The Union Leader in Her Labyrinth – A Stunning Opportunity to Frame UTLA and Drive a New Narrative for Charter Schools

Good day, CharterFolk.

I know we’re cruising into the Labor Day weekend, and I’m late getting this out. But I want to post while the issue is still fresh. So forgive me as I push send on this column at the end of a long week and hope you’ll find a few minutes for it over the three-day weekend.

In recent weeks, I have been writing about what we need to do in Charterland to stop being framed by our adversaries and to begin drawing our own frames that would allow us to drive a new narrative for our movement.

And then along comes a massive opportunity to do just that.

Earlier this week, this article from LA Magazine was published.

It’s a stunning portrait of UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz. Rarely do we see journalism so crisply portray the self-interested forces that prevent our society’s sadly unpublic schools from becoming Greatly More Public. The article’s first paragraph describes Myart-Cruz as …

ensconced inside UTLA’s Wilshire Center headquarters where she controls the levers and dials of the largest, most complicated, and, these days, most divisive educational labor machine in the state—possibly the nation.

“Ensconced.”

What a perfect use of the word.

UTLA does their work inside a shrouded citadel. I have been in that citadel myself, and I have seen how UTLA leadership is indeed “ensconced.”

It’s why I have always found it so ironic: the entity that most calls for transparency and openness in others is itself among the most opaque and shut off you’ll find anywhere.

For those of you outside California, I re-surface this post from a few months back, when I highlighted a different article about plans to take UTLA’s strategies nationwide.

CharterFolk, can we be sober about this?

If teacher unions have their way, there will be a Myart-Cruz in every city in America.

What makes this new article so striking is not the way that it presents the sobering reality of what it would mean if Myart-Cruz controlled more major urban areas like she does Los Angeles. Many great articles and op-eds over the years have depicted UTLA’s destructive impact on public education.

What makes the article stunning is how brazen and unapologetic Myart-Cruz is about that impact.

“There is no such thing as learning loss,” she responds when asked how her insistence on keeping L.A.’s schools mostly locked down over the last year and a half may have impacted the city’s 600,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students. “Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience. They learned survival. They learned critical-thinking skills. They know the difference between a riot and a protest. They know the words insurrection and coup.”

A portrait like this almost never makes it into a mainstream publication. So the article provides a great public service.

It gives a glimpse of a teacher union leader in her labyrinth.

A theme I have been exploring here at CharterFolk over the past year is how leadership instability in our nation’s traditional public schools is causing massive harm to students.

One of those superintendents who walked away was from Los Angeles.

LA Unified’s leadership instability is a good example of what is happening across the nation. In the last eight years, there have been six superintendencies in LAUSD lasting an average of 16 months. It led the LA Times to lament:

What L.A. Unified needs at this point — what it has needed for years — is stable leadership. Yes, Beutner is fulfilling his three-year contract, but that wasn’t long enough. When you look at the school districts that have made the most progress over the last 15 years or so, one clear hallmark was a stable executive team — not for three years but for eight or 10 or more — moving in one clear, steady direction.

What the LA Times fails to recognize is that there actually has been stable leadership atop Los Angeles Unified, leadership that has been in place for eight years and has been moving in one clear, steady direction.

I’m talking, of course, about UTLA leadership.

Since 2013, there has only been one executive team at UTLA. They came together when, as LA School Report wrote, they were running to topple the union’s prior leadership.

Eight years later, things are virtually unchanged at the top of UTLA.

Myart-Cruz and Caputo-Pearl swapped places in 2020, ensuring at least six more years of continuity.

How stable is their leadership?

Well, when parents of kids attending LAUSD schools called for Myart-Cruz’s recall …

… this was her response.

“I love that my picture is the biggest one …. But here’s the trouble: You can recall the Governor. You can recall the school board. But how are you going to recall me?”

This statement comes from someone who, as LA Magazine reports, was elected by 69% of the 16% of the 33,000 teachers in LA Unified who voted in the union election.

This means that the most powerful person in public education in Los Angeles was chosen in an election where she received about 3,650 votes. In a school district where 4.8 million people reside.

That’s one vote for every 1,313 residents of LA, for anyone keeping track.

Is it any wonder why someone who is supposed to be acting on behalf of the “public all” ends up doing nothing but seeking benefit for the “private few?”

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Myart-Cruz has spent her whole life in educational settings where the interests of the private few were put ahead of the public all.

Look where she went to high school.

The Center For Enriched Studies?

It’s one of the most selective schools in Los Angeles. Look at the admissions criteria that school uses.

They’re nearly identical to the admissions criteria used by the most selective private schools in Los Angeles, criteria that everyone knows screen out kids by race and income. Which I guess you could forgive Myart-Cruz for, given that she enrolled in the school as a teenager. But what justifies her spending the majority of her teaching career at the Emerson magnet which uses the exact same admissions criteria?

All the while she goes about presenting herself and her union as some force for good on matters of race!

Meanwhile, what has been the union’s most tangible accomplishment over its years of stable leadership?

The creation of one of the largest unfunded liabilities of any public agency in the United States. LAUSD’s latest financials …

… show the district’s retiree health benefits and other retirement liabilities …

The remaining negative balance in unrestricted net position (-&16.4 billion) resulted primarily from the net pension liability for various retirement plans totaling $7.5 billion and the net OPEB liability totaling $8.6 billion.

