Cecily Myart-Cruz rarely sits for interviews. When she wants to communicate with the media, which is infrequently, she usually does so through a press release or, if the situation demands, a prerecorded video. For the most part, the famously contentious head of L.A.’s most powerful union—United Teachers Los Angeles—remains unapproachable, ensconced inside UTLA’s Wilshire Center headquarters where she controls the levers and dials of the largest, most complicated, and, these days, most divisive educational labor machine in the state—possibly the nation.
Today, however, on a sunny May afternoon, Myart-Cruz is allowing a reporter inside her inner sanctum—or at least inside a glass-paneled conference room down the hall from her eleventh-floor office. And right away, she lives up to her reputation: after settling into in a swivel chair and slowly removing her zebra-print face mask, the 47-year-old lightning rod for controversy calmly sets her hands on the table and begins issuing a series of incendiary statements that almost seem aerodynamically designed to grab headlines and infuriate critics. Like this one: “There is no such thing as learning loss,” she responds when asked how her insistence on keeping L.A.’s schools mostly locked down over the last year and a half may have impacted the city’s 600,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade 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.” 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.
Traditionally, the job of UTLA is to represent the best interests of the L.A. school system’s 33,000 teachers—to ensure that they are paid properly, that they have the resources to do their jobs, and that their work conditions are safe. But under Myart-Cruz’s stewardship, which began when she assumed office in the summer of 2020, that purview has been expanded to include a breathtaking range of far-flung progressive issues: racial justice, Medicare for all, the millionaire tax, financial support for undocumented families, rental and eviction relief—over the last 15 months, UTLA has championed them all. Many of these may be laudable aims, or at least worth debating, but they aren’t the sort of agendas normally pursued by your neighborhood teachers’ union. In what universe, after all, does UTLA’s recent boycott of Israel over the conflict with Hamas benefit the teachers—or students—of Los Angeles?
Other controversial non-COVID initiatives pushed by Cruz and the union involve calling for the elimination of the LAUSD school police and revamping curriculum in ways deemed more “culturally relevant,” which include getting a bigger commitment from the district to fund ethnic studies.
But by far the most controversial element of Myart-Cruz’s leadership has been her epic battle with Governor Gavin Newsom and others over when and how to reopen L.A.’s schools as the pandemic alternately rages and recedes. In early March, when Newsom tried to coax teachers back into classrooms by dangling $2 billion worth of incentives for schools that reopened before April 1, Myart-Cruz dismissed his proposal as a boondoggle for wealthy neighborhoods and “a recipe for propagating structural racism.” As much of the rest of the state started bringing teachers and students back to campus full time, Myart-Cruz dug in, waiting until late April to only partly reopen for hybrid, part-time learning. When parents complained, pointing to the low incidence of COVID cases in schools that had fully reopened, Myart-Cruz dismissed their concerns as the product of their unexamined privilege.
What was particularly alarming to parents in the lead-up to the school year was the prospect that L.A.’s schools might continue with hybrid learning into the fall. Nothing she said during our interview would have done much much to allay those concerns. “We will be going back to the table for that conversation,” she said about the prospects for fully reopening in the fall. The end game, she insists, “is getting back into schools as safe as possible,” but she is bracingly honest about that not being her only goal. “Are there broader issues at play? Yes, there are,” she says. “Education is political. People don’t want to say that, but it is.”
She doesn’t look much like a firebrand. Short and stout, with sparkling brown eyes, brightly painted pink lips, and copper-red, shoulder-length hair, she’s a Central Casting version of a kindly, cuddly school teacher. But when she opens her mouth to speak, her inflection could send a chill down the spine of the rowdiest middle-schooler. No matter what she’s asked about, her answers tend to sound like a stern reprimand. When the word radical slips into conversation, for instance, she smacks it down as if with a wooden ruler. “It is not radical to ask for ethnic studies,” she says. “It is not radical to ask for childcare. It’s not radical to ask for police-free schools so that students don’t feel criminalized. That is not radical; that’s just fact.”
