State of the Union 2016

Delivered at the Bonaventure Hotel on July 29. Alex was introduced by Byron Gudiel from Communities for a Better Environment and Crenshaw High parent leader Eunice Grigsby, who have both worked closely with him on building community school models.

What an honor to be introduced by two long-distance runners in the struggle for educational justice. Thank you, Byron and Eunice, for all you’re doing for public schools in L.A.

It’s a great reminder that every piece of this work depends on having a team. I’ve got a great team working with me: Cecily Myart-Cruz, our NEA VP, with her connection to community and ability to move groups of people with charisma and passion; Betty Forrester, our AFT VP, with her big picture analysis and eye for the 100% right position on all issues; Juan Ramirez, our Elementary VP, with his soulful organizing and thirst for taking on the District about instructional issues; Colleen Schwab, our Secondary VP, who takes on the District for the professional rights of our members but works with school sites in a collaborative way to solve problems; Arlene Inouye, our Treasurer, with her bedrock calm, unwavering perseverance, and inspiring sense of justice; Daniel Barnhart, our Secretary, with his amazing technical expertise and his ability to support schools through campaigns. And, Jeff Good, our Executive Director, with his focus, discipline, and eagerness to throw punches at those who would undermine public education.

Cecily, Betty, Juan, Colleen, Arlene, Daniel, Jeff: It is incredible to share work and life with all of you.

My most important teammates, of course, are my wife Anne, my nine-year-old Ella, and my 12-year-old Max.

Ella’s always teaching me things. When we were water sliding together this summer, she told me, “Dad, when you go down the slide, hold onto your hat, because if your hat falls off on the slide, it will embarrass me. And, Dad, when you’re coming down the slide, make a face of a character from a movie and see if I can guess who it is.” Water slide, holding the hat, making a face—truly a great lesson for me in multitasking.

Max is developing into an organizer. When we were at my parents’ house this summer, he was asking all of us to come down to the creek behind the house with him to catch frogs and build forts. We were in the middle of something, so we said we couldn’t, and we thought that was that. An hour later, I saw Max walking back from the creek with my 77-year-old father and 78-year-old mother, wet with creek-water, five frogs in hand, a bunch of bamboo shoots, and a couple of saws. If you can organize people to do that, you’ve got a future in the field.

And, none of this would happen without Anne. As a labor and delivery nurse, the union rep on her floor, and a great partner, mother, and daughter, she keeps us always moving forward, through the good times and the challenging times.

I love you, Anne, Max, and Ella.

Speaking of love, give yourselves some love for building another historic year for UTLA.

Who led over the last year? Your UTLA Board of Directors. Your UTLA field directors and our multitalented staff. Our allies and affiliate partners from around the state and country, including CFT, CTA, AFT, and NEA. And the most important leaders of our union, our backbone: chapter chairs, co-chairs, vice chairs, steering committee members, and leaders at work sites. Give yourselves a huge round of applause.

For the team that has been working nonstop to build this weekend —members of the Leadership Conference committee — and for the workers here at the Bonaventure, let’s give another huge round of applause.

 

What we did together

So, last year, we continued moving forward because of two things: an unapologetic perspective that we must protect, improve, and expand public education, and an approach that builds power through the five strategies of member organizing, parent/community organizing, contract bargaining, political action, and communications.

 

What did we move forward on?

We won a reopener bargaining agreement, ratified by 97% of voting members, that reflects the next steps in fighting for control of our profession, including a reduction in the number of elements used for evaluations and cutting back against ridiculous workloads that take away from instruction. We won first-time-ever timelines for each evaluation cycle, putting guardrails on principals who would abuse the process.

We did that together.

That reopener agreement also took first steps in moving toward our vision of community schools. It includes a first-time-ever cap on PE class sizes, increased access to electives, additional counseling support and additional social-emotional support at our highest-needs secondary schools, and reduced class sizes in the upper grades at the 55 highest-need elementary schools.