… have grown to exceed $16 billion.

This has left Myart-Cruz and UTLA no choice but to seek a bailout from voters.

Here is my one quibble with the LA Magazine article. The author claims that Measure EE was “narrowly defeated” in 2019. Most reporting has stated that it was completely trounced.

Meanwhile, because the district has not saved money to pay for its unfunded liabilities, it missed the opportunity to see its assets grow massively in the recent run-up in the stock market. And as the Covid crisis is playing out, we are seeing unprecedented retirements of teachers, creating a moment when thousands of new teachers will come into the profession in Los Angeles …

… all of whom by LAUSD contract will be legally entitled to lifetime health benefits, setting the stage for an absolutely massive explosion of unfunded liabilities which will be distributed across an ever shrinking number of students in the years to come …

… the vast majority of whom will be Black and Brown and low-income.

Now comes a proposal that would require the school district to push more funding and transparency down to the school level.

Why does such a proposal terrify people like Myart-Cruz?

Because she knows that the only way she can keep afloat her financial house of cards is if she is able to siphon money away from kids and schools and direct it to unfunded liabilities and to schools in more affluent areas where her more senior members work.

So what must she and UTLA do?

Just look at the top of the front page on the UTLA website.

They have to come out opposed to the Student Centered Funding proposal.

More than that.

The have to come out with a massive media buy to try to stop it …

You see what’s happening here, CharterFolk?

You think UTLA wants to be presenting themselves as opposing “student-centered funding?” It just screams out the obvious truth they want to shut up about, which is that they support, and have always supported, “adult-centered funding.

Their only way out from a communications standpoint is grasping at straws.

Check out their spot. I provide a link below:

They actually try to argue that Student Centered Funding is some right wing plot …

… championed by their favorite boogeywoman …

… when these are the local community-based organizations that are on record supporting Student Centered Funding.

Do they really think they’re going to convince people that MALDEF, the United Way of Los Angeles and InnerCity Struggle are “outside forces” under the control of the “right wing?”

Do they think they can make people believe that getting funding to the students for whom it is intended is creating “backpacks of cash?”

Or is supporting some kind of “voucher system?”

These are the nonsense contortions that a party has to go through when they are forced to fight within a frame that someone else has drawn.

You see what’s come together here, CharterFolk?

This article from LA Magazine is pennies from heaven, and we should be doing everything we can to amplify it. However we can, scream to the heavens that UTLA is unabashed about having a leader who is not student-centric, but is adult-centric, in her values system. Get it on social media. Put it on billboards. Whatever we can do.

But realize that the article is not the frame that holds the message together. The frame is the policy proposal, which is forcing UTLA to fight on our terms.

The only thing that is missing from the equation?

The charter school voice.

The community of charter school stakeholders who know that student-centric budgeting practices are a hallmark of Greatly More Public Schools, and we charter schools already budget in this way, and we have seen what a difference it makes in kids’ lives, and we care about the welfare of absolutely all kids. So we go above and beyond to help a proposal like the Student Centered Funding system get approved, even though it won’t affect our schools at all.

Though it will, of course, drive a new narrative for our movement, one showing that charter schools are leading all schools in Los Angeles to become Greatly More Public.

Meanwhile, we get our next policy proposals lined up:

  • Proposals forcing UTLA to bring forward recommendations for how they would advise the district to allocate unfunded liabilities down to the school level, so we can see who in the end UTLA is making pay for their generations of malfeasance. (Hint: they’re going to have to show that they’re putting the burden on the highest need kids in South-Central and East Los Angeles.)
  • Proposals requiring UTLA to identify what schools were the ones that generated the unfunded liabilities in the first place. (Hint: it would show that most of them were made by schools in the more affluent areas of Los Angeles where UTLA’s senior members have worked.)
  • Proposals that would eliminate the selective admissions criteria at the school where Myart-Cruz spent the majority of her teaching career, criteria we know screen out Black and Brown and low-income students.

And we get our courageous board members on the LAUSD board ready to bring the resolutions for a vote over and over and over again.

So Myart-Cruz has to oppose these things over and over again in the public sphere, outside her shrouded citadel on Wilshire Boulevard, where we are sure to see many more portraits of her and her union like the one we saw this week in LA Magazine …

… ultimately allowing us to keep her right where we want her …

ensconced in the middle of a frame that we have drawn.

Announcing the Brian’s Voice Awardees for 2021

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today it’s our pleasure to announce the five winners of our first annual Brian’s Voice Awardees.

The awardees as chosen by the CharterFolk readership are:

Congratulations to all of you!

Awardees will receive $500 from CharterFolk. Our request is that the funds be used to convene a dinner or other gathering with CharterFolk to further discuss the issues presented in the Contributor Columns. And if you can find enough time afterward, please send us an email letting us know how the discussion has gone and whether any new learnings have emerged.

A special thanks to the readers of CharterFolk for helping select such a great group of contributors and for encouraging even further discussion about such important issues confronting our movement.

Finally, a last thank you to all the 52 people who contributed content to CharterFolk during our first year.

You contributions are certainly shining examples of what we seek to celebrate with the Brian’s Voice Awards CharterFolk who help us hear anew the calling of the charter school movement or help us think anew about a shared challenge that we face.