LA Times “special investigation” on teachers covers up assault on public education


Under the cover of a “special investigation” into incompetence and wrongdoing in the classroom, the Los Angeles Times has launched a vicious attack on schoolteachers in the Los Angeles public education system. 

Starting on May 3, the newspaper began publishing a series provocatively entitled “Failure gets a pass.” Over the course of four articles, journalist Jason Song documents several horror stories about allegedly corrupt teachers who were reprimanded for misconduct by school administrators. Because they had tenure, however, the teachers were subjected to lengthy and expensive bureaucratic procedures that ultimately did not end in their termination. 

Teachers in Los Angeles, and throughout California, are confronting a brutal assault on their jobs, living standards and working conditions as the result of multibillion-dollar budget cuts pushed through by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic Party-controlled state legislature. 

The decision of the LA Times to publish the series in this context reveals that the newspaper is making a concerted effort to turn public opinion against teachers, to pit newly  hired educators against classroom veterans, and to divert blame for the crisis in the public education system away from the political establishment. 

Song’s articles highlight the sordid details of a number of cases in which teachers have been accused of serious wrongdoing, including things like sexual harassment and gross indifference to students’ needs. Essentially assuming that these individuals are guilty, Song denigrates their right to defend themselves as “laborious and labyrinthine, in some cases involving years of investigation, union grievances, administrative appeals, court challenges and re-hearings.” Song then utilizes the trick of “guilt by association” to imply that all tenured teachers caught up in this process are guilty, sucking money out of the public education system, and ought to be fired.

According to Song’s May 6, 2009, article entitled “L.A. Unified pays teachers not to teach,” around 160 teachers have been paid their full salaries while their job performance is under review by the school district. The teachers are asked by the district to carry on their normal routines at home and wait for a phone call from the district. In total, the so-called “housed” teachers reportedly collect around $10 million a year. 

The aim of reporting this sum is to provide the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school board with the fodder they need to demand that the grievance process that be stripped down or eliminated entirely in the name of “saving jobs.” 

Read by the uninformed, the “Failure gets a pass” series” would leave the impression that the LAUSD is littered with pederasts, criminals, and an assorted medley of social deviants. This filthy line of reasoning has the specific political aim of scapegoating teachers for the crisis in public education. It is part of a reactionary effort to divide teachers among tenured and non-tenured, young and old, and to pit students, faculty and parents against each other. 

Song exploits the widespread sentiment in the population at large that school districts all across California are in a truly wretched state, but offers no insight into how this situation developed. In particular, he fails to mention that California ranks 49th in the US in terms of per-pupil spending, and that when the more recent cuts to education are taken into account, California would be dead last. 

Where was the LA Times when tens of thousands of teachers were sent pink slips last March, an occasion that truly warranted a special investigation? 

The significance of this was not unnoticed by a teacher at a May 9 meeting of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), who asked the audience, “Why hasn’t the LA Times done a special investigation on the budget cuts to education? Who’s responsible for these cuts and layoffs?”

A fish stinks from the head down. Even assuming the proposition that there are indeed some teachers who abuse their tenure or worse, when public education is starved of state funds, when there aren’t enough school supplies, when educators have to play the role of counselors and nurses for needy students because these positions have been eliminated by budget cuts, when teachers are forced to confront serious social problems in the classroom every day, is it any wonder that this environment would breed a callous and unhealthy response among a small section of teachers toward their schools and students? 

This is not to excuse the actions of what may undoubtedly be some malevolent and harmful individuals, but the conditions that breed such behavior have to be understood. Furthermore, tenure and the other procedures that Song attacks are essential to defending teachers’ job security and protecting them from witch-hunts. 

Tenure can protect a teacher’s right to exercise his or her academic freedom on campus. This was evidenced recently in the case of University of California Santa Barbara Prof. William Robinson, who has come under fire for correctly comparing the victims of the Israeli assault on Gaza to the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto.

As budget cuts create worsening conditions in the schools, teachers will be coming into direct conflict with their districts over this issue. Tenure and other job security procedures offer teachers a modicum of protection when they fight on behalf of their students.

Joseph Straub, a special education teacher who has taught for California State University, Northridge, Cal State L.A., and Loyola Maramount, wrote “The myth of lazy veteran teachers” on dailynews.com and explained, “Many, many times I have had to slug it out with an administrator or other district official (or, to be fair, a parent, or teacher, or bureaucrat, etc.) who just didn’t want to go through the time and expense to serve the student in accordance with the law. Now, how could I protect my students if the very people I had to stand up to had complete control over my livelihood? Only tenure allowed me to say and do what was necessary to ensure my students got what they needed and deserved.”

In another comment posted in response to the LA Times series, one teacher wrote, “Remember folks, tens of thousands of experienced teachers fight every day for more resources, supplies, materials for your sons and daughters. And we literally get in shouting matches with administration over taking care of students. That will come to an end (and that’s what administration wants) if tenure is eliminated.”

It is not accidental that this attack on tenure, which historically defends a teacher’s right to speak his or her mind against an administrator and not be fired, is coming in the midst of one of the worst budget crises in the history of the public school system. 

Furthermore, it should be noted that the LA Times began publication of the series the day following an announcement by the UTLA that there would be one-day “work stoppage” on May 15 to protest teacher layoffs. Although the one-day strike was called off, the timing of the series further demonstrates that the LA Times is propagating a media conspiracy against California’s teachers. 

A recent May 13 article entitled “School board members acknowledge swifter firings are needed” provides an indication as to where the Los Angeles Times’ rotten campaign is headed. The article cites the example of LA Unified School Board member Marlene Canter, who introduced a motion to her colleagues to pressure state legislators to revise laws dismissing teachers. Since publication of the series by Song, Canter and four more members of the seven-member board have gone on to support legislation that would accelerate the process of firing tenured teachers.