leaders whine over what they deem to be paltry salaries, they never mention the additional perks a teacher gets like a comprehensive healthcare package and a defined-benefit pension. When those costs are added in, that ten-year teacher’s total compensation is more like $90,000. Not bad for 180 days work.

Also, teachers – the good ones, that is – could be making considerably more if not for the industrial-style step-and-column way that unions insist its teachers get paid. With no nod to quality, mediocre and worse teachers are paid the same as the good and great ones

Regarding the smaller class-size demand – LA has about 640,000 students and 31,000 teachers, which means about 20 kids per teacher, not exactly an overbearing number. If some teachers’ classes are too large, then rebalancing becomes the issue. While it’s true that there are instances where some kids benefit from more individual attention, it is by no means universal. The most extensive study on the subject was done by Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek in 1998. He examined 277 different studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, and found that only 15 percent of the studies indicated an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent showed no effect at all. Worse, 13 percent found that reducing class-size actually had a negative effect on achievement.

But class size and teacher pay are related. If you lopped off the bottom 10 percent lowest performers from the district, the remaining (better) teachers could get a hefty raise with just a few more kids in each class and no additional outlay from the district.

It’s important to note that the entire collective bargaining process is not beneficial for many teachers and their students. Thomas F. Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli finds that, “Teachers in non-collective bargaining districts actually earn more than their union-protected peers—$64,500 on average versus $57,500.” Petrilli adds that “there is some evidence … that non-collective bargaining districts drive a harder bargain when it comes to health care.” He also points out that collective-bargaining districts focus on seniority, protecting various benefits associated with longevity rather than pushing for higher pay. These tenure and seniority “benefits,” which clearly are unfair to good teachers and their students, are what Judge Rolf Treu was referring to in his recent Vergara ruling when he said. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

In 2012, Chicago teachers – already the highest paid teachers in the country while working the fewest hours of any other big-city school district – went on strike. Stanford’s Terry Moe wrote at the time,

Collective bargaining is not fundamentally about children. It is about the power and special interests of adults. In Chicago and elsewhere, the teachers unions are in the business of winning better salaries and benefits, protecting job security, pressuring for restrictive work rules and in other ways advancing the occupational interests of their members. These interests are simply not the same as the interests of children.

Not to say that school districts are perfect. Far from it. But ideally, their mission is to promote the interests of children, while unions are there to serve their rank-and-file – the good and the bad, it’s all the same to them. The teachers unions may blather about the children, but ultimately they are there to serve the adults. And that’s causing big problems in Los Angeles and everywhere else these unions have power.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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