President of United Teachers Los Angeles
“The Struggle is Real… Fists Up!”
—imprint on the Cecily Myart-Cruz email.
It’s 2020 and Cecily Myart-Cruz makes history as the first Afro-Latina elected to helm United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the high powered labor union representing the second largest school district in the United States.
Flash forward almost four years later, and she has been re-elected to a second term. In the interim, she has weathered a litany of job-related scandal and dispute, attacks directed at her personally and professionally, and by her account, some 20,000 threats involving death and physical harm to her and her family via email, telephone, and all the technological accouterments of millennial communication.
For Cecily Myart-Cruz, controversy is part and parcel of the curriculum. It was perhaps per-ordained that she assumed her position under fire, just on the upswing of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the progression of her career, she was prepped for the rigors the presidency of UTLA by her existence as both a minority and female, since by virtue of this twisted duality, people (in her experience) are much more likely to talk over you and not take you seriously in anything aside from the most trivial discussions or pursuits.
In a sense her pedigree seems tailor-made for her tenure as the first woman of color. To be more specific, Cecily Myart-Cruz is a woman of color--more specifically of Black and Mexican heritage--who came up in Arlington Heights (near 7th Avenue and Washington) a racially mixed environment to which she attributes her present view of education-and life as a whole.
Fortified by a local education courtesy of Brentwood’s Mount Saint Mary’s University, her formative teaching experiences in front of the blackboard were seasoned by alternatively serving student bodies of the materially well-endowed West Side, and the significantly academically (and financially) challenged offspring of South Los Angeles.
Myart-Cruz’s professional experience has been exclusively in the classrooms at the elementary and middle school levels, as she has pointedly avoided the ascent into the administrative realm of principal and above. She believes those in the rarefied strata of administration lose sight of what’s really going on at the classroom level, and in essence might be too far removed from “the trenches” to accurately determine the progress (or lack there of) the educational approach.
“...at the end of the day, you have to ensure that students are ready to move on to the next stage of life, be it higher education or vocational training,” she believes.
That said, she endeavors to enable her charges in making their own decisions and give them agency to decide which individual path is best for them.
“There is hope in the vibrant youth leaders being born before our eyes, who are feeling their power and who are not submitting to the world they’ve been handed,” she continues.
“They are the students we teach, and they are leading the way.”
Controversy as part of the curriculum
“There can be no love without justice. Until we live in a culture that not only respects but also upholds basic civil rights for children, most children will not know love.”
—Cecily Myart-Cruz using a quote by feminist author and social critic Bell Hooks
As her public profile increased, she became an object of derision from the conservative far-right sector, as pundits such as Tucker Carlson have categorized her as a (in her words) “loud Black woman.” In due course, she (and the union) have been described as anti-Semitic, racist, and more interested in headlines rather than the needs of the children within the system. She, in turn, has perhaps fanned the flames of discord by her willingness to be outspoken, and even provocative in her iterations with the media.
Starting off with the decision to keep the schools closed for over a year and a half as a medical precaution to the COVID-19 outbreak (Gov. Gavin Newsom actually gave the order to close them), she has courted contention by advocating for the removal of law enforcement with LAUSD facilities (“Defund the Police”), and financial assistance for undocumented students, while enduring allegations of involvement in international politics (support of anti-Zionist involvement in the Middle East), along with alliances with extreme Leftist movements (she has denied membership in these organizations).
Given its complement of 33,000 teachers supervising some 600,000 students, Los Angeles’ educational system is complicated even in the best of times. Compounding this, in Myart-Cruz’ view, is the trend towards privatization in local education, an issue that has manifested itself throughout the entire bureaucracy at local, state, and federal levels. Coupled with this is the ever present problem of teacher burnout, a malady also tied to the overall economy. Always the dollars-warnings of impending financial doom.
As is with Los Angeles County in general, the district serves as a microcosm of the country as a whole-and indeed the globe. A half-century away from World War II and the following Cold War economic boom that encouraged its monetary growth, finances, and the perceived lack of it dictate decision making from top to bottom. Horror stories abound around school teachers being forced to dip into their own personal finances to augment the supplies at hand, as Myart-Cruz notes.
“Teachers are asked to do more with less resources and told to just make it work.”
To make matters worse, many of them are unable to make ends meet and live in the neighborhoods of the schools where they are employed, and are forced to commute from far off environs in the Antelope Valley and elsewhere. This is true of municipal employees outside the school district as well.
“Firefighters, (and) police officers while (also serving as) city employees don’t have to have specialized credentials to do their job, and they are paid more,” she points out.
“UTLA has been on the front lines of speaking about the privatization of public education. When we outsource, we are essentially saying that public education is not important.”
Conversely, rumors have circulated about generous pension plans, which might make the union bankrupt in the near future. In spite of these doom and gloom predictions, UTLA recently (under the guidance of Myart-Cruz) secured a 21% wage increase, which may explain her reelection victory with the endorsement of three of every four votes cast, and dismissing her opposition’s claim of dwindling finances.
“The district is sitting on $5.2 billion in reserves. The district has enough money to pay its employees and cover health care. The district is always going to say that they are facing a financial cliff and what we have seen is that they have grown their reserves every year and that financial cliff hasn’t been there.”
This, in turn, gives her the inception to stay the course for her mandate of pouring more revenue into the system, lowering class sizes and creating a safer and more supportive learning environment. To reach her goal of “...healing, health and racially just schools our students and communities deserve,” she points to the blueprint followed by other cities, specifically our neighbors to the south.
“The employer’s job is to invest in its workforce, our students and in our schools. SDUSD (San Diego Unified School District) pays its employees 9 percent more a year than LAUSD. I believe it’s because they (San Diego) want to attract and retain educators.