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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lessons from Ohio for "Don't Hold Us Back" vs. UTLA:

(Originally published on November 10, 2011, as part of Leadership for Educational Equity's "Teach For America Alumni of Los Angeles" blog: http://blog.educationalequity.org/blog/story/2011/11/10/04245/189).

What do the results of yesterday’s referendum on restrictions to the power of teachers unions in Ohio have to do with efforts to reform public education in L.A. and statewide?


Many may wish to fire bad teachers and promote effective ones, but organized labor needs to be on board. Coalitions like Don’t Hold Us Back need unionized teachers as leaders/spokespeople (i.e., NewTLA members) in order to avoid the failures of Governors Kasich, Walker, and Schwarzenegger, who attempted to externally augment collective bargaining. The approach State Senator Johnson took, relying on AFT-Colorado to pass SB-191, is the one to emulate.


In my last blog, (http://blog.educationalequity.org/blog/story/2011/11/4/121226/173) I asked whether or not a court decision could really have an impact on the educational trajectory of a child: I pointed out that while eradicating racial segregation in education was the battle that launched the civil rights era, 57 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, most students attend public schools that are both racially and socioeconomically homogenous. Yet, today when we speak of education and civil rights, we refer to the notion that a student’s zip code should not dictate the quality of instruction they receive, not how racially or socioeconomically diverse their classmates, or teachers and principals are. Thus, in the wake of the decision handed down in Reed et al vs. California et al—regarding the disproportionate impact of seniority based (a.k.a., last in, first out, or LIFO) layoff decisions (a.k.a., reductions in force, or RIFs) on high staff turnover, high poverty, low performing schools—it should be no surprise that five mothers, one father, and nine children decided to sue LAUSD for failure to comply with the Stull Act (i.e., a section of the statewide Education Code stating teachers must be regularly evaluated, “with data that reasonably measures, among other criteria, whether or not the students under an employee’s charge are actually learning”).

My original question still stands. Conventional wisdom tells us that court battles are fundamental pieces in the puzzle toward progress. But the decisions of the legislative and executive branches often clash with what the judiciary has to say. Even FDR, the only Commander in Chief to ever serve more than two terms, found this out the hard way when he tried to pass the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill in 1937, after the Supreme Court struck down eight of his New Deal programs as unconstitutional. Presently, many who argue on behalf of reform in public education rely on the mantra “poverty is not destiny,” and point to success stories from the “charter schools are public schools with no excuses” community, as well as TFA corps members and alumni, while supporting Race to the Top policies tying performance evaluations to student test data. Unfortunately, this means competing in the court of public opinion against universities whose schools of education produce the vast majority of public school instructors, as well as the local superintendents and school boards who resist Race to the Top, and want President Obama to end, not mend the most recent iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a., No Child Left Behind). And tragically, it has come to mean stepping into the ring to face off against the leadership of organized labor in a popularity contest, or taking them on in all-out cage matches decided by voters casting ballots.

Molly Ivins once famously quipped, “The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion.” Yesterday, one year after Republican legislatures swept across the country, and Waiting for Superman grossed $6,417,135, voters in Ohio rejected a law that would have stripped teachers of many of their collective bargaining rights—an outcome that reverberates well beyond their borders. The Ohio referendum, known as Issue 2, was perhaps the most closely watched ballot fight of the 2011 election. It drew a flood of attention from the media and political activists over the past few months, because it was regarded as an important, symbolic fight over collective bargaining and the influence of teachers’ unions and other organized labor groups. Organized labor spent millions of dollars on one side, and business organizations poured millions into the other. The cash flow financed a wave of televised advertising and other outreach designed to appeal to Ohioans, who are well accustomed to high-decibel political campaigns because of their state's status as a battleground during presidential elections.

The statute, backed by Governor John Kasich, would have imposed broad restrictions on public workers’ bargaining powers. In school districts, the measure would have blocked bargaining over class sizes, school assignments, and provisions that restrict principals from assigning workloads and job responsibilities. It also would have given school boards broad powers to put in place their final offer in negotiations with unions if the two sides could not come to an agreement. Additionally, the measure would have forbidden districts from giving preference in layoff decisions to teachers with more seniority, a provision similar to those approved in a number of other states this year, such as Florida and Idaho. The law also would have created a merit-pay system for teachers, though voters were not clear on how educators’ performance would be judged. Backers of the law touted the creation of a merit pay system in TV ads and other messages, believing the provision would prove popular among voters. It was not. Ohio’s legislature already approved a performance-pay system, and thus voters rejected the anti-labor narrative.

