Is Antonio the Teachers Unions' Worst Nightmare?

California's teachers unions, powerful as they are, wake up Wednesday morning with a political headache.

Its name is Antonio Villaraigosa.

By all rights, Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, should be an ally of teachers' unions. He worked both for the Los Angeles teachers' union and for the statewide California Teachers Assn. The support of teachers' unions was crucial to his winning the post of Speaker of the Assembly a decade ago. And teachers' unions encouraged his run for mayor of LA.

But there on Tuesday was Villaraigosa fingering teachers' unions as obstacles to education reform during a speech at a Sacramento conference. He criticized Prop 98, the union-drafted education funding guarantee, as opaque and unworkable, and he criticized the holy grails of tenure and seniority rights that unions fight to protect. Villaraigosa was especially tough on the Los Angeles union, UTLA (United Teachers Los Angeles), which has fought his efforts to gain more control over the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Put simply, it was the most important speech given by a California politician this year. Villarigosa is the most prominent Latino Democrat in a Democratic state in which Latinos are the largest ethnic group. And by calling out the unions, Villaraigosa is making a big political bet that, in the near future, it's going to be more important to be seen as a champion of parents sending their children to California schools than it is to be seen as a friend to the unions that represent schoolteachers. If the mayor is right, such a change would be a political earthquake, given the unions' dominant political position, particularly in the Democratic party.

Here's an excerpt:

"Why, for so long, have we allowed denial and indifference to defeat action?  I do not raise this question lightly, and I do not come to my conclusion from a lack of experience.  I was a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Association, and I was a union organizer for United Teachers of Los Angeles.  From the time I entered the California State Assembly and became Speaker, to my tenure as Mayor of Los Angeles, I have fought to fund and reform California’s public schools.
"Over the past five years, while partnering with students, parents and non-profits, business groups, higher education, charter organizations, school district leadership, elected board members and teachers, there has been one, unwavering roadblock to reform: UTLA union leadership.
"While not the biggest problem facing our schools, they have consistently been the most powerful defenders of the status quo.  I do not say this because of any animus towards unions.  I deeply believe that teachers’ unions can and must be part of our efforts to transform our schools.  Regrettably, they have yet to join us as we have forged ahead with a reform agenda.
"By partnering with the Los Angeles School Board, we created the Public School Choice program that is now allowing non-profits, charters, teacher groups — anyone with a proven track record of success — to compete to run new or failing schools.  By 2012, over 50 low-performing schools will be under new leadership, with a new chance for success.
"UTLA leadership fought against this reform...."

"Now let me pause to underscore the point once again that I come from an organizing background.  I vociferously believe in the fundamental right for a worker to organize, to have a voice and a seat at the bargaining table.  But union leaders need to take notice that it is their friends, the very people who have supported them and the people whom they have supported, who are carrying the torch of education reform and crying out for the unions to join them.
"It is no longer acceptable for those who care about our children and our teachers to remain the loudest opponent and the largest obstacle to creating quality schools where teachers are supported, honored, and paid what they are worth, and where students are engaged and test scores are rising."

It will be interesting to see how the unions respond. They will be sorely tempted to criticize Villaraigosa. But they would be wiser to take his advice and embrace reform.

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