Schools that Work … For Themselves, Part 2 – United Way Naiveté and the Courageous Acts that Really Drive Change

Good morning, CharterFolk.

A combination of high volumes of regular work and difficulty generating material meeting my own quality bar on the highly complicated subject of education reform in Los Angeles over the past 25 years has me sending out this post later than I intended. I also have an extended holiday trip with family starting on Friday, and I really haven’t taken a full vacation week since June. So, aside from my regular Year In Review post which I’ll send between the holidays, I’ll let this one be my last for 2022. It will tee me up to finish the Los Angeles story with a couple of posts early in ’23.

Meanwhile, I’m excited to be sharing tomorrow’s Contributor Column from Laurie Brown in Nashville. (Just you wait.) And I am also really looking forward to Don Shalvey kicking off the New Year with his own Contributor Column. I extend thanks in advance to both Laurie and Don for sharing posts I know the CharterFolk community will find thought-provoking.

Let’s get on to today’s post.

Schools that Work … For Themselves, Part 2 – United Way Naiveté and the Courageous Acts that Really Drive Change

As I wrote last week, I consider this article a prompt.

It prods me into continuing my critique of Bruce Fuller’s recent book about the history of Los Angeles education reform efforts over the past quarter century.

Earlier parts of the critique can be found in posts from September.

I shan’t repeat except to summarize where we pick up the story.

We’ve seen that UTLA rose to be the unquestioned political force exerting effective control over the district’s board of education in the 70s and 80s. In the early and mid 90s, the massive LEARN reform initiative proved a complete failure despite years of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars of philanthropic investment. That led LA Mayor Richard Riordan in the late 90s to challenge UTLA hegemony by running a slate of reform-supportive school board candidates who won. Those newcomers unleashed unprecedented improvement in districtwide academic performance by recruiting to the superintendency former Colorado Governor Roy Romer, who drove an aggressive internal district reform effort focused on the systemic improvement of instruction across all schools, and by supporting the development of a robust charter school sector. But UTLA detested Romer implementing a common approach to instruction across the district, and in 2004 once again won enough school board races to precipitate his departure and unwind his reforms. Against this backdrop, charter school backers passed a statewide ballot initiative, Prop 39, which provided the district massive new facilities resources. The resulting new mammoth construction program in combination with the building of tens of thousands of additional new seats by charter schools themselves, allowed the school district to move off its multi-track calendar, one of the most important breakthroughs supporting improved student outcomes in recent LA education history. All of these parts of the story, Schools that Work tells either incompletely, inaccurately, or not at all.

Fuller then goes on from there to render the rest of the Los Angeles story with similar incompleteness, inaccuracy and/or outright omission. I will do what I can to offer something that is “descriptively correct” in its place today, following up with final posts in the coming weeks to round out an alternative, and I hope fundamentally more accurate, history that will prove of at least some value to CharterFolk as we turn our attention to what comes next for charter schools in Los Angeles and beyond.

Recognizing Where We Stand

But before I turn to that, I think it essential that we start by recognizing the situation we find ourselves in today.

For the first time since the mid 1990s …

… UTLA has re-established firm control of LA Unified’s Board of Education. In re-asserting its dominance, it is now well-positioned to pursue its long-term priorities which are designed to ensure that the schools of Los Angeles work … for themselves.

Their first priority, of course, as the LA-ist article underscores, is to get more money for themselves by doubling down on their long-standing practice of siphoning resources away from higher need communities to subsidize education in more affluent neighborhoods on the Westside and the San Fernando Valley where the union’s more senior, and more highly compensated, members tend to work.

UTLA’s agenda emphasizes sweeping, expensive district-wide initiatives: across-the-board class size reductions, broad-based faculty salary increases and funding additional staff positions at each school — all expensive programs, and not necessarily targeted to schools that have been historically overlooked. UTLA argues raising the tide for all schools is necessary after years of underfunding in California schools.

UTLA has two other primary goals.

The first, as articulated in Blume’s piece in the LA Times, is to eliminate standardized testing …

Saying that standardized assessments take valuable time from learning, the union is calling for elimination or dramatic reduction of such tests when they are not required by the state or federal government.

… thereby reducing the visibility parents and the public have into whether schools are improving student learning, and facilitating UTLA’s ability to advance narratives that are completely unhinged from reality, such as the idea that there was no learning loss during the pandemic.

“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.”

UTLA’s final priority is to put an end to school closures.

The union package also calls for a freeze on school closures — which are increasingly hard to avoid as enrollment shrinks

It’s a goal that can only be achieved, of course, by taking back charter school enrollment, which is clearly UTLA’s highest unstated priority.