The landslide vote to reject collective bargaining restrictions—62 percent to 38 percent—represents a shot heard round the world for those who demonize organized labor as the main obstacle to needed reforms. Organized labor’s victory in this important swing state comes a year before the presidential election, and policy makers and political strategists will be studying ballot initiatives for clues to voter sentiment in 2012. Volunteers for President Obama’s re-election campaign fanned out across the state for weeks, urging voters to stand against the new law limiting collective bargaining. The issue did not break entirely along party lines. The law was a frontal assault on one of the most sacred principles for Democrats, i.e., the right of organized labor to collectively bargain. Winning this campaign to neuter labor would have required universal Republican support, which was not there because several registered Republicans opposed the law.

The main coalition supporting this bill, Building a Better Ohio, spent just under $8 million, but We Are Ohio, the main coalition that opposed the law, poured about $30 million into the campaign, and had about 17,000 volunteers out over the weekend knocking on doors to persuade residents to go out and vote. The central campaign in Ohio—as in similar Wisconsin and Michigan fights—was an unusual and relatively new form of coalition largely funded and led by organized labor, but includes a range of other groups in a widening pro-labor front. The biggest sponsor of We Are Ohio, was the National Education Association and its Ohio arm, the Ohio Education Association. They doled out $10 million on a massive campaign that forced their organizations to fully support the efforts of coalition of members they don’t always see eye to eye with, or trust in the world of Washington politics, like the AFL-CIO. As proof that this was money well spent, the AFL-CIO shared the following tally of member-to-member contacts and campaign work:
4.1 million worksite fliers

Over 3,000 worksites leafletted

1,101,751 doors knocked

825,000 pieces of local union mail

409,318 tele-town hall participants
“This is not a traditional role for us. There was so much at stake in this for educators and their ability to be involved and their work conditions that we took a very strong leadership role… Attacking education and other public employees is not at all what the public wants to see. It should resonate with politicians that they’ve gone too far,” said Karen M. White, political director of the National Education Association. “Those who would dare try to strip collective bargaining rights away from hard-working citizens will now think twice,” expressed Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

What do the results of yesterday’s referendum to restrict the power of teachers in Ohio to collectively bargain have to do with efforts to reform public education in Los Angeles and throughout California?


When the founding members of the Don’t Hold Us Back coalition (a.k.a., the Civic Alliance) took out full page ads in the L.A. Times and La Opinion, and showed up in matching white t-shirts on October 24 to read and hand deliver a letter to the Board of Education, regarding the expected onset of collective bargaining between LAUSD’s current Superintendent, and the leadership of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, (UTLA) they made it very clear that if forced to pick a side, they would choose to support the contract John Deasy proposes, as opposed to the one Warren Fletcher’s negotiating team is expected to pursue. As they write, “We know the most critical difference in the academic success of a student is the quality of their teacher. Providing the students in our diverse district with the best possible education will require change and comprehensive reform in the way teachers and school leaders are recruited, compensated, evaluated, developed and retained… That would ensure that every student has access to quality teaching—not some who are lucky enough to be in high-performing charter schools, pilot schools or other teacher-led models that are graduating upwards of 90% of their poor children of color and who are proving it can be done.”

