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The Bottom Line Teachers’ Union Runs LA

Michael Burke of EdSource, an education information media platform in California, highlights some major problems in the new union agreement that make it abundantly clear who’s in charge of Los Angeles schools. 

Specifically, the agreement allows teachers to create their own schedules, doesn’t require them to use live video for lectures, requires them to work only four hours each day, and stipulates they won’t lose any pay during the Coronavirus closure.

This agreement is one sided. Initially, the district had proposed that teachers use video chat to engage with students whenever possible. The document also included that administrators be given access to this live video engagement.  In the end, neither of these pieces were included.

Most troubling was a statement by union president Alex Caputo-Pearl: “We wanted to leave the pedagogical discretion to the professionals, to educators,” he said. “You know what you’re doing with your students.” Caputo-Pearl’s attitude is typical of teachers’ unions.  We’re the experts — we call the shots.

What the union desires are these three items: To maximize member compensation, to improve member working conditions, and to secure and protect member employment.  

One shouldn’t be shocked to learn that the union seeks primarily to benefit its members.  That’s what unions do.  But that truth needs to be kept in mind when we hear teachers’ unions make proclamations about how it’s all about the children.

However, ACTE program chair Don Nielsen points to a disconnect between union objectives and educational performance:  “Even though the union has been successful in achieving their mission, I [would] point out that it is the wrong mission. I say this because there is increasing concern about the performance of our schools and their ability to educate our children. Test scores have not changed, drop-out rates have not changed, and the achievement gap (the difference in test scores between whites and minorities) has not changed.”

To be fair, not all union members are in it only for themselves. We have many teachers and administrators who are excellent in spite of the system. However, that fact remains that union members want lifetime job security (tenure), better pay regardless of performance (seniority pay), less work (i.e. shorter days) and the chance to retire early with a respectable lifetime pension and full health benefits.

The result: whether the teachers in LA get good results with kids or not, they get paid the same. Not bad for them. Disastrous for kids in our schools.

There is no doubt that unions impose a major constraint on efforts to improve our schools.  Correcting this problem involves two components: better leadership and diminishing the sway of the teacher unions.   

Effective leadership is needed at the principal, superintendent, and school board levels. Why is that unions have dramatically decreased in the private sector? Because, as Nielsen points out, “In private companies, managers have become more sophisticated and more conscious that taking care of employees is as important as taking care of their customers.” A successful process starts with trust, and then requires agreement on a common outcome.

Nielsen’s views are shaped by his experience on the Seattle School Board, where he and his colleagues appointed reformer Superintendent John Stanford. In dealing with the Seattle teachers’ union, they approached the union with a plan to give principals more authority and accountability. The union agreed to eliminate seniority as the basis for hiring teachers and replaced the seniority hiring basis with a leadership team which would “work with the principal in the selection and hiring of new teaching staff, in setting rules for the daily operation of the building and in the preparation of the school budget.” In other words, they created a win-win scenario.

As for breaking the power of the teacher unions, Nielsen argues that, “state legislatures should pass Right-to-Work legislation, provide parents with choice in the selection of the school their children attend, and change the way we select and train leaders for our schools.”

These measures mitigate both the need for and the power of unions.  They are critical if we are serious about improving our educational system.

Bailey Takacs

Development Program Coordinator, American Center for Transforming Education
Bailey Takacs served as development program coordinator to Discovery Institutes' American Center for Transforming Education and Development team. Bailey has experiences which also include: campaign management and administrative roles with elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels of the government. He holds a B.A. in Politics and Government from Pacific Lutheran University.