Then there are all the union’s stated priorities that actually aren’t priorities at all, like the call UTLA makes for the creation of federal housing vouchers, which is just another example of its age-old practice of loudly trumpeting support for proposals purporting to address the needs of low-income families in policy areas over which the union has no effective control, while behind closed doors pushing for policies greatly harmful of those very same families in areas where the union has de facto complete control.

Unfortunately, in the current environment there is no shortage of examples of UTLA enacting policies behind closed doors that are unquestionably harmful to low-income families.

But, with a resurgent UTLA well-positioned to enact its age-old agenda …

… one that is grounded in making schools that work for themselves

… we appear to be headed into a period when many such proposals detrimental to the interests of hundreds of thousands of students and families in Los Angeles are likely to be enacted.

United Way Naiveté and the Courageous Acts that Really Drive Change

In the acknowledgement section of Schools that Work, Fuller is forthcoming about the fact that the United Way of Greater Los Angeles was one of the book’s primary funders. As such, we should not be surprised that Fuller’s account of reform efforts over the past 25 years overweights the influence of the United Way and its coalition partners.

His rendering of history goes something like this:

In response to historical unfairness and poor performance of district schools in high need communities that resulted from generations of unfair treatment of communities of color through housing segregation, resistance to busing, and other discriminatory policies, a coalition of new “pluralist” reform organizations came together including the United Way, InnerCity Struggle, EdTrust West, and the Community Coalition, among others. Those parties used their community relationships to “work the inside game” and when necessary to “take to the streets” to push Beaudry bureaucrats to embrace change. Over time, the pluralists convinced UTLA to abandon its history of supporting policies that shortchanged historically underserved communities and to embrace instead a basket of reforms that led to greater systemwide equity. That agenda included creating dozens of new pilot schools that offered more culturally sensitive programs, expanding access to college preparatory curriculum to all students, and allocating funding more fairly to high-need communities. Charter schools, meanwhile, generated higher levels of learning but exacerbated equity concerns by cherry-picking students. As such, their academic accomplishments should be essentially ignored. On the political front, the only development warranting attention from the charter school world was wealthy supporters’ increased campaign contributions, which in Fuller’s analysis, aimed to “eclipse the voice of others, buying political clout in nonparticipatory fashion.”

The problem with this narrative, aside from offering a fundamentally unfair and inaccurate rendering of charter school contributions and exaggerating the amount of equity and quality that was achieved by “pluralist” reformers working inside the system (themes I will return to in a future post), is that it fails to offer understanding about how power is actually attained in the Los Angeles public education landscape. True power is not achieved, as Fuller asserts, by “going to the streets” or by “playing the inside game.” To believe so is to fall victim to what I call United Way Naivete, the belief that an alliance of well-intended people and charitable nonprofits with no political machinery and capacity can compete with other mammoth entities who specialize in building real political machinery, capacity and ultimately power.

In fact, power in Los Angeles education matters is primarily achieved and demonstrated by growing the ability to win school board elections so that parties may exert influence and/or control over the LA Unified Board of Education which ultimately directs everything the district does. Stephanie Clayton certainly understood this when she wrote her authoritative study of school Los Angeles Unified board elections in the second half of the 20th century …

… which documents how UTLA had become the pre-eminent force winning school board elections and had therefore secured control of the district’s governance and, hence, its entirety.

Fuller’s rendering of Los Angeles education reform history, on the other hand, pays hardly any attention to school board elections whatsoever aside from offering a few disparaging comments about charter school supporters’ financial contributions and campaign tactics. In fact, Fuller goes so far as to completely leave school board elections of out the book’s “Timeline of Major Events From 1963 – 2020.” It’s as though Fuller believes that Romer’s highly improbable hiring in 2000 could have somehow happened without the seismic school board elections of 1999, or the revolutionary Public School Choice Resolution in 2009 could have somehow happened without new reform-supportive school board candidates winning elections in 2007.

As influential and admirable as InnerCity Struggle and the other nonprofits in the United Way coalition have been in Los Angeles in recent decades, the truth is that none of them have 501c4 organizations, meaning that none of them may be legally involved in electoral activity. And so we should find it emblematic of the district’s underlying power dynamics that literally the first person that we are introduced to in Schools That Work – InnerCity Struggle Executive Director Maria Brenes – is also the very same person who lost a key school board race to a UTLA-aligned candidate just last month.

In contrast to what happened this past fall, education reform in Los Angeles over the past two decades was the story of an emergence of a political coalition strong enough to compete with the previously incomparable dominance of UTLA. To understand how fundamentally things had changed in the matter of a decade, one need only compare the dynamics at work in 1995, when UTLA had essentially no problem at all stymying LEARN …

… to the dynamics playing out in 2005, when UTLA was involved in virtual trench warfare to hold back a proposal that would have eliminated its stranglehold over the school district altogether.


