|Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) officials and United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) have reached a tentative agreement that would increase the ability of LAUSD schools and their teachers to disregard collectively bargained rights and job protections. The agreement forces both LAUSD and UTLA to give up considerable authority to teachers and administrators at individual schools, according to the Los Angeles Times, including determining their own working conditions and hiring practices.
While it would be wonderful if workers really could determine their own working conditions, LA teachers will not be able to sleep late and leave early. They won’t be able to give themselves an extra prep period for each class they teach. They will not have the opportunity to cut their class sizes down to a sane 20- or even 25-to-one. They will not get to hire as many paraprofessionals and classified support staff as they need. They will still have to slash instructional minutes to make room for testing and test prep. They will still be expected to single-handedly counter the effects of poverty on their students. And they will not get to vote themselves a pay raise.
Teachers in many districts already have the right to petition their unions to allow them to take a waiver vote so they can initiate teacher-led reforms at their schools like lengthening their workdays or adding an advisory period, even when such reforms violate their contracts. Typically, teachers at a school site desiring a waiver would take a straw poll to determine if the reform has the support of the majority of staff and then they would go to the union to get their approval for a waiver vote.
Many argue that this process stymies reform and innovation and harms students by allowing the union to step in and block a waiver vote from ever happening. However, it is important to remember that not all reforms benefit students, while almost all reforms require an increased workload, often without extra pay. Many reforms, like adding extra periods to the school day, Smaller Learning Communities, decreasing class size, and adding sections of support or elective classes, require considerable resources and are impossible to implement without making cuts elsewhere, cuts that may come out of teachers’ compensation, but that can also negatively impact the safety and educational wellbeing of students. And some “teacher-led” reforms are actually initiated (or at least heavily pushed) by administrators and thus should be seen as an employer-led effort to undermine the contract.
It is also important to remember that every time one school site agrees to take on extra work, lengthen their workday, or accept the false promises of another Ivy-League- or philanthropically-derived solution to low student achievement, the door opens wider for having these shoved down the throats of everyone else. Each time teachers at one site vote to give up their collectively bargained rights, they weaken those rights for everyone else. Eventually, the contract ceases to have any teeth at all.
The new agreement between UTLA and LAUSD would make the waiver process much easier, allowing automatic waivers that would require only a super majority vote at the school site, thus bypassing a vote by the union’s legislative body. It would take away the union’s ability to defend its own contract by denying waivers that give up to much or that threaten other teachers.
As a result, administrators will point to schools that have accepted longer hours and more harried schedules and say, “Why can’t we do that here, at our school, too?” undermining the struggle by their teachers to maintain or improve their existing working conditions.
Not surprisingly, the deal has been spun as an opportunity for schools and teachers to take on more responsibility for how their students perform. Equally unsurprising is UTLA’s capitulation to the Ed Deformers’ mischaracterization of the education problem as one of bad schools and bad teachers, rather than inadequate funding and socioeconomic inequity.
The overwhelming majority of low performing LA schools are located in low income communities and populated by poor and working class children. Certainly some reforms can help some poor students, but it is absurd to think that site-based reforms will make these schools competitive with affluent schools, particularly when poverty has been increasing and state programs to assist the poor have been drying up.
“Greater responsibility for student performance” implies more work, longer hours and negative consequences for failing to meet goals. Since student performance depends far more on students’ socioeconomic backgrounds than teacher skill, all this extra work, mostly uncompensated or remunerated at less than the per diem rate, will be unlikely to make any significant impact on student achievement, test scores or graduation rates.
UTLA claims the deal will save jobs and in light of the huge cuts LAUSD has faced over the last few years, this claim might win votes for the agreement. However, this is a pretty weak bargaining position. When workers continue to trade increased workloads, longer work days and declining wages for the promise of more jobs, they only hasten their own immiseration.