Certainly, her backstory isn’t particularly radical. Cecily Alejandra Myart grew up in Arlington Heights—her dad was a workmen’s compensation analyst; her mom, a legal secretary—and attended the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a fiercely competitive magnet high school. Early on, however, there were signs of rebelliousness. When her high school teachers walked out during the salary strike of 1989, Myart-Cruz ditched her classes, jumped the campus fence, and joined the protesters.
After high school, she attended Mount Saint Mary’s, a Catholic women’s college in Brentwood, working multiple jobs between classes while also helping her mother through breast-cancer treatment. She graduated in 1995, earned her teaching certificate at Pepperdine, and began her career at an elementary school in Compton. Then, after several years, she ended up at Emerson Middle School in Westwood, where she taught English to gifted sixth-graders for about a decade.
“Kids complained about her because she was strict,” remembers Garry Joseph, who taught in the classroom next door to Myart-Cruz’s. “But at the end of the year, they adored her.”
Myart-Cruz’s time at Emerson, with its mix of wealthy and less-affluent students, was also something of an education. At the end of the school day, teachers would watch half the student body file out one exit to be picked up by parents in expensive SUVs, while the other half departed from a different exit where yellow buses waited. “It was the kind of thing we didn’t talk about,” says Joseph. Around that time, Myart-Cruz married Saul Cruz, a mechanic. They had a son, Giovanni, now ten, and divorced after 16 years. (She asked that we not identify her son’s school to protect his safety.) Her current companion is VanCedric Williams, an elected member of the Oakland Unified School Board who was previously the treasurer of United Educators of San Francisco.
Myart-Cruz’s political education continued after she left Emerson in 2012 and joined Angeles Mesa Elementary in Crenshaw, a school thought to be difficult to staff, with high faculty turnover and low student scores. “At Emerson, we could take kids to Yosemite because of parent donations,” Myart-Cruz recalls, “but at Mesa, the parents couldn’t afford to take kids to the Aquarium of the Pacific.” She didn’t stay at Mesa for long.
Myart-Cruz had become acquainted with an amiable left-wing union activist named Alex Caputo-Pearl, who persuaded her to join his insurgent UTLA splinter group, Union Power, an alliance of progressive teachers and administrators opposed to charter schools and other reforms launched in the crucible of the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed. Those were years of financial hardship in which many young teachers were furloughed. Caputo-Pearl and Myart-Cruz had been union activists in the same geographical area of UTLA for many years. When she was teaching at Emerson, he was at Crenshaw High School. He served under her when he was a member of the board of directors and she was the West Area regional chair. Together they helped organize a yearlong boycott against standardized testing, arguing that too many standardized tests take away from students’ learning time.
The rise of Union Power marked a notable leftward shift in the L.A. teachers’ union, and Caputo-Pearl vowed to clean house from top to bottom, dispatching the incumbent leaders and what he regarded as their too-narrow focus on satisfying members’ demands for more money, better benefits, and resolving grievances. Caputo-Pearl campaigned on promises to hire lobbyists, organizers, and researchers, and create a parent-community division to link their own demands to the social issues of the day in a way that would bring massive grassroots pressure to bear on Los Angeles Unified School District. “We didn’t want to be just a narrowly focused trade union,” Caputo-Pearl explains. “We wanted to fight for the rights and the working conditions of our members and do that effectively and with power, but also to put that within a broader agenda of fighting for educational justice, social justice, and racial justice.”
In 2014, when Caputo-Pearl launched a successful bid to become UTLA’s new president, he persuaded Myart-Cruz to quit teaching and join his leadership team as one of his vice presidents and key advisers. For the next six years, she would chair a variety of high-profile committees, like the NEA Black Caucus, and signed on as an early member of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. She also became one of Caputo-Pearl’s most important generals in the teachers’ strike of 2019, the biggest since the 1989 walkout. “Cecily has been critical to building up the union’s capacity to strike over working and learning conditions and racial justice issues, if and when we need to,” Caputo-Pearl says. The goal, he adds, is a union that “uses its power to improve schools and, frankly, to change the world.”
With Caputo-Pearl warning of “greater and more dangerous” challenges ahead, ULTA’s full-time teachers had approved an annual dues increase of 33 percent in 2016, from $689 a year to $917.
