The 40,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles is not known as a leader in education reform. In fact, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former teachers union employee, characterized UTLA leaders as standing as, “one unwavering roadblock to reform.” But reform is brewing within the UTLA.
NewTLA, a progressive caucus within UTLA, currently holds 90 of the 350 elected leadership seats in UTLA’s official governing body. With over 25% of the seats, NewTLA holds considerable power to shift UTLA policy towards NewTLA’s priorities which include: comprehensive teacher evaluation, meaningful professional development, and quality-based criteria for determining layoffs and dismissals. Earlier this year during a hotly contested runoff election for union president, NewTLA endorsed underdog and self-described change agent Warren Fletcher over UTLA vice-president and front-runner Julie Washington. Fletcher won the election, cementing NewTLA’s reputation as a player in UTLA politics.
Many believe that teachers unions, designed to safeguard jobs and pay, will not play a role in reform or will only engage in the face of significant outside pressure. NewTLA, however, demonstrates that being reform-minded and union may not be mutually exclusive. According to Jordan Henry, cofounder of NewTLA, many members of NewTLA are experienced teachers with strong union ties. Henry believes that, “the fact that many [active union members] have chosen to throw down with NewTLA as a political caucus now gives [NewTLA] a lot of credibility within the union.”
Henry, a Teach For America alum, is profiled in the current issue of the Teach For America alumni magazine. In an article conspicuously titled “A More Perfect Union”, Henry describes the role of unions: “Unions should be protectors of not just employees but the institutions in which they work. A teachers union needs to protect public education as well.”
Teach For America’s choice to profile Jordan Henry is not surprising. In the wake of the NEA vote accusing TFA of placing corps members in districts with no teacher shortages, TFA wrote to corps members and alumni that the vote was “a signal that we must strive harder to build positive relationships and partner with our valued colleagues in the teaching profession.” Of course, the article also makes a subtler point: As more TFA alums stay in the classroom and become active members in local unions, NewTLA may be a sign of what’s to come.