Antonio Villaraigosa, once a labor organizer in Los Angeles and beloved by his union supporters who backed him in his elections to the State Assembly and his current mayoral office, is one of a growing number of Democratic mayors who have switched positions regarding unions in education. The Los Angeles Mayor describes the teachers union as an ‘unwavering roadblock’ to the improvement of public education in the city.
The US education system is widely considered to be broken and failing and as people fully realize the implications of this for the future city mayors are becoming increasingly willing to do whatever it takes to turn around their schools, including reassessing traditional alignments. Turning his back on his old union friends is not without personal risk for Mayor Villaraigosa or his colleagues in cities like Chicago and Boston.
The mayors risk turning labor friends into enemies, a lesson D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty learned in 2010 when he lost his seat in part because teachers were enraged by his school reforms. The unions, meanwhile, risk appearing recalcitrant and self-serving, further alienating a public frustrated by failing schools and growing cool to organized labor.
The mayors are seeking reforms like merit pay and the expansion of the public charter school program, while attacking restrictions that many feel are holding back education reform; the most important of which is tenure. In LA 97% of teachers get tenure after two years and the dismissal rate is under 1%. Few believe that less than 1% of teachers perform badly enough to warrant being dismissed.
The unions, already feeling under assault from Republican strongholds pushing through reform legislation and neutering tenure wherever possible, are unhappy at what they see as the betrayal of Democrat’s supporting the reformists in their battle, but the reformers will claim that they’re not fighting against the unions per se, but are fighting for the children being failed by the current system. They claim that the new ideas are untested and merely becoming popular because they’re seen as ‘trendy’.
Mayor Frank Jackson of Cleveland, who is also a Democrat, summed up the mayors’ position:
“I don’t think Democrat or Republican, pro-union or anti-union, public school or charter school,” said Jackson, who is in his second term. “I’m going to have a conversation about educating children. When you do that, all those other things don’t matter. ”