At first, Albert Chu liked teaching at the Alliance charter school. A former engineer, he had worked in public schools for a couple years before being hired to teach at the Collins Family College Ready High School in Huntington Park, part of the Alliance chain. Alliance targets college-bound students, and Chu liked that they were well behaved.
But over the years, things got worse. The charter hired a new principal, and, according to Chu, the two did not get along. Chu was head of the science department. When the principal, Rob Delfino, wanted to introduce AP biology, Chu expressed the staff’s reservations. Delfino told him he wanted department heads to back him up. Chu possesses an engineer’s analytical mindset, so this struck him as inappropriate. Soon, he was no longer the department head.
In another instance, Chu told an employee not to shout in the office and got a reprimand from Delfino for being “unprofessional.” In other public schools, this might not have been a big deal. But Chu says Delfino lowered his evaluation score over the incident, which factored into his salary.
So when United Teachers of Los Angeles, the union that represents L.A. Unified teachers, started organizing at Alliance last year, Chu was one of the first to sign up. He hoped unionization would mean an end to what he considered arbitrary evaluations. More than a dozen other teachers joined the effort, making Collins Family one of the hotbeds of union activity in the chain.
The union campaign forced colleagues into opposing camps. Supporters saw it as a way to give teachers a voice in decisions, but opponents were concerned that joining UTLA would ruin the special environment they had created for college-bound kids.
Last March, the UTLA campaign at Alliance went public. A few weeks later, Chu was informed that he would not be offered a full-time position for the following year.
In an email, Delfino told Chu that he had “looked at the data” and decided that students needed AP Chemistry more than AP Physics. Chu doesn’t buy that explanation.
“If you’re trying to get rid of physics, there’s something wrong. It’s the basis of engineering,” Chu says. “I think it’s pretty obvious it’s the union thing.”
Chu’s termination is now the subject of a case before the Public Employee Relations Board, which settles labor disputes in public-sector workplaces. In filings before the board, Alliance has said that Chu’s dismissal had nothing to do with the union campaign.
“No one at Alliance has or would ever make a personnel decision based on a teacher’s views on unionization,” says Catherine Suitor, an Alliance spokeswoman, who notes that several union supporters have been promoted.
But UTLA contends that he was the first casualty of Alliance’s effort to nip the union campaign in the bud. And according to UTLA’s filings, that effort is succeeding. Teachers who had expressed support for the union are no longer willing to meet with UTLA staff or will do so only in secret. One unnamed teacher at Collins Family was reassigned but declined to file a complaint, telling a UTLA organizer that for now, it’s best “to keep our heads down.”
Alliance opened its first school in 2004 and has quickly expanded to 27 middle and high schools, mostly in South and East L.A. The chain’s leaders boast of its rigorous curriculum and high test scores, which they warn would be imperiled if the chain were subject to union bureaucracy.
The jewel in the Alliance crown is the Patti and Peter Neuwirth Leadership Academy, located in a shiny new building at 47th and Main streets in South L.A.
The student population reflects the demographics of the neighborhood — about 90 percent Latino, the rest African-American. The students come from poor families, with 98 percent qualifying for subsidized lunch.
And yet the school has a tremendous track record of success. Last year, 99 percent of its students were accepted to college.
At Neuwirth (the schools are named for donors; the Neuwirths have given Alliance more than $1 million) there is a relentless focus on college readiness. The school motivates seniors by posting their names in the hallway alongside the schools that have accepted them, much in the way that a sales department would motivate its staff by posting a monthly leader board.
Many of the students transferred from underperforming L.A. Unified district schools. Kiara Hernandez, a 16-year-old junior, came from Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy.
“It was horrible,” she says. “We chased substitute teachers away. The kids ran the school.”
In one class, she says students threw books out the window. Once, they set a trashcan on fire. The school responded to by holding an assembly and warning that the next time the administration would call the police. The students laughed it off.
She says such a thing would simply never happen at Neuwirth.
“You would be expelled,” she says.
Other students say there’s no hazing or bullying at Neuwirth, and no drug dealing, gangs or metal detectors. They also note that teachers have an easier time controlling the classroom.
“The staff are held to high expectations,” says Omar Prudencio, a junior. At his L.A. Unified school, he says, “The teachers were just there to collect a paycheck.”
Several of the teachers at Neuwirth also have had previous experience in regular public schools, and they too note a huge difference.
“The kids who come here want to be here,” says Lindsey Vordran, who teaches English.
Ami Sheth, an English teacher, says that when she taught at Hollywood High School in L.A. Unified, there were fewer counselors and much bigger classes. In some cases, there weren’t enough desks to go around, so students had to sit on file cabinets or air conditioners.
She also says the union was partly to blame for the problems there.
“They protected horrible teachers. It was so shocking,” she says. “I definitely don’t want to have anything to do with UTLA. There’s something magical about this school, and I want to protect that. I can only see them tarnishing it.”