Looking down the list of membership organizations, while it is striking to note that a handful of historic UTLA allies such as the Community Coalition, are present, it is equally striking to note the absence of teacher recruitment, training, and membership organizations, as well as the lack of spokespersons from the organized labor community. This final point should prove especially problematic for those who want to see Don’t Hold Us Back succeed. As it stands now, Don’t Hold Us Back is not immune from criticism that its founding members are all funded by the United Way, as well as philanthropic foundations that are known for their billionaire founders, historic animus toward union leaders, and rampant unpopularity among those taking part in OccupyLAUSD. Where are Green Dot and the other unionized charters? Considering how closely aligned Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office is with Don’t Hold Us Back, it’s surprising that the coalition hasn’t featured teachers currently in front of classrooms at Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. Considering that L.A.’s Promise just named former Communities for Teaching Excellence COO, and former Alliance for a Better Community Executive Director, Veronica Melvin, as it’s new CEO, it’s surprising not to see any teachers from L.A.’s Promise schools actively involved in the coalition. If at the very least, the coalition publicly included Teach for America, Teach Plus, the New Teacher Project, Educators 4 Excellence, and so forth, the argument could easily be made that any apparent disagreements within the ranks are generational. After all, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Institutes for Research looked at 11 nationally representative teacher surveys, and data from seven focus groups and three case studies and concluded that teachers in their mid thirties or younger (a.k.a., Generation Y teachers) and found they support policies potentially at odds with labor leadership:
Provide regular feedback to teachers on their effectiveness (a.k.a., actual impact on student learning).
Have fair, rigorous and meaningful evaluation systems.
Support peer learning and shared practice.
Recognize and reward high performance (a.k.a., differential pay scales informed by merit).
Use technology intelligently to enhance performance.
Without a strong, visible teachers’ voice, Don’t Hold Us Back, faces a tremendous challenge. Looking at what has made tremendous change possible in short periods of time elsewhere, it’s hard not to compare what happened in Ohio yesterday to what took place in Colorado last year, when the American Federation of Teachers Colorado and the Colorado Education Association split on Colorado State Senator Michael Johnston (Mississippi Delta Corps '97) SB 191. Without this split, SB 191 would likely not have passed. And if it still had, you can bet that there would have been a widespread backlash that would have combined an effort to win over the public and to seek relief via the courts—something the American Federation of Teachers has successfully undertaken in places like St. Louis, where the Missouri Supreme Court is hearing three cases regarding how municipal governments and school districts work with labor unions, including one challenging a district’s right to set school year salaries without first consulting with organized labor.

The fact is that whether you’re in a Blue state or a Purple one, the public writ large will not accept a change if it perceives it to have been shoved down the throat of teachers, or any other public sector workers, wrapped in an attempt to neuter the unions that represent them. The take away lesson from Ohio is not that voters disagreed with all of the elements of the reforms, but that they resented the attack on unions and the process of trying to impose change on them from the outside. This is not a new lesson. It is the one that Arnold Schwarzenegger learned on November 8, 2005, when California voters rejected all his proposed Reform Agenda ballot propositions, despite the fact that he was extremely popular at the time—following his repeal of former Governor Gray Davis’s increase in the vehicle registration fee, and rejection of “special interest” support for a bill allowing the issuance of driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. Schwarzenegger claimed the Reform Agenda would clear the way for correction of the problems he was elected to solve, and called for a Special Election to allow voters to decide the fate of teacher tenure requirements, (Proposition 74) the use of union dues for political campaign contributions, (Proposition 75) state budgetary spending limits, (Proposition 76) and redistricting done by the legislature (Proposition 77).

The 2005 Special Election continues to be a harbinger for what happens when the decision is made to go after unions instead of working with them. Take for example, the fact that Schwarzenegger originally proposed a fifth proposition on the issue of public pensions, but dropped that proposition amid criticism that the proposition would eliminate death benefits to widows of police and firefighters who died in the line of duty. Schwarzenegger’s “paycheck protection” initiative, which did make it on the ballot, and would have forced unions to get permission from members to engage in any political activity, suffered horrendous defeat. Organized labor responded with television, radio, and print ads featuring teachers, nurses, police, and firefighters, giving emotional testimony on how this ballot measure would affect them personally. Even proponents of the removal of money in politics writ large were forced to admit that corporations do not have to seek any sort of similar permission from shareholders. Schwarzenegger lost the battle for hearts and minds. He failed to understand how much the average voter resents outside imposed change. More recently, in Wisconsin, Scott Walker made a similar miscalculation. He assumed that by splitting police and firefighters from the rest of public sector workers would make it possible for him to plow ahead with his list of proposed reforms. But unlike what happened in Colorado where the AFT-Colorado/CEA split was organic, Walker’s exemptions for police and firefighters left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, and when it came time to take to the streets in protest in order to check and balance Walker’s administration, police and firefighters were there in solidarity, both inside and outside of the State Capitol. If you’ve seen Walker in recent interviews, it’s obvious he’s taken a page out of Schwarzenegger’s playbook, and moved toward the politically moderate rhetoric of “working with unions.” He “conceded mistakes” and began reaching out to Democrats in an attempt to “build trust.” Based on what happened yesterday in Ohio, and the fact he’s facing a recall threat in Wisconsin, I’m guessing Walker’s gonna fully flip flop, but I digress.