What had changed power dynamics so profoundly?

It was two things actually.

First, of course, was the fact that California’s charter school law stipulated that all new charter school applications and charter renewal considerations were appealable to the county and state levels, effectively blocking the district’s ability to choke off charter school growth unilaterally. And by the early 2000s, unlike the LEARN era a decade earlier, enough charter schools were growing in Los Angeles that the reform genie could not be put back in the status quo bottle.

Secondly, and just as importantly, the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education didn’t just sag back to its prior state after Riordan’s reformers were replaced.

When UTLA blocked Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s mayoral control proposal in court …

… he pivoted to winning school board elections …

… which unleashed the next wave of reform.

As Fuller sees it, this was all a big political calculation by Villaraigosa centering exclusively on securing big resources from charter school funders.

Three fresh candidates, each aligned with Villaraigosa, won election to the board in 2008 thanks to the $3 million raised from Broad and his pro-charter allies.

No doubt, funder resources really mattered. Don’t get me wrong. They were a big part of Villaraigosa’s overall vision.

But some big pivot to curry favor with charter funders was not at the heart of Villaraigosa’s new approach.

In fact, in my view, at the heart of Villaraigosa’s change was no political calculation at all, but rather, heart itself.

Because any politician in his right mind, if he were going to base his decisions purely on political calculation, never would have done what Villaraigosa did. He had worked for UTLA for years. He had seen up close the power they had, the resources, the influence, and the staying power. Any smart politician would have just let that incredible strength stay at his or her back.

But instead, Villaraigosa went in a different direction. Being inside the belly of the UTLA beast, he had seen how resistant to reform the union had been. He could see how the teacher union, above any other force in Los Angeles, was responsible for the fact that the schools in the neighborhoods from which he came were so abjectly terrible.

So a conviction grew within him to try to do something he knew to be right.

But like any great politician, Villaraigosa wasn’t naive. He knew that simply doing right wasn’t going to be enough. He had to come up with a new strategy that took into account how schools, and the political circumstances surrounding schools, really work.

And as powerful as big donors could be in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa knew that they alone weren’t going to be close to enough to sustain a reform agenda.

Look at results of elections last month when virtually unlimited political resources weren’t enough to carry the day in Los Angeles.

As generous as ed reform funders could be, Villaraigosa knew it wasn’t possible to simply buy a solution.

What Villaraigosa saw in advance of anyone else was that a new “United Way” forward was necessary.

And even more importantly, he saw that one was possible.

A whole new coalition could be assembled, one consisting, of course, of charter school funders, but also the charter school base of thousands of parents and alumni and staff, and yes, of the “pluralist” organizations portrayed in Schools That Work.

But, in addition to those parties, as important as any other part of the coalition was the biggest, most under-appreciated up-and-comer emerging on the Los Angeles political landscape.


The “Other Union” as LA School Report called them.

A union not representing teachers, but service workers both inside and outside education. A union that had famously won big victories for its members during the Justice for Janitors strike of 1995 …

… and had propelled Villaraigosa onto victory in his Assembly race in 1994 and in his successful drive to become Assembly Speaker in 1998.

SEIU’s capacity to influence school board elections was vastly under-appreciated. Indeed, in Clayton’s study covering 1950-2000, SEIU is not listed once, nor is there any mention of organized service workers having any role in school board elections whatsoever.

And yet, Villaraigosa knew what researchers would later confirm …

… which was that SEIU was an emerging source of huge potential new political strength in Los Angeles.

Candidates supported by the County Fed, mostly Latinos, began to win contest after contest in congressional, legislative, and City Council races, rapidly displacing the old-line political insiders. An early example was the 1994 election of union organizer Antonio Villaraigosa to a State Assembly seat representing northeast Los Angeles. Two years later, the County Fed helped Democrats regain control of the Assembly; then in 1999, Villaraigosa became the Assembly speaker, going on to become mayor of the nation’s second-largest metropolis in 2005.

In these years, the relationship between labor’s growing political clout and its ongoing efforts to unionize unorganized workers took the form of a virtuous circle. In one stunning example, SEIU added 74,000 Los Angeles home care workers to its ranks after winning its long political campaign to change state law to create an “employer of record” for this growing occupational group.

But it wasn’t just that Villaraigosa recognized SEIU’s growing strength.