The strike lasted only six days, and its goals weren’t by any stretch revolutionary; teachers asked only for better pay and smaller classes. But Myart-Cruz jumped into the fray as if manning the ramparts in Les Misérables, exhorting the troops with thundering speeches about racial justice and the evils of standardized testing, and becoming a favorite of the socialist wing of the union. In the end, the teachers got most of what they wanted—a marginal pay raise and an even more marginal reduction in class size—though at some cost, with the school district losing more than $100 million in state funding, which is based on attendance.
By February 2020, when Caputo-Pearl hit his six-year term limit as UTLA president, Myart-Cruz was positioned to take a run at the post herself. “She’s a powerhouse leader and people deserve to know who she is,” Caputo-Pearl says of the woman who succeeded him as president. “She’s a visionary when it comes to broader racial and social justice issues like divestment from school police and ethnic studies and culturally relevant curriculum. She’s a very important figure in L.A. and around the country.” (Caputo-Pearl essentially switched posts with Myart-Cruz; the Jewish-Italian ex-president of UTLA is presently the UTLA/NEA vice president, the office previously held by Myart-Cruz.)
Theoretically, all 33,000 teachers in the union are allowed to vote for their president. In practice, though, turnout is minuscule. In the election of 2020, only 5,300 members cast ballots, or about 16 percent of the union. Myart-Cruz got 69 percent of that 16 percent, thanks in no small part to her fiery rhetoric. “The fight for racial justice is awakening a broader segment of the public to the reality of systemic racism,” she said in a speech after her election, during the height of the George Floyd protests. “Reopening schools without…a broader improvement of schools will be unsafe and will only deepen…racial and class inequalities.” The runner-up in the election, a teacher named Marisa Crabtree, advocated that the union step back from politics and focus more on solving classroom problems. She garnered 11 percent, or about 500 votes.
Still, by elevating, for the first time, a female person of color to president (Myart-Cruz’s father was Black and her mother is Mexican), the election was a groundbreaking moment for UTLA. Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Just 13 days after the election, Newsom signed an executive order permitting California’s school districts to initiate school closures as the pandemic surged. Three days later, LAUSD announced that it would shut down its campuses. Suddenly, Myart-Cruz found herself president of the teachers’ union during the worst educational disaster in Los Angeles history.
A few days after our interview in Myart-Cruz’s conference room, on May 23, UTLA’s headquarters was besieged by protesters. Nearly 100 parents gathered outside the union’s office tower at Wilshire Boulevard and Berendo Street waving signs (“Cecily Myart-Cruz Doesn’t Care about Our Kids”) and chanting slogans (“We demand a seat at the table!”). Some called for Myart-Cruz’s resignation; others, for the dismantling of UTLA altogether. Still others simply asked that their voices be heard. All of them were angry and upset.
Flyers for the event started circulating a week before the rally, and during our interview, Myart-Cruz examined one of them. It was a parody of the sci-fi thriller Total Recall, with Myart-Cruz’s head photoshopped on top of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body, with smaller images of other players swirling around her—Newsom, L.A. superintendent of schools Austin Beutner, the seven members of the L.A. Board of Education. Myart-Cruz gave the flyer a brief, rueful glance, then smiled. “I love that my picture is the biggest one,” she said. “But here’s the trouble: You can recall the Governor. You can recall the school board. But how are you going to recall me?”
Technically, it is possible to impeach a UTLA president for gross malfeasance, but it has never happened. But it’s precisely that imperious attitude that infuriates so many parents. A growing faction of them have banded together to form groups like Concerned Parents Los Angeles and California Students United—the latter claims to have 1,000 members—to push back against Myart-Cruz. Some parents have gone so far as to file lawsuits, claiming that the teachers’ union has been disregarding science and slow-rolling school reopenings. “Rather than allow its members to return to class and resume teaching,” one suit alleges, “UTLA and its president Cecily Myart-Cruz have held the current well-being and future prospects of LAUSD students hostage.”
From the start of the pandemic, relations between parents and Myart-Cruz were strained. When schools first shut down in March 2020, other districts scrambled to fill the void with Zoom classes and other remote forms of teaching. But Myart-Cruz threw a wrench in the LAUSD’s plans by insisting that teachers in her union could not be forced to teach remotely for more than four hours a day, the fewest hours of the five largest districts in California, even though they’d continue to be paid for a full day.