The UTLA campaign at Alliance comes as education reformers are preparing for a dramatic expansion of charter schools. The Great Public Schools Now initiative, spearheaded by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, calls for an investment of $490 million to double the number of charter schools in the L.A. Unified School District within eight years, with charters ultimately educating half of the district’s children.
The plan has spurred a debate over whether charters should reach that scale and what that would do to the remainder of the district. When details of the plan leaked to the L.A. Times in September, the union and several governing board members reacted in dismay.
“It’s a frontal assault on our national commitment to public education,” says UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl.
Steve Zimmer, the president of the school board, says the plan amounts to nothing less than “the end of the L.A. Unified School District.”
Charter schools have been part of the district for 15 years. In that time, charters have exploded from a handful of independently run outfits to 221 schools, many operated by large non-profit chains like Alliance or Green Dot.
The vast majority of charters are non-union, allowing them the freedom to experiment with things like merit pay. At Alliance, for instance, a quarter of each teacher’s evaluation is based on student reading scores. UTLA has defeated efforts to move to introduce merit pay to district schools.
Until now, the two systems have co-existed, with the charters operating as a semi-autonomous entity inside the sprawling, unionized bureaucracy of L.A. Unified. The school board, though not exactly pro-charter, nevertheless approves most charter applications. Under former Superintendent John Deasy, some education reforms that began in charters were transplanted to district schools.
But Deasy departed under a cloud last year. And in elections last spring, the California Charter Schools Association once again failed to elect a pro-reform majority. So now, with the Great Public Schools Now initiative, Broad and his allies appear to be declaring their intent to press for reform by working outside the district bureaucracy.
“Mr. Broad is someone who is very impatient and wants results,” says Myrna Castrejon, the acting CEO of CCSA. “He has the means to influence how things happen and at what pace.”
The clash between these two systems is already playing out at the Alliance schools. The Alliance charter network is the largest in L.A. Unified, serving 12,000 students, and Alliance has come out firmly against unionization.
“We do not believe UTLA has the best interest of our students or our teachers at heart,” two top executives wrote to parents last March. “They see the independence and success of our schools as a threat to union power and influence in public education.”
Suitor, the Alliance spokeswoman, has accused UTLA of putting teachers and parents “in their political crosshairs” in a cynical campaign to boost membership dues. “Our question to UTLA is: Why mess with something that not only isn’t broken, but is delivering world-class results to students in Los Angeles’ most disadvantaged communities?”
UTLA is pushing just as hard against Alliance, accusing the charter network of corporatizing public education and silencing parents and teachers.
“You get a glimpse of what an unregulated system would look like when you look at the Alliance management’s behavior,” Caputo-Pearl says. That behavior, he says, shows that charters “are not about choice. It’s fundamentally about deregulating the system.”
The teachers are caught in the middle. As at many charters, Alliance teachers tend to be young and passionate about educating kids. As they debate whether to unionize, they are arguing about which system is better for children.
Dan Katzir took the helm as CEO of the Alliance earlier this year, just before the union campaign went public. He came to the charter network with deep experience in education reform, having led the Broad Foundation for 11 years, and he was ready to hit the ground running.
His first board meeting was in March, at the Century City offices of Tony Ressler, the CEO of Ares Management, who, with his wife, actress Jami Gertz, has given more than $1 million to Alliance and is the co-chair of the Alliance board.
Katzir laid out his vision for his first 100 days at the helm. The key item on his agenda was a series of focus groups — 40 in all — with teachers and staff.
Two months later, he delivered a report based on those meetings. He claimed many successes but was also candid about shortcomings. Many teachers had complained that the evaluation system, which was used to determine raises, was not fair. The staff also complained that major decisions would emanate from the Alliance home office without input from teachers.
“Poor communication has led to staff feeling a lack of respect, distrust, disenfranchisement and suspicion,” Katzir wrote. “Staff also wants to be listened to and heard. They want meaningful input into major school and Alliance decisions.”
That sense of disenfranchisement created an opportunity for UTLA. Alliance representatives say that UTLA had been visiting their teachers at home for a couple of years, trying to talk them into joining the union.
The district schools were losing kids to charters, which brought layoffs and a decline in UTLA membership. As much as the union might object to charter schools, in order to stay relevant they would have to organize them.
The Alliance campaign got going in earnest in the fall of 2014. It began with groups of teachers who had issues with particular administrators. According to Chu, a couple other teachers at Collins Family did not like the principal. At Gertz-Ressler High School, some teachers had an issue with the social studies director, according to a declaration filed with PERB. Teachers had complained to the home office, but nothing happened.
But the issues went much deeper than that. Elana Goldbaum, one of the leaders of the UTLA effort at Gertz-Ressler, says several teachers felt like their concerns about over-testing fell on deaf ears. Alisha Mernick, an art teacher at the school, said the home office did not consult with staff before introducing iPads last year, which forced a change in curriculum.
“It was mostly a disaster,” she says. “The kids don’t like it. One kid said he missed real school.”
Alliance is currently using Lexile scores to gauge teachers’ effectiveness, which for many is a major source of anxiety.
“I can’t describe in words the pressure and the psychological effect that has on teaching,” Goldbaum says.
