UTLA’s Eli Broad Rage

Larry Sand

Los Angeles teachers union turns down millions of dollars from the philanthropist earmarked for schools that work.

Last year, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation formed Great Public Schools Now (GPSN), an organization whose goal was to create 260 new charter schools in Los Angeles. The plan was to enroll at least 130,000 students in the public schools of choice, and included such strategies as how to raise money, recruit teachers, provide outreach to parents and navigate the political battles that would undoubtedly ensue.

Upon hearing the plan, the education establishment had a collective hissy fit and immediately went on offense. LA school board president Steve Zimmer harrumphed that the Broad plan “represents a strategy to bring down LAUSD….” United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl unleashed a litany of hoary clichés including the usual slam on billionaires, whose “attacks must stop” and that they “should not be running public education.” He also regurgitated another well-worn bromide: “Charters are unregulated and will create inappropriate competition.” Blah, blah, blah.

After much of this badgering, GPSN relented and modified its focus. The group announced in June that it would include the funding of high-performing traditional public schools in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods that deserve replication or expansion. Making good on that promise in October, GPSN awarded $250,000 per year in grants to five winning schools over a three-year period. GPSN’s goal, very simply, is to “do more of what works.”

So now everyone should be happy, right?

Well, no.

In fact, led by UTLA cheerleading, four of the schools are refusing to take the money because it would be from “a pro-charter school organization.” (The money actually would go directly to the school district, and UTLA is asking the LA school board to turn down the cash.) Caputo-Pearl blustered that “It’s a public relations stunt that offers chump change to a couple of LAUSD efforts while they continue to put tens of millions of dollars into unregulated charter growth.”

So what would make Caputo-Pearl happy?

Claiming to be open to olive branches, he said, “We would actually be very encouraged if Eli Broad (and the Walton Family Foundation) came back with another offer and said, ‘What we’re going to do is give a substantial amount of money, millions of dollars, to the L.A. School Board … to spend in the way they see fit.'”

Giving money to the union-controlled LA school board is akin to giving money to a drunken sailor. While we’re told that the yearly per-pupil spending is about $11,000 in Los Angeles, it is really more. A lot more. As Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer pointed out in 2010, that dollar figure omits a few things like the cost of building schools, interest on various payments, etc. When all the withheld expenses are added in (and I’m not even including massive pension payouts), the spending figure becomes a whopping $29,780 per student per year. On top of all this, Californians just voted more money to public schools via two ballot measures. Prop 51 authorized the state to sell $9 billion in general obligation bonds for school facilities. And Prop 55 promises to add yet another 2-4.5 billion a year to the state’s education coffers.

And just what kind of ROI do the taxpayers get on this investment?

With a real graduation rate in Los Angeles of about 50 percent – subsequently raised to 75 percent only because students were allowed to take vacuous “credit recovery classes” – the district doesn’t deserve another penny “to spend in the way they see fit,” Mr. Caputo-Pearl.

Responding to the union leader’s outlandish comments was GPSN’s executive director Myrna Castrejón, “I wish I could say I was surprised to see UTLA – which purports to represent teachers and students around Los Angeles – put politics ahead of what is essentially no-strings-attached funding for district schools. Instead, I am just perplexed. Why would UTLA impede teacher leaders from doing what they do best and lead more innovative programs to serve students better?”

I think Ms. Castrejón has answered her own question. With UTLA, and teachers unions in general, it’s all about politics and power. Kids, their parents and taxpayers are mere props to be used for PR purposes and little else. The unions view any move that reduces their power and control as a threat, which is why a philanthropic donation to schools that work is deemed a “public relations stunt” and must be disparaged and eradicated by any means necessary.

Still unknown at this time is if the school district will buy the union’s self-serving propaganda or do right by the kids and accept the donation. According to a district official, the matter is not on the school board’s agenda for November.

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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