“[We] don’t think [it’s] healthy for students to be in front of a screen,” one of her deputies, Julie Van Winkle, later said, explaining the union’s position during a heated negotiation with the school board. (Van Winkle would soon land in hot water for posting a photo of herself in a Blue Lives Murder T-shirt that ended up on UTLA’s Instagram account). In point of fact, L.A. teachers weren’t doing a lot of remote schooling at all in those early days; they were mainly just posting videos online and making students fill out worksheets. (“When parents would say, ‘I think you could have done this better,’ I’d love for you to show me,” Myart-Cruz defiantly asserts in her own defense. “I absolutely invite people to come in and show me.”)
In the fall of 2020, UTLA finally agreed to start using live Zoom chats as a teaching format, although it was left as optional, and many teachers continued to simply post assignments. There’d been some talk among administrators in October about the possibility of resuming at least part-time in-person classes, but there was no indication UTLA would be at all receptive, and discussions were dropped after COVID numbers began to spike again.
“In New York, all the schools there reopened, and then they had to close them down,” Myart-Cruz says. “We didn’t want the yo-yo effect here.”
Instead, that fall she devoted some of her energy to stumping for a major property tax hike, pouring millions of dollars in union money into the fight. (The hike was narrowly defeated at the ballot box.) It wasn’t until March of this year, when the epidemic finally started to wane, that the school system began talking about reopening again. And not just the school system: Newsom, under pressure from parents and facing a looming recall election, was eager to get kids back in classrooms. That’s when he dangled that extra $2 billion in funding for schools opening before April 1. Many districts jumped at the money, but Myart-Cruz wouldn’t budge.
“If you condition funding on the reopening of schools, that money will only go to white and wealthier schools that do not have the transmission rates that low-income Black and brown communities do,” she explained in a video that drew national attention. “We are being unfairly targeted by people who are not experiencing this disease in the same ways as students and families are in our communities,” she went on. “If this was a rich person’s disease, we would’ve seen a very different response. We would not have the high rates of infections and deaths. Now educators are being asked to sacrifice ourselves, the safety of our students, and the safety of our schools.”
Wealthier, whiter school districts do indeed have lower COVID rates than less affluent Black and brown ones. But viewing school reopenings strictly through the lens of race creates as many problems as it addresses, since the school closings have arguably done the most damage to those in poorer communities. Last spring, for example, an astonishing 64 percent of L.A. Unified’s middle- and high-schoolers—some 129,000 kids—were not actively engaging in the district’s online learning program, according to a report by the nonprofit advocacy group Great Public Schools (citing the LAUSD’s own internal analysis). Hardly any of the district’s 229,000 elementary school students were logging on at all. Although some of those numbers might represent wealthier families defecting to private schools, a significant portion were doubtless from disadvantaged neighborhoods with working parents and less access to technology. Two new reports—from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and the education assessment group NWEA—show that in the past year of remote schooling, schoolchildren have fallen dramatically behind, and none more so than low-income and Black and brown kids whose parents lack the resources to create an adequate classroom learning environment at home. Keeping L.A.’s schools closed isn’t doing those communities any favors.
“The general pattern is that the kids who come from the poorest communities are the ones who have been most affected,” notes Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education, who has been studying the effects of learning loss on students in L.A. “But they have not only been affected by lack of access to learning; they have also been affected by isolation. So you’ve got to think about them both together and the mental health implications.”
Case in point: Renee Bailey, a single mother of two in South L.A. Her 14-year-old son, Kaled, suffers from autism and in the past year away from the classroom has developed new and distressing behaviors like bed-wetting and biting. She tried repeatedly to get Kaled enrolled in an in-person instruction program but her efforts came to nothing; citing safety concerns, UTLA discouraged its teachers from participating in the program. “With distance learning, he was receiving behavior-intervention services through his iPad,” she says. Frustrated that parents have been frozen out of reopening negotiations, Bailey began organizing parent rallies and attending protests at UTLA headquarters.
