Mediocrity is so entrenched in Los Angeles public education that an entire lexicon has emerged.
“Teacher Jail” refers to the housing of wayward instructors inside district offices — away from vulnerable students — essentially paying them not to teach, even as long and costly probes are conducted into allegations of sexual harassment, molestation, insubordination or other acts. The “Dance of the Lemons” is cynical shorthand for shuffling lousy principals and teachers from one unsuspecting campus to another rather than address their incompetence. And “L.A. Mummified” is the district that oversees it all.
For most of her eight years on the Los Angeles Unified School District board, Marlene Canter has been horrified by tales of bad teachers and administrators and, especially, over how difficult it is for Los Angeles schools to get rid of them. At one point recently, 158 instructors and staff members were in the teacher pokey — drawing full paychecks as they fought their dismissals. One of those instructors was relieved of his duties due to harassment allegations in 2002, and has now spent seven years doing nothing but collect his salary, get top-of-the-line health care and enjoy taxpayer-funded vacations.
During that span, according to officials, the one-time special-education teacher has reaped wages and benefits estimated at a stupefying $2 million — an income stream that continues to flow his way despite a budget crisis that is causing other, competent teachers to be booted to the streets.
“It’s really a problem,” understates Canter, a former teacher and teacher trainer, who decided to press for reforms to make it much easier for school districts in California to fire their worst classroom instructors. It’s a goal about as difficult as any Canter has ever tackled, as she discovered again this month in persuading the dysfunctional Los Angeles school board to pass a watered-down resolution that addresses the problem. The board narrowly passed the resolution, by a 4-to-3 vote.
Not only did she face intense opposition from two powerful unions — the California Teachers Association and the United Teachers of Los Angeles — but also from board members themselves, who were all but paralyzed by concerns about ruffling union feathers at a time when the troubled district is laying off teachers and facing rancorous contract negotiations.
In fact, Canter says, she spent an astonishing eight months just trying to get the “teacher-quality” matter placed on the agenda, due to school-board president Monica Garcia’s stubborn reluctance.
“I’ve been blocked since October,” Canter says ruefully. “Anybody I talked to about this didn’t want to talk about it. There are people who would much rather I be silenced.”
What she had in mind was a modest aim, seeing as a “resolution” is one of the weakest actions an elected body like a school board can take. A resolution merely states an official position, and sometimes a resolution launches a study. Under Canter’s plan, the board would simply have implored the California Legislature to tweak the state Education Code, to finally give the schools a way to remove inept, tenure-shielded teachers from the payroll.
But immediate pressure from the teachers unions — CTA and UTLA — forced Canter to rid the resolution of all language dealing with teacher incompetence, thus sparing hordes of chronic no-shows and burn-out cases in Los Angeles schools. Instead, she settled for at least targeting a much smaller group of teachers, those accused of actual illegal or illicit behavior, such as having sex with a student.
Even that wasn’t enough to persuade the exceedingly nervous school board, most of whose members were ushered into their elected posts thanks in part to teacher-union cash and other UTLA help. Instead, it took a substitute motion by board member Yolie Flores Aguilar — who, like Garcia, is an ally of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — to create a sufficiently palatable plan.
Aguilar stripped it entirely of Canter’s call for immediate action by the California Legislature — and still drew “no” votes from school-board members Julie Korenstein, Richard Vladovic and Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. The resolution now envisions a task force — yet to be assembled — that purportedly will hash out exactly what, if anything, the district should ask the Legislature to do, probably months from now, if ever.
Critics say the clear winners are union leaders and the city’s worst teachers. “I’m skeptical, at best, that this will result in any action at the school-site level,” says Joe Hicks, a product of Los Angeles schools, who now helps to run Community Advocates Inc., a political think tank. “It’ll probably get bogged down in the bureaucracy. The district itself or the union will find a way to stall ... [and] never enact any major decisions.”
Hicks adds, “Every school has legendary tales ... of teachers who are simply not performing up to the demands of the job, but, because they have the support of the UTLA, are protected. Or they’re transferred around; they’re just sent to another school. That’s always been the sticking point — the union has gotten its way. Just about all the board members are beholden in one way or another to the union — the UTLA.”
Canter says that since 2001, she and the board have been told of incredible, persistent, rotten-teacher problems during closed-door personnel briefings and in conversations with Kathleen Collins, an attorney who joined the district about the time Canter was elected to the board. Collins was handling dismissal cases and was often outraged over teacher misconduct — and exasperated at how difficult it was to fight the bad ones, especially if young students had to be called as witnesses.
Collins began documenting the district’s losing struggles in internal memos, which started to attract attention. Says Collins, “Every case seemed to bring some new problem to my attention.”
Eventually, she discussed some of the most shocking cases with Canter, as well as with Ted Rohrlich and Jason Song of the Los Angeles Times, whose creepy, in-depth series about the near-impossibility of firing bad teachers was published in May. The series elicited about 1,500 Web comments and nearly 300 e-mails, according to Song. The stories ran just as Canter was about to give up pushing the highly reluctant, union-indebted LAUSD board members to act. The intense public anger in response to the articles made Canter reconsider.
“I decided I’d have to, on behalf of the people,” she says.
Never mind that the resolution ultimately adopted is widely seen as a cave-in to Villaraigosa’s allies Garcia and Aguilar. The fact that Canter introduced it at all draws a venomous response from A.J. Duffy, the blustery head of the UTLA. Rather than speak to the issues, the first thing Duffy does is launch a gratuitous attack on Canter herself.
“I think it’s politically motivated,” Duffy tells L.A. Weekly, revving up his hostility. “Marlene Canter has been pretty much a do-nothing school-board member. ... I think her only claim to fame is she presided over the largest increase in bureaucracy in the history of this district.”
Duffy accuses Canter of going after bad teachers in order to grab headlines and attain higher office — but can’t offer any facts to support his accusations. “What a platform,” he says. “‘I got rid of bad teachers.’ In fact, she did nothing.”
Only after spewing about Canter does Duffy get around to saying, “We recognize there are some people in the profession who don’t belong there,” citing, as one example, a school administrator caught at the beach making out with a 15-year-old girl. “[But] 99 percent of our teachers do a great job.”
Now that the weakened resolution has been approved by the school board, Duffy pronounces himself in full support. “Because it calls for what I originally called for — a commission to study this issue.”
Unlike L.A., some cities are joining a movement to let schools fire bad, tenured teachers — not just sexually and physically abusive teachers — who can hurt the achievements of thousands of children during a single, unfortunate career. L.A.’s school board, which has known about, discussed extensively in private, and punted on the issue for years, will instead create a commission to study the problem.