The test measures a student’s ability to understand complex language. But the same test is used to evaluate math, science and art teachers, who are not primarily responsible for students’ reading ability.
“That’s 25 percent (of our evaluation) decided by a test that’s unreliable and not in our control,” says Xochil Johansen, a special education teacher at Alliance Stern Math and Science High School. “The difference that makes can mean $7,000 to $10,000 in your salary.”
Teachers also complain about turnover. Unlike at L.A. Unified district schools, there is no tenure. Contracts run year-to-year. Some teachers also said the health plan is a good deal for single people, but it gets expensive once you have a family.
Goldbaum said that one teacher told her he left the school because he needed an environment that was more “family friendly.”
“A lot of people see the Alliance as a stepping stone,” Mernick says. “The hours are longer. There’s extra responsibilities. It’s definitely a harder job. A lot of people come into it and within a couple years are ready to leave.”
When the UTLA supporters within Alliance went public last spring, they issued a letter with 70 signatories out of the 600 teachers in the network. To succeed, they would need to win over a majority of the teachers.
In a series of mass emails, teachers debated the merits of joining UTLA. One of the leading opponents was Kip Morales, who teaches language and composition at Alliance Susan and Eric Smidt Technology High School. Morales came to Alliance from L.A. Unified, where he saw firsthand how UTLA operates.
“I felt the teachers ran the school through the union,” he says. “If the school’s a failure, and the union’s running the school, then that’s the union’s fault.”
He felt that he did not have a voice within UTLA. In one case, the union prevented teachers from grading a standardized test because it wasn’t in the contract. The union leadership never asked if teachers wanted to grade the test, he says.
Time and again, he felt like UTLA was protecting bad teachers. He was proud that his students passed the high school exit exams at a much higher rate than the school at large. After he got the teacher of the month award, his union representative passed him in the hall.
“He asked if I had a little brown on my nose,” Morales says. “I said, ‘Excuse me?’”
He felt like the UTLA rep was trying to make sure he wasn’t putting in more effort than everyone else. When the district went through layoffs, Morales lost his job due to lack of seniority. At a union meeting, he stood up and pointedly blamed the union.
He says he much prefers working at Alliance because teachers are held accountable. In his most recent evaluation, he was rated a “master teacher” and given a 33 percent raise.
“I don’t want UTLA coming in and messing that up,” he says.
A significant number of teachers share that opinion. Over the summer, Alliance Educators United announced they had support from 140 teachers, but since then the drive seems to have stalled. Many teachers have left, and it’s unclear if they can convince a majority to come on board.
UTLA has accused Katzir of coercing teachers not to join the union. In April, Katzir sent out a fact sheet to parents, warning that having a union could mean that teachers could go on strike. Katzir also advised that a union would threaten the school’s independence. UTLA says that many teachers have gotten the message. In PERB filings, union reps say teachers have refused to speak with them outside their schools. “I can’t be seen talking to you,” one teacher said. Another refused to take a leaflet, saying “My boss is standing over there.”
Such anti-union efforts are routine in the private sector, but Jesus Quinonez, the UTLA lawyer, says it’s almost unheard of in public schools.
Quinonez also blasted Alliance for claiming that it is a private entity, and thus is not subject to the Public Employee Relations Board. That claim, he argues, appears to confirm union fears that charters are all about deregulating and privatizing the education system.
UTLA has filed a series of complaints with the PERB, alleging that Alliance has blocked organizers from using email and visiting school sites, in violation of state law. In October, a judge granted the union a temporary injunction that lifted those restrictions.
In reference to the PERB complaints, Alliance spokeswoman Suitor says: “We remain disheartened by the divisive and disruptive tactics used by UTLA that, to date, have put adult interest above those of our students.”
Jeremy Hoffman, an Alliance counselor, has not been persuaded by UTLA’s arguments. He says some colleagues no longer sit together at lunch because of differences over the campaign.
“Some of us are like, ‘Let’s have a vote already and get back to normal,’?” he says.
That’s not likely any time soon, though.
“It may be a dead dog,” Morales says, “but they’re going to kick it and they’re going to kick it hard and they’re going to keep kicking it, which creates havoc for teachers and students.”
Updated Dec. 4, 2015 at 6:20 p.m.:
Superior Court Judge James Chalfant has granted a preliminary injunction against Alliance that mirrors a temporary restraining order issued on Oct. 29. It bars Alliance from polling its teachers about their support for the union and from maintaining a petition of anti-union teachers. It also grants UTLA organizers access to Alliance campuses during non-school hours and permits pro-union teachers to use the Alliance email system. It also requires Alliance administrators to stay 100 feet from UTLA organizers.
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In a statement, Alliance spokeswoman Catherine Suitor called UTLA's complaints "a standard tactic."
"Despite an intense year-long unionization campaign, the majority of Alliance teachers have shown no interest in allowing UTLA leadership to speak on their behalf," Suitor said.
In its own statement, UTLA expressed hope that the order would lead to an end to Alliance's "harassment" of teachers.