We did that together.

We became even more of a force around the country as we took a leading role in the national walk-ins on February 17 and May 4, coordinated by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. We had over 200 schools participate, with thousands of parents, students, and community allies.

We did that together.

For the first time in years, we contributed to keeping LAUSD from issuing layoff notices.

We did that together.

We won first steps in cutting back against the overuse and abuse of standardized testing.

We did that together.

We steered LAUSD away from the path of most other urban districts, keeping Eli Broad out of the superintendent search and successfully pushing for an educator to be hired for the position.

We did that together.

We supported successful school site campaigns across the city—removing some bad principals and forcing others to enforce the contract, stopping charter co-locations in order to protect crucial school programs, and more.

We did that together.

As Donald Trump and his racialized rhetoric have seized the national stage, we’ve led on issues of racial justice with forums around the city and coalitions with community.

We did that together.

We won new contracts at six of our UTLA-represented charter schools, beating back attacks on health care, winning class size caps, and pushing back on evaluation-based pay.

We did that together.

We continued to support the courageous Alliance educators who are fighting to be part of our union. The courts keep ruling that Alliance management is acting illegally, and a state legislative committee is auditing Alliance’s finances. The Alliance educators collected hundreds of teacher surveys on evaluation and hundreds of parent surveys on budget priorities for the Local Control Accountability Plan, and they’re taking the results to management in the form of proposals. They are acting like the union, because we’re going to win the union.

We’re doing that together.

Last August, Eli Broad and the Waltons of Walmart stated they would turn Los Angeles into a neoliberal education market by moving 50% of LAUSD students into charters — a number that would push the District off the financial cliff, to the dramatic detriment of District students, charter students, our jobs, and our benefits. We didn’t blink. In September, 700 of us showed up to protest at the opening of the Broad Museum; by November we had a strong community/labor coalition; and by January, the LAUSD Board had passed a resolution condemning the Broad-Walmart plan.  

We did that together.

In May, we made history through research. Though charter schools have grown by 287% in the past 10 years in Los Angeles, LAUSD has never studied the financial impact. So UTLA, in a surprisingly unprecedented move and with the help of our state and national affiliates, commissioned a highly respected consulting firm to analyze the fiscal impact of charters on the school district. It was found that LAUSD loses $591 million per year to charter growth, and that as money leaves the District with students, the costs remain and even grow for the District, including charter oversight costs, infrastructure costs, the costs of educating the highest-needs students who are left behind by many charters, and more. We showed that this is a fundamentally unsustainable path that threatens the very existence of the civic institution of public education. Among the many issues uncovered, it was found that LAUSD has never collected millions of dollars in reimbursements from Prop. 39 co-located charters that were given space that they never used. We went to the School Board on June 14 and told the District never to leave money on the table.

We did that together.

And, over the course of the last year, we, together, the broad leadership of this union — member leaders, chapter chairs, cluster leaders, all of us — organized an overwhelming approval of the Build the Future, Fund the Fight initiative. You led in what is arguably the most important vote in UTLA history, bringing us financial stability, a full local merger to increase our power, and preparing us for the massive fights of the future. You made history not just in Los Angeles, but in the labor movement nationally.

That is a tremendous amount of work that we did together in 2015-16, and it leaves us stronger for the bigger fights on our horizon.

 

Education system “broke on purpose”

Earlier this month, UTLA’s Board of Directors approved an organizational plan for 2016 to 2018 that builds on our strategic plan from last summer. There are two driving goals. First, we must improve our schools by fighting for more funding and more investment in a sustainable community school model. Community schools are those that offer a well-rounded curriculum, parent engagement, wrap-around services, a personalized learning environment, and more. Second, we must lead the struggle for a sustainable public education system by holding all publicly funded schools, District and charter, to common-sense standards, like equity and access for all students, transparency in all budgets, joint decision-making, and unionization rights for all workers.

