Progressives Find Religion on LAUSD Reform

Last Tuesday, a contingent of Occupy L.A. marched toward the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters on Beaudry, atop a hill overlooking the 101 freeway. It was a Fellini-esque parade, complete with V for Vendetta masks worn by the group Anonymous, a couple dressed as Aztec warriors, and even the suddenly infamous substitute teacher fired for anti-Semitic statements (she held a yellow sign reading, "Congress Should Print the Money NOT the Zionist Jews!").

But about half of the 100 marchers were an older bunch of generally out-of-shape adults wearing red T-shirts with the letters UTLA. They were members of the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and they were firmly in control of the march.

"Hell no, we're not fools, we don't want no charter schools!" they chanted at one point.

The peculiar thing was that the real barbarians at the gate were already inside the school district headquarters.

Members of an unusual new coalition, Don't Hold Us Back, were in the audience at the LAUSD school board meeting to deliver public comments. School board members, some of them swept into office by teachers union campaign money, seemed ill at ease as Blair Taylor, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, implored: "This is your moment in history. Turn us away from the status quo."

"We are the consumers!" said a parent named Pilar Buelna, practically shouting at the increasingly uncomfortable school board. "Without me you don't have a job! Make us stakeholders!"

The coalition is made up of respected, longtime urban groups such as United Way, the Urban League, Community Coalition, Alliance for a Better Community, Families in Schools, Asian Pacific American Legal Center and a newcomer, Communities for Teaching Excellence. They are almost all Democrat-heavy organizations, traditionally reluctant to criticize the UTLA, their political ally.

Some of them, like Community Coalition, have even received money from UTLA, and hope to do so again.

The day before the march, Don't Hold Us Back had taken out full-page advertisements in the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Daily News and La Opinion, urging the UTLA and school board to sign a new contract (the one they have now is expired) putting in place a number of reforms that Superintendent John Deasy and school reform groups are demanding — namely: a standard way to evaluate teacher performance; an end to "last hired, first fired," which looks solely at teacher seniority and not at the teacher; and reinstituting full Public School Choice, which allows outside groups to run flailing public schools (in August, the school board temporarily barred charter schools from being allowed to take over schools under Public School Choice).

There was a time not too long ago when the voices of serious school reform in California were more often found among moderate Republicans like Richard Riordan and Arnold Schwarzenegger and a few fiercely independent Democrats like Marion Joseph and Gloria Romero.

School reformers criticized teachers unions while leading Democrats defended the unions — and were handsomely compensated by the UTLA and other wealthy education unions, which showered Democrats with hefty campaign help.

Community Coalition and Inner City Struggle have a long history of siding with UTLA. They did not join the push for Public School Choice or involve themselves in California's Parent Trigger law (openly hated by teachers unions), by which parents can remove the teaching staff of low-performing public schools if parents gather enough signatures from other parents.

One reformer described United Way, until recently, as having been "very vanilla" about school reform efforts, offering to do studies but not much else.

"Traditionally, we were a very neutral organization," admits Elise Buik, president of United Way of Greater Los Angeles. "We had been all things to all people. But when we really started to get behind macro trends, we realized we needed to focus."

Something is happening in Los Angeles, a city perhaps finally experiencing the soul-searching and shifting views on school practices that many leading Democrats in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago went through.

"Progressive groups are beginning to have a come-to-Jesus moment," says Michael Dolan, political director for Future Is Now Schools (formerly Green Dot America). "It's a national phenomenon: Reflexively anti–charter school community organizations — and even unions as well — are beginning to finally relax their ideologically driven fears about education reform."

It's not that these groups have done a complete flip-flop. But they've begun to see merit in some arguments made by the reformers, who tend to be driven by pragmatics rather than ideology.

The organizations behind Don't Hold Us Back are hardly anti-union. They are all quick to point out that they don't see the teachers union as their enemy.

"This is not about what the union is doing wrong," says Angelica Solis, executive director of Alliance for a Better Community. "It's about the policies that are in place that are impeding our school district."

But that doesn't make the UTLA or the UTLA-backed wing of the LAUSD board any less defensive.

Take Steve Zimmer, UTLA's most dutiful backer on the school board. In an emailed response to L.A. Weekly, Zimmer began by praising the advocacy groups, and then went on the attack. "What troubles me deeply is the silence of these advocacy groups on the financial crisis that is devastating this district, our students and their families," he wrote, saying he worried that the "sole priority is reducing the influence of public-sector labor unions in our public schools. That conversation is valid, but the timing is confusing."

Zimmer even suggested that the advocacy groups "won't stand by our side as we fight for baseline funding for the future of those very children."

Buik's response was, again, pragmatic instead of ideological: "I've heard this now a couple times: 'Why aren't these parent groups advocating for more revenue?' The reality is that voters aren't going to support revenue increases without reforms. Only 56 percent of their kids are graduating. They're not gonna fund a broken system."

After the Tuesday board meeting, newly elected board member Bennett Kayser, also put into office with UTLA money, seemed almost hurt by the full-page newspaper ads demanding reforms in teacher seniority and other areas.

"United Way asks us for money once or twice a year," he said. "They take the money and then they trash us."

Kayser also seemed baffled by Don't Hold Us Back's demands, such as the restoration of full Public School Choice, which would let charter school groups apply to run failing LAUSD schools.

"I don't know why that's such a big deal," Kayser said — of a major LAUSD reform topic that has been heavily debated and reported in the media.

"It shows that he's got some catching up to do," offers Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president of Community Coalition. Harris-Dawson suggests Kayser "might have missed" it because he was not serving on the school board in 2009, "when hundreds of parents and students came and demanded Public School Choice." The more Kayser "gets out and talks to actual residents, he'll find that it is a big deal," Harris-Dawson says.

When Kayser left the school district's massive skyscraper headquarters, throngs of Occupy L.A. protesters blocked the exit. A man with a bullhorn was making a speech; he stopped to announce the presence of Kayser. The crowd of mostly red shirts cheered.

Kayser looked bewildered.

It was an odd moment. A mile away, on Spring Street, groups of Occupy L.A. protesters were demanding drastic, systemic change. But here, folks marching under the same banner were demanding the continuity of LAUSD's status quo.

The real agitators — the ones with new white shirts reading "Don't Hold Us Back" — had quietly slipped away. They didn't want any trouble.

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