This is how some have described Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the second-largest teachers’ union in the country and a chapter of the powerful California Teachers Association. And Los Angeles and the state government are implicitly allowing her to influence schooling well beyond the furthest reach that any union should have, much less any one individual within a union.
Put differently, the influence that she is now leveraging within the LA Unified School District is impacting the learning outcomes of roughly 600,000 children each year. This is being done by a union boss elected by slightly more than 10 percent of the rank and file.
She was able to win the election with only 10 percent of the vote because less than 15 percent of eligible teachers even voted. Her ideas range from rejecting the overwhelming evidence that classroom closures during COVID-19 have significantly damaged children and their learning, to holding extreme views on economics, race, and culture, all of which constitute an agenda that she wishes to impose on those in her sphere. Particularly students.
“There is no such thing as learning loss,” she responds when asked how her insistence on keeping LA’s schools mostly locked down over the last year and a half may have impacted the city’s 600,000 K–12 students. “Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience. They learned survival. They learned critical-thinking skills. . . . They know the difference between a riot and a protest. They know the words insurrection and coup.”
Whether or not students know the words insurrection and coup, the facts are that child and adolescent treatment at emergency rooms for mental health crises rose 24 percent and 31 percent, respectively, shortly after COVID shutdowns began
And it is not just the most severe emotional problems that increased. Parents reported that 11 of 17 wellness indicators deteriorated after COVID.
These facts should trouble all of us. Facts are facts, yes? Well, no, not for Myart-Cruz. “She even went so far as to suggest darkly that ‘learning loss’ is a fake crisis marketed by shadowy purveyors of clinical and classroom assessments.”
It turns out that some of these “shadowy purveyors” of learning loss are public school K–12 teachers, over half of whom report significant learning losses and emotional development losses from remote learning.
The UTLA no longer specializes in negotiations for teacher compensation and working conditions. It feels that it has the right to be part of the state policy-making process, including Medicare for all, higher taxes on the highest earners, higher property taxes, financial support for undocumented families, rental and eviction relief, and racial justice. With rank-and-file union dues of over $1,100 per year, having nearly doubled since 2015, UTLA now brings in nearly $50 million in revenue, which provides plenty of ammunition to support these political causes.
But why stop here? How about international geopolitics? This summer, UTLA decided to weigh in on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, supporting Hamas, which has been declared by the United States and several countries within Europe as a terrorist organization.
Myart-Cruz was a major obstacle to Governor Gavin Newsom’s efforts last March to reopen classrooms. Newsom offered $2 billion in additional funding, some of which would have been spent on personal protection equipment and other safety measures within schools. But Myart-Cruz called this “a recipe for propagating structural racism.” LA schools were among the latest to open, and in some schools for only a short part of the day. As parents complained, citing the low incidence of COVID cases in open schools, she called their opinion “the product of their unexamined privilege,” with a particular calling out of wealthy whites and those of Middle Eastern descent, most notably Persian Jews.
Not surprisingly, some are leaving, as the district has lost almost 30,000 students. Others are fighting back, particularly those whom you wouldn’t call having “unexamined privilege” or who would “propagate structural racism.” More than 4,000 have signed the petition asking that Myart-Cruz resign immediately.
The petition alleges that she has used bullying tactics to control the district. At least one former district official agrees with this, stating that “UTLA is not a normal union. They just march to their own freaking drummer.” He declined to give his name because he is “scared” of the union.
The petition also alleges that Myart-Cruz’s insistence that she speaks for Black and Brown families is far from true, and those that disagree with her have had their social media posts removed from UTLA sites. The number of negative posts of UTLA and Myart-Cruz has led to the district conducting a study to determine the racial and ethnic backgrounds of her most vocal critics. A stumped UTLA employee sent an email to an Afghan immigrant who had been critical of UTLA, asking her a list of probing questions about her background so her racial identity could be determined. The parent’s response: “It was clear to me that Cecily Myart-Cruz made this whole thing into some sort of racial war.”
Myart-Cruz understands that many are displeased. But she also knows she is protected—for the time being—noting, “You can recall the Governor. You can recall the school board. But how are you going to recall me?” But next year, assuming there are enough signatories, voters will consider an initiative in November to ban public sector unions. And just like that, UTLA could disappear. Perhaps this time, unions have gone far enough to rile up the rank and file of California voters.