Monday, June 11, 2007

Union targets charter schools

LA Daily News

Article Last Updated:06/10/2007 09:44:34 PM PDT

Implicitly admitting its antagonism to the charter school movement has failed, United Teachers Los Angeles now wants to unionize their faculties and push for more independence in the classroom.

UTLA President A.J. Duffy says the union has created a committee to study how it can organize charter schools created by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"We have come to the realization that we need to look at organizing teachers at charter schools," Duffy said. "It's not just organizing charter school personnel, which we have an internal committee looking at. It's pushing the reforms that we've been pushing for two years including local control of schools."

With 103 charter schools in operation at the LAUSD - a number expected to grow to more than 150 in two years - UTLA has watched many of its teachers leave traditional public schools. Many of those who remain have demanded the same classroom freedom offered by the charters.

And in what may be a critical first step, charter powerhouse Steve Barr, head of Green Dot Public Schools, is in talks with UTLA as he works to convert the troubled Locke High School into a charter.

Barr's teachers are members of the California Teachers Association, the umbrella organization of UTLA, and are among the few unionized teachers at LAUSD charters.

"We're having very public conversations with teachers represented by UTLA across the city and also with UTLA. I hope it leads to something but we've been talking for years," Barr said. "I don't believe you can go into a 100 percent unionized industry and change it with nonunion labor."

Hostile to union

But Barr said the charter movement is, for the most part, hostile toward the union. He added that charters are missing a chance to form a productive relationship.

"As relationships start to come together between the unions and unionized charters, the people that will be left out of the equation are non-unionized charters," Barr said. "The charter movement is more stubborn about these kinds of relationships than the unions are."

Charter schools are probably one of the biggest political land mines around which Duffy has to maneuver. Duffy has blasted the independent schools for years, and is now seen by many rank-and-file members as flip-flopping on the issue.

The union president said his position is clear: If a school chooses to turn charter and they want UTLA as the bargaining agent, then he must negotiate.

But the issue goes beyond bringing in more dues, Duffy said - it's about making real reform happen.

Barr hopes the new school board, along with the mayor, will apply a sense of urgency to embrace charters and the best practices they offer.

"It's all aligning because there's got to be some radical restructuring in that district, which is going to be painful and bloody," Barr said.

"With a new school board, a parent revolt and a teacher revolt happening, I'm very optimistic, and I think when A.J. Duffy and his team realize that we have it all in common, it's going to be very powerful."

But recent events show that it may not be enough to work with a few leaders who share the ideas for change.

Recently, Brewer was working feverishly behind-the-scenes with Barr to develop a model that would transform the challenged Locke High School in South Los Angeles.

Duffy was part of those meetings and was on board, but when Barr said could not wait until Duffy got his 48,000 members on board, it forced the UTLA president to back out.

But the outcome at Locke will likely become the blueprint for future relationships with the union, Barr believes.

"I think there's a perfect storm brewing," he said, citing shared goals like more money to classrooms, more teacher pay, smaller classrooms and having more say on budget and curriculum.

Inevitable trend

"I think it's inevitable with this (union) leadership that this trend is now happening faster than people anticipated. I think these guys understand those trends and I hope they get in front of it."

David Abel, an education advocate, believes Barr's move to eschew the union's backing to get something done is the only way to change the direction of a school district as large as the LAUSD.

"Barr is on the right track. Clearly we have a broken, almost crippled school district and he doesn't have time to reflect," said Abel, chairman of New Schools Better Neighborhoods, a civic advocacy organization.

Caprice Young, head of the California Charter Schools Association, said now that their schools have proven academic records and high satisfaction among teachers, the union cannot ignore them anymore.

And the district's traditional public schools are raising the pressure by contacting charter operators like Green Dot for guidance to convert - most recently Taft High School in Woodland Hills and Santee in Los Angeles.

In fact, Young said she would put up the association's resources to help train UTLA to create their own high-quality schools.

"The leadership of the union is going to have to listen to its own membership and they're saying we have to start charters," Young said. "They're seeing their peers leaving LAUSD to go to charters and they're loving it."

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