Union Kingpin Threatens California

In a blatant power-play, UTLA president targets health benefits and charter schools, calling for a “state crisis” if he doesn’t get his way.

United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl gave a speech for the ages a couple of weeks ago, securing a wing in the pantheon-of-vile, a place which includes such memorable outbursts as National Education Association general counsel Bob Chanin’s “right-wing bastards” farewell-to-troops speech in 2009 and Chicago Teacher Union boss Karen Lewis’ talk to the Illinois Labor History Society in 2012, where she joked about the possibility of union members killing the wealthy.

Speaking at the annual UTLA leadership conference, Caputo-Pearl said “With our contract expiring in June 2017, the likely attack on our health benefits in the fall of 2017, the race for Governor heating up in 2018, and the unequivocal need for state legislation that addresses inadequate funding and increased regulation of charters, with all of these things, the next year-and-a-half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018.  There simply may be no other way to protect our health benefits and to shock the system into investing in the civic institution of public education.” (Emphasis added.)

He proceeded to introduce “10 ingredients to building the power we need, and the strike readiness we need, between mid-2016 and early 2018.” While a lot of his talk was innocuous rah-rah union bloviating, the threats were unmistakable, and many of them based on award-winning lies, half-truths and exaggerations.

For example, Caputo-Pearl claims that “California hovers around 45th among the 50 states in per-pupil funding.”  But, quoting a National Education Association report, Mike Antonucci writes, “…current expenditures per student – in other words, what the state actually spends…California ranks 22nd.”

Caputo-Pearl also claims, “By law, unions can only spend a tiny percentage of dues money on political campaigns. This means that we must raise money for political campaigns through separate voluntary contributions to PACE (UTLA’s political action wing).”

Here, he is conflating donations to candidates and political spending. Money directly given to candidates comes from PACE and is indeed donated voluntarily by teachers. However, all other political outlay – independent expenditures, ads, etc., – comes from teachers’ dues. Surely he knows this.

Caputo-Pearl’s obsession with, and comments about charter schools are especially egregious. He proudly stated, “In May, we made history through research,” and proceeded to go into some detail about the bogus study that UTLA commissioned, which alleges that the Los Angeles Unified School District loses $591 million per year to charter growth. What Caputo-Pearl ignored, however, is that the school district maintains that it actually makes money due to the existence of charter schools. According to LA School Report, “In January when the Charter Schools Division presented its budget, it showed that the district receives half a million dollars more than they need to pay for the division.”

Especially angry about the charter school comments was Jason Mandell, communications director of the California Charter Schools Association. He rightfully said that instead of scapegoating charters for being a financial drain, that if the district wants to ward off a financial crisis, “it needs to address its $13 billion in unfunded post-retirement liabilities.”

In fact, if Caputo-Pearl is looking for a crisis, there are several already in play that the union can take credit for. In addition to the aforementioned unsustainable healthcare and pension liabilities, there is the little matter of how well school kids in Los Angeles are being educated. Interesting that this little angle never entered into Caputo-Pearl’s screed. While LAUSD claims that the graduation rate is now 75 percent, if you remove the smoke-and-mirrors, it ain’t even close to that. When it was announced in February that the graduation rate was at 54 percent, the district augmented a “credit recovery plan,” which allowed students to take crash courses on weekends, holidays, etc. – and voila! Combined with the demise of the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), the fake classes enabled the graduation rate to leap to 75 percent. While there is no single cause for LA students’ poor performance, some of the blame can be attributed to collective bargaining which, as Terry Moe and other researchers have shown, has a detrimental effect on student learning.

In any event, the proof will be in the pudding for those students who go on to college. The best estimates say that nationwide, 60 percent of first-year students who go to college need remediation. If it is only 60 percent in LA, I will be shocked.

So in addition to avoiding the district’s awful grad rate and looming fiscal apocalypse, Caputo-Pearl lied or was just dead-wrong about spending, the union political donation mechanism and charter school finances. If the union boss is successful in his mission, taxpayers will be soaked even more than they are now and many of our most vulnerable children will be forced back into failing public schools. (By the way, I have covered only a small portion of Caputo-Pearl’s inflammatory talk. To read the whole thing, go here.)

No, we don’t need another crisis, Mr. Caputo-Pearl. We have a few perfectly good ones now that your union has been instrumental in generating. Let’s not make an ugly situation even worse.

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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