In Partnership with The 74

At a time when our very survival depends on one another, LA teachers union should not be engaging in the politics of personal destruction

Ben Austin | March 30, 2020



Our polarized and tribal politics have suddenly come crashing into a moment where we are now only as strong as our weakest link. The coronavirus knows no party, ideology, ethnicity, or wall. And the virus certainly doesn’t distinguish between those who support differing progressive policy positions on education.

A few weeks before our entire city and state found itself sheltering on lockdown, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) launched a tone-deaf billboard campaign posting my face next to President Trump’s and accusing me of somehow wanting to “buy” our democracy.

If UTLA didn’t already know that I was a paid staffer in the Clinton White House, as well as on four Democratic presidential campaigns, two Democratic National Conventions, and multiple state and local Democratic campaigns — a casual perusal of my Twitter feed would quickly reveal my longstanding ties to the Democratic Party and my existential opposition to President Trump.

Even though the headline of their press release describes the billboard as calling out “Trump and Fellow Billionaire Privatizers,” UTLA also knows that (much to the chagrin of my wife) I am not a billionaire, and unless being a public school parent qualifies you as a “privatizer,” I’m not that either.

But adhering to the facts wasn’t UTLA’s goal. Instead, it was a bizarre attempt to smear a public school parent in a moment when attacks like this put us all at risk.

It is worth noting in the midst of an economic implosion that our taxes paid for that billboard. They finance the salary of my daughter’s teacher (who is wonderful), but before the money gets to her, the government takes part of her paycheck and gives it to UTLA. That’s how UTLA paid for that billboard.

I challenge UTLA to take down the billboard and donate the money to support the half-million low-income families suddenly grappling with the closure of “OUR public schools” in Los Angeles right now.

Read more: Feeling ‘devastated and isolated’ LA parents cope with prolonged school closures while trying to hold onto their jobs, homeschool their kids

Even as families scrambled to feed and educate their children while trying to make sense of this horrifying new normal, UTLA President Alex Caputo Pearl sent a letter to LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner last week demanding a moratorium on new public charter schools and charter co-locations.

He even clarified that “it goes without saying” that charters shouldn’t use this crisis as a reason to “take additional space” for their schools. But according to Caputo Pearl, it’s perfectly appropriate for UTLA to use this crisis as a crass excuse to advance their narrow political agenda at the expense of thousands of low-income children throughout Los Angeles.

My daughter who attends a charter school is no different from my daughter who attends our neighborhood LAUSD school. They are both public school students. More important, they are both human beings. These divisive attacks pit us against each other at the exact moment when our collective survival depends on coming together around our common humanity.

I’d like to propose a deal going forward: Let’s not say or do anything that would get us kicked off my daughter’s LAUSD elementary school playground.

That means adults who call themselves “education leaders” — especially the union representing our teachers — shouldn’t engage in false allegations, bullying, or personal attacks. If we do, we should take responsibility and apologize, just as I’d expect my 4th-grade daughter to do on the playground.

At the very least, can’t we agree that public school students, parents, and educators should be off limits when it comes to the politics of person destruction? In the midst of this unprecedented global crisis, can’t we try to see the best in each other rather than the worst?

Deal?

Here, I’ll start. I don’t know UTLA President Alex Caputo Pearl well. We’ve only met once. We disagree on many education policy issues but agree on many issues related to broader progressive change in America. I know that in addition to being a committed educator, he’s also a father, who brings that important perspective to his work. And I know him to be a longtime organizer, who believes in the transformative power of authentic organizing. We don’t support the same school board candidates. But that doesn’t define him any more than it defines me.

Was that so hard?

This should be a no-brainer even in the absence of a global pandemic because Donald Trump sets the wrong example for our children every single day from the Oval Office. We are living in a time when American democracy is actually in peril; when truth is relative and civility is in short supply. We owe it to our kids to set the example for what democracy should look like, in part by demonstrating how it’s possible for adults to strongly disagree without getting kicked off the playground.

Read more: Amid COVID-19 crisis, closed schools converted to grab & go food centers across Los Angeles are saviors to children and adults alike, ‘bring a little more normalcy’

Especially in this unique moment when our very survival depends on our ability to forge common purpose across differences, UTLA’s toxic rhetoric is a dangerous lesson plan for the children of Los Angeles.

Ben Austin is a public school parent who is also executive director of Kids Coalition, a nonprofit with the mission of translating “kids first” from a soundbite into a civil right for public school students.

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