To win these, we are going to need to build as much power as possible to shift the political dynamics not just in Los Angeles, but in California. Our allies in the Chicago Teachers Union have said their education system is “broke on purpose.” It describes our situation as well because the current financial, legal, and political construct of education in our state will lead to the death of public school districts—and it’s time we address the issue directly.

California hovers around 45th among the 50 states in per-pupil funding. State law encourages and supports the unregulated growth of charters that decreases District revenue while increasing District costs. Almost $1 billion of the LAUSD general fund goes toward supporting the underfunded federal special education mandate. Prop. 13 allows corporations to avoid paying their fair share in property taxes. And, per-prison inmate spending in California is seven times the amount of per-pupil spending for K-12 students. This is a plan for destroying the essential civic institution and community anchor of public education.

While the system is broke on purpose, the privatizers are going for broke to increase their influence. The Broad-Walmart scheme is raising a half-billion dollars. The California Charter Schools Association has spent far more on state legislative races this year than ever before. Billionaires across the country are looking at Los Angeles as the next and biggest opportunity to privatize and profit from the education of children.

With our contract expiring in June 2017, the likely attack on our health benefits in the fall of 2017, the race for Governor heating up in 2018, and the unequivocal need for state legislation that addresses inadequate funding and increased regulation of charters, with all of these things, the next  year and a half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018. There simply may be no other way to protect our health benefits and to shock the system into investing in the civic institution of public education.

 

10 action areas for 2016-18

Just like with the lemon-banana pancakes I make with Max and Ella on the weekends, there are 10 ingredients to building the power we need, and the strike readiness we need, between mid-2016 and early 2018.

  • Launching a paid media campaign: First, we are thrilled to be launching UTLA’s first paid media campaign in years. Starting in late August, over 70 billboards, signs, bus benches, and more will carry our messages that billionaires should not be driving the public school agenda, and that amazing people work in our public schools every day. This is a major intervention in shaping the public narrative, and there will be a key role for you in amplifying the media campaign through social media.
     
  • Passing Prop. 55: Second, building off our incredible signature-gathering work in the spring, we will organize to pass the extension of Prop. 30, now called Prop. 55. At stake is whether California’s highest income earners will continue to pay a particular stream of taxes to support the state’s schools and social programs, or whether they will be given a tax break amidst growing poverty and inequality. At stake is over $700 million annually for Los Angeles. We will be involved in massive precinct-walking and phone-banking as we build to the November election. This will include walks around our school communities on October 6, in coordination with the next Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools national day of action. All of this not only helps us pass Prop. 55 in 2016, but also lays the foundation for a Make It Fair statewide initiative on commercial property taxes in 2018.
     
  • Prioritizing reopener issues: Third, we will engage our members in a round of hundreds of school site dialogues about our 2016-17 contract reopeners, before ultimately sunshining our demands in the fall. There are automatic reopeners on salary and class size, and we must determine three other parts of the contract to take to the bargaining table. For consideration in these school-site dialogues will be three issues that surface over and over again in conversations with our members
    • 1. School restructuring: Should we use a reopener to put guardrails on the District’s ability to reconstitute and destabilize schools?
       
    • 2. Overtesting: Though we won initial steps last year in cutting and clarifying testing, there is much more work to be done. Should we use a reopener to continue that work?
       
    • 3. School discipline: When John Deasy changed how LAUSD handles school discipline a few years ago, he was pursuing national headlines and personal advancement, not real positive change. The result has been a poor implementation of restorative justice and positive behavior support, and far too many schools that have no discipline systems in place. We need to reclaim school discipline, reclaim positive behavior support, reclaim restorative justice, and build real programs that work for all stakeholders. Our school site dialogues will ask, Does it make sense to use a reopener to move this struggle forward?
       
