Education

The LA Teachers’ Union Is a Victim of Its Own ‘Success’

Los Angeles public school teachers deal with rainy weather during their strike in Gardena, Calif., January 16, 2019. (Mike Blake/REUTERS)
It won lavish benefits, helped push up the cost of living, and created the demand for charter schools.

For nearly two weeks, the United Teachers of Los Angeles strike paralyzed the second-largest public-school district in America. Some 30,000 teachers walked out on 600,000 students — to prove the depth of their commitment to the children, if you believe media accounts. When the strike ended Tuesday night, union president Alex Caputo-Pearl declared it a “historic victory.”

But that was before anyone had a chance to read the 40-page agreement. Within hours, it was clear that Caputo-Pearl got nothing.

The settlement agreement is nearly identical to LA Unified’s pre-strike offer. The 6 percent pay hike that Caputo-Pearl had dismissed as “insulting” just days before? That was in the final deal. Class sizes will be reduced at the same rate as in the pre-strike offer, and in line with the previous contract. District officials agreed to raise modestly the number of school nurses, but refused to cap the growth of the public charter schools that are an increasingly popular alternative to failing and dangerous union-controlled schools. The board may, however, consider a nonbinding resolution that will ask Governor Gavin Newsom to do something about charter schools. On this last point, the union’s claim of victory sounds like the disjunct motion of a sad flugelhorn solo.

To understand why the union failed so miserably, one must understand that UTLA is a victim of its own success — or, as your Marxists might put it, the internal contradiction inherent in government unions.

Until reformers gained control of the LA Unified school board in 2018, Caputo-Pearl and his predecessors controlled LAUSD politics. They raised cash from union dues and deployed it on behalf of willing candidates who, once in office, greenlit every pay and benefit raise proposed by union leadership. Together, they fleeced the joint. Today, the district is just steps away from insolvency.

That was the hard reality bracing up district officials — that and the fact that, two years ago, reformers gained a majority on the school board. In May, the reformers hired a decidedly different kind of superintendent, an outsider: businessman, investor, and philanthropist Austin Beutner.

The reformers, Beutner, and mathematical reality broke the strike. The union’s “victory” was a surrender.

But do not weep for the teachers, as poor as they claim to be and as reasonable as some of their grievances are. Despite Caputo-Pearl’s rhetoric, LA’s teachers are among the most highly paid in America. And when those teachers object that higher pay doesn’t mean much in the most expensive city and state in the nation, consider that their base pay could be even higher if so much of their compensation didn’t come in the form of lavish benefits, and that their union has actively worked to increase the cost of living, not just in LA, but in the state.

***

According to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the median salary of an LAUSD teacher is $75,000, but that’s just base pay. A statement by LAUSD challenged the $75,000 figure, claiming the actual salary is around $70,000. But the district acknowledged that it also paid $16,432 for each employee’s health care in 2013–14, and paid 13.92 percent of each teacher’s salary to cover pension contributions, workers comp, and Medicare. That came up to $96,176 per year.

This average total pay of nearly $100K per year is certainly higher today — even if salaries were not raised, payments for retirement benefits have grown. For their 35,000 employees, LAUSD now carries an unfunded pension liability of $6.8 billion, and their unfunded liability for “other post-employment benefits,” primarily retirement health insurance, has now reached a staggering $14.9 billion. CalSTRS, the pension system that collects and funds pension benefits for most LAUSD employees, receives funds directly from the state that, in a complete accounting, need to also count towards their total compensation. And CalSTRS, as of June 30, 2017 (the most recent published figures), was only 62 percent funded.

The reason we belabor these unfunded retirement benefits is to make it very clear: Paying an amount equivalent to 13.92 percent of each employee’s salary into the pension funds is costly — and not nearly enough to cover the benefits that have been promised. To accurately estimate how much these teachers really make, you have to add the true amount necessary to pay for these pensions and OPEB. This real total compensation average is well over $100,000 per year.

And to put LAUSD teacher compensation in even more precise context, consider how many days per year teachers work. This isn’t to dispute or disparage the long hours many teachers put in; outside of normal school hours, they prepare lesson plans, grade homework, assist individual students, and coordinate extracurricular activities. But LAUSD teachers work just 182 days per year. Someone who works a private-sector job five days a week, 48 weeks per year, works 240 days — 32 percent more. The value of all this time off is incalculable, but simply normalizing pay for a 182-day year to a 240-day year yields an average annual pay of not $100,000, but $132,000. Taking into account the true cost of pensions and retirement health-care benefits would increase this figure even more.

This is what the LAUSD teachers’ union considers inadequate. If that figure appears concocted, just become an independent contractor. Suddenly the value of employer-paid benefits becomes real, because you have to pay for them yourself.

The union should also examine the role it played, along with other public-sector unions, in raising the cost of living in California.

For example, the unions advocated both health coverage for undocumented immigrants and sanctuary-state laws. Didn’t they see the connection between 2.6 million undocumented immigrants living in California and a housing shortage or crowded classrooms? Didn’t they see the connection between this migration of largely destitute immigrants who don’t speak English and the burgeoning costs to LAUSD to provide special instruction and care to these students? Meanwhile, where was UTLA — or its parent, the powerful California Teachers Association — when laws such as CEQA, AB 32, SB 375 were passed, making housing unaffordable by restricting supply?

When you make it nearly impossible to build anything in California, from housing to energy and water infrastructure, and at the same time invite the world to move in, you create an unaffordable state. When California’s state legislature passed laws creating this catastrophe, the California Teachers Association and the UTLA were on the side of the catastrophe.

***

Charter schools, another primary grievance of the UTLA, are one of the few areas where politicians in California’s state legislature — nearly all of them Democrats now — occasionally stand up to the teachers’ unions. But charter schools are popular only because union-controlled traditional public schools are failing students.

If traditional public schools weren’t held back by union work rules, they might deliver better educational results. The disappointing 2014 case Vergara v. California provides examples. The plaintiffs sued to modify three work rules: (1) a longer period before granting teacher tenure, (2) changing layoff criteria from seniority to merit, and (3) streamlined dismissal policies for incompetent teachers. These plaintiffs argued that the existing work rules had a disproportionately negative impact on minority communities, and proved it — view the compelling closing arguments by the plaintiff’s attorney to see for yourself. But California’s state supreme court did not agree, and California’s public schools continue to suffer as a result.

But instead of embracing reforms that might reduce the demand for charter schools, the teachers’ union is trying to unionize charter schools. And instead of agreeing to benefits reform — such as contributing more to the costs for their health insurance and retirement pensions — the teachers’ union went on strike.

Financial reality will eventually compel significant financial reforms at LAUSD. But no amount of money will improve the quality of LAUSD’s K–12 education if union work rules aren’t changed. The saddest thing in this whole imbroglio is the fate of the excellent teacher, the teacher who works successfully to instruct and inspire students. Those teachers are not overpaid at all. But the system does not nurture such excellence. It was never “for the schools,” as the UTLA strike slogan had it. It was always for the adults in the schools.

Edward Ring is a policy analyst at, and Will Swaim is president of, the California Policy Center. Will is co-host with David Bahnsen of National Review’s Radio Free California podcast.

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