UTLA’s Modus Operandi: Coalition Building for Power

Alex Caputo-Pearl Arminta Co-Location Protest

Above: Alex walking with the Arminta Elementary community March 16, 2017, to protest giving critical space on campus to Celerity charter. The rally was followed by a news conference announcing a new package of legislative bills to support Community Schools and to bring accountability and transparency to privately operated, unregulated charter schools.

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It was an inspiring scene in front of Arminta Street Elementary School in the East San Fernando Valley on March 16. I was marching and chanting with Arminta Street teacher Debbie Schneider-Solis, her co-workers, and a great group of Arminta parents to protest a potential Prop. 39 co-location by Celerity charter. I was struck by the coalition assembled at this small school: educators, parents, and students; community organizations, including the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE); our wonderful candidate for LAUSD School Board, Imelda Padilla; State Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer; UTLA members from nearby schools also fighting co-location; and others.

More and more, this is UTLA’s modus operandi: coalition building for power. We use this approach from the local to the state level, for school-site fights around co-location to the building of the unprecedented new statewide coalition, the California Alliance for Community Schools, which is fighting in Sacramento around the issues of school funding and charter regulation. 

 

Coalition building at the school-site level

At the school-site level, the multiple, exciting organizing efforts across the city to push back against Prop. 39 charter co-locations, like at Arminta, have provided great examples of coalition building. At schools as far apart geographically as Hubbard Elementary, Grand View Elementary, San Fernando High School, Glassell Park Elementary, Dorsey High School, Liberty Elementary, and Palms Elementary, we have seen our members and parents forge coalitions with immigrant rights groups, youth organizing groups, civil rights organizations, clergy, neighborhood councils, business associations, service providers, elected officials, and more.

These broad coalitions have formed around a very simple concept: Our neighborhood schools should be able to keep their public space for purposes that build and enrich the school and our students’ education. Our neighborhood schools should not face the threat of losing their dance studio, space for the school psychologist to meet with students, or parent center. Our neighborhood schools should not face the threat of losing these crucial educational spaces to charter schools that are not held to the same standards of public accountability as district schools. Our schools should especially not lose these educational spaces to charter organizations like Celerity that have abused public money and broken the public trust—why, under these circumstances, should this organization be given public space?

The coalitions that are strengthening every day around Prop. 39 push-backs are inspiring.

 

Coalition building at the city level: From the School Board races to May 1

Our UTLA-endorsed candidates for School Board, Imelda Padilla and Steve Zimmer, are natural coalition builders.

Imelda’s mother’s house in Sun Valley, the house that Imelda grew up in, is her campaign headquarters, filled with organizing charts, maps, campaign materials, banks for phones, and incredible home cooking. That house is home base for coalitions, with students, parents, educators, representatives from community organizations, elected officials, members of neighborhood councils and the local Democratic Club, and others all coming in to do campaign work. It is amazing.

Precinct-walking with Steve Zimmer is a similar window into the power of coalitions. As Steve and I knocked on doors in Hollywood, we ran into families that knew him from his efforts to build up a community center in Elysian Valley. When Steve and I returned to the union hall, we met with members of a huge array of unions, in education and beyond, along with youth leaders and parents who were completing their hours of precinct-walking. Joining the crowd were U.S. Congressmember Maxine Waters and other elected officials who support Steve for his record of effective pro-public education advocacy.

Imelda and Steve are natural coalition builders. That is part of the reason they both had powerful showings in the primary elections in March, heading into the May 16 runoffs. And, it is part of the reason we need them on the School Board, to use those coalition-building talents in building the broad movement for educational justice. We need them as the core of the School Board that will vote on our health benefits and our contract. It is urgent we all get involved for these May 16 general elections.

There is another crucial citywide coalition that UTLA is working with: the group building the May 1 action for immigrant rights and worker rights and in protest of the Trump agenda. This coalition includes a wide variety of organizations: the L.A. County Federation of Labor, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in LA, UCLA Labor Center, Black Workers Center, Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, LAANE, and more, including a large number of unions. This mass mobilization strikes at the heart of not only our students’ rights, but also the efforts to preserve collective bargaining and public education amidst Trump’s federal anti-union attacks and funding of unregulated charter growth and vouchers.

UTLA and community organizations are calling for the district to close on May 1, in the interest of student safety and students being with their families and communities on this important day.

 

Coalition building across the state

This week marks the launch of an unprecedented statewide coalition—the California Alliance for Community Schools — that has been two years in the making. Right now it includes the teachers’ union locals in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, San Bernardino, Richmond, and San Jose, with community organizations in each of these cities increasingly engaged and more teacher unions coming to the table soon.

The coalition is fighting for more school funding, regulation and accountability for charter schools, and the promotion of a Community School model that includes lower class sizes, support for high-needs students, safe and nurturing environments, and local school decision-making. To achieve these goals, there is a recognition that each union must work with community allies to win demands at the local level, while also combining our efforts to fundamentally shift state-level policies. To this end, we will support each other’s local bargaining— San Diego, Oakland, San Francisco, San Bernardino, and L.A. have contracts expiring in June 2017— while also coordinating actions to put pressure on state-level decision-makers. We have agreed to build a series of escalating actions that culminate in a February 2018 compression point around our issues, at exactly the time of heightened interest in the races for governor and state superintendent of public instruction.

The California Alliance for Community Schools has the potential to shift the landscape in the state. Step one is engaging tens of thousands of educators around the state with the priorities of the Alliance through petition gathering. Make sure you sign the petition.

A key component to the state-level work is our legislative package. Assembly Bill 842 (Mike Gipson) funds a proactive, visionary community school model that paves the way to new investments in our traditional public schools. Assembly Bill 1478 (Reggie Jones-Sawyer) puts common-sense transparency and accountability measures on charter schools. Assembly Bill 1360 (Rob Bonta) establishes due process for charter school students, with regard to suspensions, expulsions, equity, and access. Senate Bill 808 (Tony Mendoza) establishes local control for charter authorization, putting the authorization process into the hands of democratically elected local school boards.

These are incredibly exciting times for us as we engage in all the necessary fights and pursue the most effective strategies to do so. In thinking of all the powerful partnerships we have built, I remember a conversation I had in the Crenshaw High School library in 2009, in those times of educator layoffs and severe economic downturn. With my co-workers, including Francis Quijada and Lesley Lespinasse, we talked about the need for sustained connections with the community around the city and the need for a statewide coalition— that nothing less would be able to make the changes we knew our students needed. Eight years later, we have built these coalitions, and the potential is enormous. Let’s keep moving forward!