  • Pressing for accountability for all public schools: Fourth, we will continue to build a movement for state legislative change regarding the unregulated growth of charters. This is fundamental to stopping Broad-Walmart and challenging Prop. 39 co-locations. This fall, we will build a community forum here in Los Angeles with Senator Ricardo Lara, chair of the Senate Appropriations committee. The hearing will look specifically at the fiscal report on the impact of charters on LAUSD. It will look at changes to state law that will be necessary if we want to protect the civic institution of public education from insolvency. As we organize members, parents, and community groups to this forum, we are also meeting with other unions locally and across the state. Now get this. All of the unions representing LAUSD workers and the teachers’ unions in San Diego, San Bernardino, Oakland, and San Francisco share our June 2017 contract expiration date. We have an historic opportunity to lead a coordinated bargaining effort across the state, in support of funding community schools and building charter accountability. Coordinated action could dramatically increase pressure on the legislature and fundamentally shape the debate in the 2018 governor’s race.
     
  • Launching a new community coalition: Fifth, in the fall, we will be launching an innovative and nationally watched coalition with some of the premiere community organizing institutions in Los Angeles: the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE; the LA Alliance for a New Economy, or LAANE; and the Schools L.A. Students Deserve Grassroots Coalition. These organizations are working with our member leaders to build organizing efforts in feeder systems from South L.A. to the East Valley to the Crenshaw area to bring parents, youth, clergy, and community into efforts to push for community schools, public school accountability, and educator unionization. These efforts will also include independent school-by-school parent organizing by UTLA, and will drive toward shaping the LCAP in the spring.
     
  • Readying for full-contract bargaining: Sixth, in the winter, we will initiate a systematic process to identify priorities for our full contract bargaining in 2017-18, through school-site chapter meetings and collective surveys, and through input from committees. We will sunshine demands and plan for escalating actions as we head toward the expiration of our contract. In the meantime, we will continue to use the UTLA/LAUSD task forces that we have created through bargaining over the past two years to address class size, health and human services staffing, educator development and support, and the crucial area of special education. As this work is happening around the LAUSD contract, we will be developing coordinated bargaining across our UTLA-represented charter schools, driving for higher standards across the board.
     
  • Supporting school-site organizing: Seventh, we will continue our tradition of providing trainings and ongoing support for school-site organizing and contract enforcement, from taking on bad principals, to organizing for effective school discipline programs, to holding administrators accountable to the contract, and more. We have hired additional staff for these purposes, and we have developed additional tools, like the exciting new book produced by our staff and member leaders that you will receive this weekend, titled Power Strategies. Additionally, with the monies from the successful Build the Future, Fund the Fight initiative, we have brought on staff to deal with the backlog of grievances and to build a more effective grievance system.
     
  • Standing up for racial and social justice: Eighth, in a time of chilling attacks on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, institutionally racist police violence, terrifying attacks on the police, a lack of political will to control the flow of guns or provide critical social/emotional support services, we will continue to stand unwaveringly for racial and social justice. A critical aspect of this for UTLA is organizing for infusions of resources into our highest-needs schools. In a time of unprecedented wealth inequality, this is the right thing to do. It is also the strategically smart thing to do, because in the absence of a proactive approach to these school communities, Broad-Walmart will target these schools for privatization, leading to a further undermining of the entire system.
     