When TFA alum Jordan Henry, and Fairfax teacher Mike Stryer, brought forth NewTLA, (http://www.newtla.com/) they committed to a very narrow, specific theory of paradigm shift: In order to change UTLA’s priorities, UTLA’s leadership must change, and in order for UTLA’s leadership to change, the members of UTLA participating in leadership must change. This falls in line with Steven Brill’s conversion to believing organized labor must be part of the solution when it comes to making change because public school teaching can’t be improved by fighting unions. Brill’s recent book, Class Warfare, generated a lot of discussion—and a healthy dose of derision from critics who say his final chapter about unions contradicts everything he wrote before it (i.e., that unions were the major problem for education reform). But Brill’s change of heart isn’t terribly unusual. He wasn’t an expert in education when he began studying education reform, and like many others before him, his early instincts were to write in broad, simple themes: Reformers were heroic and status quo-protecting unions were evil. But then he discovered that education is very, very complex with lots of factors affecting student performance, and even a tremendous change for the good in any single factor cannot make a huge impact unless there is movement on other factors too. For years, some people have been determined to blame teachers’ unions for all that ails public education in America. According to this view, teachers unions negatively affect student achievement primarily through the mechanism of the collective bargaining agreement, or contract. Yet, states without binding teacher contracts are not doing better than their peers, and the majority are actually among the lowest performers in the nation. In contrast, those with the best coverage, also have the best scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests regardless of grade level or subject.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing simple solutions can solve the big problems in education. We cannot fix America’s public school system simply by “scaling” charter schools, for instance. Charter schools offer proof of the concept that great teaching is a huge difference-maker, but charters can only absorb a tiny fraction of the nation’s 50 million public schoolchildren. There may be 70,000 to 80,000 teachers in charter schools, but there are three million teachers in America’s public schools. For reforms to stick and succeed, they have to include organized labor membership, and union leadership. In New York, this means Randi Weingarten cutting deals with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to establish important pilot programs, and inching toward reforms such as the notion of measuring teachers on the basis of performance. Randi Weingarten can’t be the enemy anymore. She has to be a friend. In L.A., most in the education world knew A.J. Duffy, the fomer head of UTLA, as a status quo protector of teachers’ rights and virulently anti-charter. But when term limits forced Duffy from office in July of 2011, he became the Executive Director of Apple Academy Charter Schools. His first official act: To make tenure, a measure of job protection for teachers currently too close to a rubber stamp, more difficult to earn. He asked to see teachers demonstrate that they’re effective and to speed up the dismissal process for those who are underperforming. Under Duffy, UTLA was, in LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s words, “one unwavering roadblock to reform.” Today Duffy champions several of the reform causes he seemingly opposed under his leadership of UTLA. But since getting rid of bad teachers and protecting good ones doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, maybe the bottom line is that so long as organized labor needs to transform organically, coalitions such as Don’t Hold Us Back, need to invest a lot more time and energy empowering teachers like the ones courted by NewTLA and entities like TeacherSolutions 2030 Team/Center for Teaching Quality, in order to avoid the sort of backlash Governors Kasich, Walker, and Schwarzenegger contended with, and see agreements like the one State Senator Johnson reached when relying on AFT-Colorado to pass SB-191.

Read more:






Coalition Members:

Alliance for a Better Community
Community Coalition
Communities for Teaching Excellence
Families In Schools
Asian Pacific American Legal Center
Los Angeles Urban League
United Way of Greater Los Angeles
Inner City Struggle
Council of Mexican Federations (COFEM)
East L.A. Community Corporation
Families That Can
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Educate Our State
Watts/Century Latino Organization
Parent Revolution
Esteban Torres (Former: Congressman, Current: Senior Fellow UCLA School of Public Affairs)
Youth Policy Institute
Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative
Youth Speak! Collective
Proyecto Pastoral at Dolores Mission
Union de Vecinos
Plaza Community Services
Education Trust-West


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