Los Angeles Herald Examiner (March 3, 1989)

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner (March 3, 1989)

Title – “The caner in the ranks of L.A. teachers” “Petition attacking bilingual education reflects growing nativism”

It’s easy to support the higher-wage demands of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. I know too many dedicated classroom teachers who deserve better pay and more professional esteem. But UTLA President Wayne Johnson’s apparent decision to allow teachers belonging to Learning English Advocates Drive to circulate a petition attacking bilingual education raises serious questions about his and the union’s leadership.

LEAD is financed by the ultraconservative U.S. English and English First movements, both of which are known for their anti-foreign-born and Third World biases. Linda Chavez, a prominent Latina Republican and Reagan appointee, recently disassociated herself from the racism of the English-only leadership.

The petition also singles out a program that has been part of the Latino education agenda since the beginning of the occupation of the Southwest. It is as fundamental to Mexican-Americans as integration is to blacks.

The LEAD proposal calls on union members to reject a contract provision already agreed to by the Los Angeles Unified School District: to pay stipends of up to $5,000 a year to 4,000 bilingual teachers. Since only 20 percent of the stipend comes out of district general funds, it has little impact on other teachers’ salaries. Thus, the aim of the petitioners seems to be to buy bilingual education by compelling the teachers in the program to leave. According to Johnson, the proposal stands “a very good chance” of passage.

Why would Johnson risk a union vote that could potentially divide his rank and file? It is almost impossible for him not to have known of and approved the petition’s circulation. Union rules and regulations give him the power to stop it.

The truth is that Johnson has a history of supporting anti-Latino agendas. For example, two years ago, he encouraged passage of a LEAD proposal to shift UTLA’s support of bilingual education to advocacy of the English immersion (“sink or swim”) method.

Latino teachers shouldn’t buy Johnson’s excuse that he is barred from taking sides because UTLA is a democratic union.

“Why, then, did Johnson last summer violate the constitution and policy of UTLA by censoring a Chicano/Latino Education Committee article on bilingual education?” asks Mark Meza-Overstreet, a member of the Chicano/Latino Education Committee. “Johnson went out of his way to insult UTLA’s standing committee on Latino education by using non-union bilingual teachers as consultants in his current contract negotiations with the board.”

So much for union solidarity.

There is little doubt that up to 70 percent of the union teachers will vote for the LEAD proposal. Some will vote that way because they feel every bit as worthy as those who speak a foreign language. But the crux of the matter is a rapidly spreading nativist mindset, inflamed by the changing demographics of the school system, among L.A. teachers.

Twenty years ago, Latinos comprised 20 percent of the district’s student population. Today, they constitute nearly 60 percent. Teachers are not immune to the fears and frustrations those shifting numbers have bred in society as a whole, in which the media and elected officials encourage an anti-foreign-born bias.

Interestingly, LEAD was born in Sun Valley, a community mirroring the changes and frustrations in the L.A. school district. There, residents and teachers, most of whom occupy leadership positions in LEAD, blame the Latino influx for a host of problems.

Union chief Johnson knows his teachers and sympathizes with their discontent. For him, there is no percentage in championing the rights of the student majority or the interests of Latino teachers who make up roughly 10 percent of UTLA’s 22,000 members. It is the not-too-silent majority who can re-elect him or send him back to the classroom.

Johnson is fond of saying that “the real needs of children and teachers are indivisible.” Apparently, that’s not the case in bilingual education. Ironically, most Latino teachers will not benefit form the bilingual stipend, since the majority are Anglo. They demand that UTLA support bilingual education and that it take a stand against the spreading cancer of nativism in teacher ranks. The Latino teachers want programs that give Latino students the skills they will need to achieve what UTLA members want for themselves – esteem and good-paying jobs.

Yes, I am for teachers getting paid a fair wage, but they ought to be appalled at the growth of nativism in their union. Until now, the Chicano/Latino Education Committee has carried the burden of the day-to-day struggle within UTLA. It’s now time that teachers and progressives of all colors join to support this standing committee in combating a disease that could lead to ugly confrontations. The LEAD referendum is a symptom of a much greater problem, and we better all be concerned.