  • Electing pro-public school LAUSD Board members: Ninth, we must face off against the billionaires again in the School Board elections of 2017, and WE MUST WIN. UTLA has endorsed Steve Zimmer for School Board District 4. Steve is a long-time teacher and counselor, someone deeply committed to public education, who worked with us to get rid of John Deasy, to win a contract, to pass the resolution against Broad-Walmart, and more. He is running against Nick Melvoin, a corporate candidate who taught for two years through Teach for America before going to law school. Melvoin then worked in support of both the Reed and Vergara lawsuits, both of which tried to undermine seniority and attack educators’ professional rights. Four years ago, Antonio Villaraigosa worked against Zimmer, including recruiting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to put millions into the School Board election cycle, much of it against Zimmer. We expect the billionaires to come hard after Zimmer again, and we have to be ready. On top of this, the composition of the School Board will be up for grabs as Board Districts 2 and 6 also have elections. It is crucial to understand that this new School Board that will be seated in 2017 will be the School Board voting on our full contract and health benefits, and all indications are that key figures in the senior management of the District will be advocating that LAUSD wage a vigorous campaign to cut our benefits. While Steve Zimmer is a great person, our approach to politics must be to support programs, not individuals. This means establishing a platform including support for community schools, public school accountability, organizing rights for charter educators, more school funding, fully funded health benefits, and more — and then throwing our weight behind individuals who commit to that program. 
     
  • Building our political power through PACE: Finally, just like we did last year through the Build the Future, Fund the Fight initiative, this year we must have a stone-cold honest conversation with our co-workers and get them to invest more in their union and in themselves—this time, into our political action fund, PACE. By law, unions can only spend a tiny percentage of dues money on political campaigns. This means that we must raise money for political campaigns through separate voluntary contributions to PACE. The reality is stark. Broad-Walmart has stated they will spend close to $20 million on political campaigns and lobbying, while the California Charter Schools Association just dumped $10 million into the June elections, and is prepared to escalate that in the coming months. Comparatively, UTLA has $400,000 in our PACE account annually from member contributions. That alone equates to us being outspent 60-to-1. While we will never be able to equal the billionaires in their spending, it is absolutely vital that we significantly lower the ratio by which we are outspent. That is crucial to winning election races, and crucial to having money available for campaigns around key issues. Currently, only 20% of our members give to PACE. There are unions in the labor movement that have more than 75% of their members making contributions. We must get closer to that. We must take care of our own house. There is just no other option. A key first step will be for everyone at this Leadership Conference to become members of PACE. The basic contribution is $8.33 per month. You will find PACE cards on your table tonight. Also stop by our PACE table right outside the door and please sign up. At the schools, we will be organizing systematically, using lists for school sites like we did last year for Build the Future, Fund the Fight, in order to support your gathering PACE memberships. Certainly, you will get questions from some of your co-workers, like, didn’t we just talk about increasing contributions to the union last year. In this situation, it will be critical for you to explain the difference between PACE and dues to your colleagues, and very critical to be stone cold honest, assertive, and unapologetic, like we were last year around BFFF. Let’s build PACE.

 

Toward a system led by educators, not edu-preneurs

As we deal with a District and state that border on being broke on purpose, as we take our fight to multiple levels in unprecedented ways for UTLA, as we prepare to be strike-ready in early 2018, and as we scratch and claw for all funding possible and to direct that to schools and classrooms, this can only truly be done as a team effort.

I started tonight with the great team that I work with, and we end on what will need to be another full team effort, a PACE drive, led by all of you, the broad leadership of UTLA, school by school, roster by roster, member by member.

This is ultimately a similar kind of teamwork that is at the foundation of the community school model that Byron and Eunice introduced me with, and that this Leadership Conference is about: educators, working in teams with each other, with community, with students, and with parents to provide the kind of education our students deserve.

At Crenshaw High School, as we strove to build a community school model, that was student Allen Harris, working with parent Nidia Sotelo, working with teacher Cathy Garcia, working with community leader Lark Galloway-Gilliam.

While the names are different at your school, the relationships are similar, and they are there to be organized into the local movement to build community schools, and into the larger movement to fight for an education system led by stakeholders not billionaires, led by educators not edu-preneurs, and led by student need not profit motive.

We’ve come a long way in two years. We’ve cleared the deck of John Deasy, we drove a massive contract campaign, and we’ve prepared ourselves to be a fighting union into the future, and now we head into one of the biggest years in the history of UTLA. Let’s organize, continue working together, continue building power, and keep fighting for the Schools L.A. Students Deserve!