Teachers aren't just major political players in this Tuesday's Los Angeles Unified school board election: Their profession is central in the debate over the district's future.
Long the indisputable power block represented on the school board, the teachers saw their influence eclipsed during the administration of former Superintendent John Deasy. Deasy pushed for changes to the district that alienated the school establishment, including teachers.
With Deasy's resignation under fire last October and the appointment of his successor Ramon Cortines, LAUSD saw the return of leadership more sympathetic to the district's 27,000 teachers.
Several of Deasy's initiatives opposed by teachers have been rolled back. Teacher evaluations tied to test scores are shelved, and the California Public Employees Relations Board ruled teachers must be given more say in how they are assessed.
There's been more good news for teachers of late: A hefty contract negotiated by Cortines calls for a 10 percent raise over two years, and a $1 billion-a-year health care package covering district employees adds to the evidence that things have swung back to the teachers' favor.
But come Tuesday, that could all change.
Teachers are at risk of losing their closest ally on the board: Bennett Kayser, representing District 5, covering East Los Angeles. He is up against a well-funded challenger, charter school administrator Ref Rodriguez.
Rodriguez said he supports teacher job protections, just not in their current form. His supporters go further, charging in political attack ads that teacher tenure is keeping child abusers in classrooms and painting teachers as uncaring with suspicious intentions.
Michael Jones teaches government at Marshall High School in Los Feliz and said it’s easy for candidates to say they are the ones who put student first.
“It’s a thread on a sweater,” Jones said. “When you start pulling at it — who isn’t for the kids? If you are for the kids, than you are in the classroom.”
After a day of teaching, Jones joined a fundraiser for Kayser in the backyard of a Marshall colleague, Mike Finn. Each teacher, and several of their students’ parents, donated $50 to the campaign.
“If anybody felt like chipping in more, I would really appreciate that, because we are trying to save public schools,” Finn shouted as guests milled around his deck overlooking the Silver Lake hills.
Allies and adversaries
If Kayser is teachers’ ally, Deasy was their adversary.
While leading the largest school district in the state, Deasy’s helped challenge teacher job protections in the landmark Vergara v. California lawsuit that claims students' rights are violated when teachers deemed ineffective are protected from firings. A judge's ruling in favor of the students bringing the suit is under appeal.
At a recent education reform panel at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Deasy criticized the use of seniority in staffing decisions.
"If we want to go down that road, I think it is so much easier to just line the teachers up and just fire the short ones," he said, the other panelists chuckling on stage. "Height is completely objective and as completely ridiculous as you would use anything else."
When Deasy took steps to implement changes to tenure, his relationship with his own teachers and board members grew more strained. Together with the dysfunctional rollout of the iPad program, troubles with the student data system known as MiSiS, and Deasy's sometimes abrasive manner, the support on the board for the former superintendent eventually unraveled.
Martha Atwell, an English teacher, said Deasy's actions made teachers feel they were under attack.
“This fight is endemic of what’s going on in the whole country,” she said, a reference to the spreading division between teachers and their union on one side and, on the other, self-described reformers, like Deasy, many of whom support the expansion of charter schools.
Atwell supports Kayser, because, she said, he recognizes teachers as an asset.
“He is not on the agenda to attack our benefits or to attack our tenure rights. He’s not interested in de-professionalizing teaching,” she said.
There's another battlefront in the campaign for the school board: teachers are also fighting to elect Scott Schmerelson to west San Fernando Valley's District 3. He is looking to unseat incumbent Tamar Galatzan, who was one of Deasy's chief supporters.
Reforms under siege?
Deasy worries the teachers union and their board allies are waging a war against many of the reforms he put in place during his administration.
“Are they all still working? No,” Deasy said during the Milken panel. “A number of them have been rolled back. A number of them have been ended.”
Most California voters believe teachers receive tenure too quickly, according to a poll by University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times. Voters also don’t think time in the classroom should be the sole factor in determining whether teachers keep their jobs during periods of staff cuts.
"No disrespect to Bennett Kayser, but LAUSD needs to change," said Maggie Darett-Quiroz, a Glassell Heights parent supporting Ref Rodriguez.
Darrett-Quiroz believes Los Angeles schools are putting teachers before students. “It's pretty sad,” she said.
Darett-Quiroz moved through a long list of voters with Spanish surnames during an afternoon manning a phone bank at Rodriguez's Highland Park campaign headquarters. A stack of $5 Little Caesars pizzas grew hard as they cooled by the door.
She hit a lot of voicemails before someone picks up a call and she can ask them to “votar por Dr. Ref Rodriguez.” Other recipients hang up before she can finish her first sentence.
She picks up the phone and dials again.