Perhaps his deepest insight of all was his recognition that SEIU members represented a force whose experiences regarding public schools were fundamentally different from those of UTLA members, and, because of that, they had built-in common interests with the broader community of education reformers that was emerging in Los Angeles.

Unlike most teachers, service workers tended to live in the same community where they worked. Their kids went to the same schools. They saw as parents and community members firsthand how the failure of Los Angeles Unified Schools was inflicting harm far and wide. They saw how funds were being siphoned away from the schools where they worked and where their kids attended to pay the salaries of more senior members of UTLA who worked on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. They could see how UTLA was securing for its own members lifetime health benefits, when service workers couldn’t even get any form of health benefit in the here and now.

In short, they saw how the deck was stacked against them, and Villaraigosa believed that their support could be brought into a new coalition for change. And so he took a stand that no prominent Democrat in Los Angeles had ever taken previously. In a 2010 speech before the Public Policy Institute of California, a speech that is still recalled to this day to be among the most courageous in Sacramento in recent memory …

… Antonio Villaraigosa broke fundamentally with UTLA.

We must ask ourselves today is what’s stopping us from changing direction?  Why have we for so long allowed denial and indifference to defeat action?

Now, I do not raise this question lightly, and I do not come to my conclusions from a lack of experience.  I was a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Association.  I was a union organizer for the United Teachers of Los Angeles.  From the time I entered the California State Assembly and became Speaker, I focused on education.  I funded our schools. During my tenure as mayor of Los Angeles, I fought to fund and reform California’s public schools.  Over the last five years while partnering with students, parents, non-profits, business groups, higher education and charter organizations, school district leadership, elected board members and teachers there has been one unwavering roadblock to reform:

The UTLA union leadership.

While not the biggest problem facing our schools, they have consistently been the most powerful defenders of the status quo. Now I do not say this because of any union animus. Anybody who’s known me over the years knows there’s not an anti-union bone in my body.  I am unabashedly a progressive.  I believe in collective bargaining. I think in a democracy the right to organize is a right that must and should be protected.  But I can tell you that this union has stopped virtually every effort to partner with the Los Angeles school board, to partner with the change agents in LA, and throughout the state.

Stunning courage combined with a bold new political theory.

It’s a part of the story that Fuller’s rendering leaves almost entirely out. Indeed, in the whole of Schools that Work, SEIU is only mentioned in one two-page section that recounts a tale where SEIU leadership supposedly found common ground with ed reformers at an event hosted by the United Way in 2013.

CharterFolk, that is picking up the story literally two decades too late.

And so Fuller misses the nucleus of strength around which the broader United Way coalition ultimately formed. A coalition that was destined not to just play the inside game and take to the streets, but one that generated huge levels of funding, and boots on the ground, and political machinery and, ultimately, wins at the ballot box.

Enough to lift great leaders like Monica Garcia and Yolie Flores, who like Villaraigosa were similarly motivated by conviction, and were willing to take courageous actions themselves.

And goodness knows it was a hard coalition to hold together. Because while interests overlapped, they often did just barely so. Many times the tension SEIU felt to push for better schools for their members’ kids came into conflict with their desire to make sure that all schools’ classified workers were unionized. And so sometimes the coalition tipped too far toward union protection, like it did during the first round of Public School Choice decisions when few charter schools were chosen.

But more broadly during this period, because the coalition was stewarded by a leader who knew how to engineer a proper balance, Los Angeles charter schools were able to lead the broader California sector through a period of unprecedented growth …

… and academic strengthening …

… while SEIU was able to secure long-sought wins for its members.

In recent years, as we all know, things have changed a great deal in Los Angeles. A courageous mayor with the political acumen needed to stitch together a coalition no one else thought possible was replaced by a mayor who chose to go AWOL on all matters education for his entire eight years in office …

…resulting in his name, not surprisingly, appearing not even once in the entirety of Schools that Work.

And so, the coalition degrades. The balance is lost. A candidate like Brenes is advanced whose positions on charter schools have been so lukewarm that our base hardly turns out. And the election ends up being lost by a margin that, had CharterFolk really been all in, we would likely have prevailed.

And it’s not at all clear whether the incoming mayor …

…. will be willing to make enough of a mark on public education for her name to appear in the future histories of education reform in Los Angeles.

But taking a clear-eyed look at the past, this much we do know:

It is not naive to think that a United Way forward is possible.

It is, in fact, required.

But it can’t be built upon naive notions of power.

It has to be built, rather, upon a deep understanding of how schools, and the political circumstances surrounding schools, really work.

That in combination with abundant conviction and courage will ultimately be what sees us through.

Indeed, CharterFolk.

As the Los Angeles experience over the past 25 years clearly shows, it’s what has always seen us through.