Pitting white, wealthy neighborhoods against poorer, more ethnic ones isn’t exactly a recipe for social equanimity. On the contrary, it tends to breed suspicion, hostility, myopia, and paranoia. Last winter, for example, as protests mounted against Myart-Cruz’s handling of remote teaching, the union leader saw it as a racial attack, not an educational dispute. She posted an article to Facebook in which a school superintendent in Chicago charged that parents pushing to get kids back in the classroom were fueled by “white-supremacist thinking.” “Right on!” Myart-Cruz wrote approvingly, going on to claim that she and other UTLA staffers were being “stalked by wealthy, white, Middle Eastern parents.” (One parent group saw anti-Semitism in the wording of her comments. “Based on the demographics of Los Angeles and your personal exposure to the West Los Angeles community due to your tenure at Emerson Middle School, many have perceived this statement as a thinly veiled reference to Jews, specifically Persian Jews,” reads a letter sent to Myart-Cruz from the group California Students United.)
Myart-Cruz allegedly ordered a study to determine the ethnic backgrounds of her more vocal critics, presumably so that she could prove her point. One parent, Maryam Qudrat, who had been loudly pushing in the press for more Zoom time for kids, claims she received an odd email from a researcher at UTLA asking pointed questions about her racial background. “I thought it was some kind of scam,” says Qudrat, whose parents immigrated here from Afghanistan. “But I reread it and realized it was real. I felt almost violated, like they were bullying me. It was clear to me that Cecily Myart-Cruz made this whole thing into some sort of racial war.” UTLA doesn’t deny conducting the study but later claimed in a statement, “This outreach by the researcher was not authorized.”
By late April, as the pandemic slowed and other districts started fully reopening, Myart-Cruz was only beginning to partially reopen L.A. Finally, after intense negotiations with the school board, an agreement was hammered out that included three hours of in-person classes for students in grades kindergarten through 6 and an unusual in-person learning format for older students, in which they’d sit at desks with laptops, learning remotely with an adult in the room for supervision (what fed-up parents derisively called “Zoom in a Room”). Myart-Cruz describes the negotiations that led to this agreement as “collaborative,” characterizing them as “a thoughtful process” that “wasn’t filled with animosity.” Others have a different take on the proceedings. “It was collaborative in that we met them 90 percent of the way, not that they met us in the middle,” says L.A. school board member Nick Melvoin, who argues that the more accommodating the board has been with UTLA, the more intransigent the union has become. “We had an agreement that there should be six feet [of social distancing],” he adds. “Then the CDC goes to three feet, so the smaller districts go to three feet to get more kids back. But we can’t, because we still have this agreement and would have to go back to the negotiating table. So if you’re not willing to bargain around the clock, which they have not been, then the reopenings are going to be slower.”
“UTLA is not a normal union,” agrees a former district official who asked not to be identified because he’s “scared” of UTLA. “They just march to their own freaking drummer.”
While uncertainty over Delta, Lambda, and future variants may complicate matters, Myart-Cruz is abiding by an agreement to keep schools open for in-person learning. Back in July, state lawmakers passed an amended budget instructing local school districts to also offer a remote-learning option for the entirety of the next academic year. E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association, approved of the measure saying it benefits students who are “medically fragile, cannot be vaccinated, or whose parents do not feel safe sending them to school as this pandemic continues.” Black and Latino kids are expected to make up the bulk of applicants for the “heath exemption,” which is a catch-all for any parent not ready to send their kids back.
At first glance, it makes sense to give worried parents an alternative to in-person learning. But education experts worry that the measure will magnify a two-tiered system, with inferior remote learning disproportionately used by families in communities of color. It’s no surprise that the communities hit hardest by the virus continue to rely on remote instruction to a far greater extent than their white and more affluent peers. As the school year wound down last spring, only about 25 percent of students in Latino-majority communities returned to the classroom, compared with 80 percent in parts of the Westside, according to data from the district.
One might assume that now that nearly 80 percent of all adults in California are at least partly vaccinated, the pressure would be on UTLA to return to classrooms. But there are pressures on the other side of the negotiating table as well. The California Teachers Association, the state’s main teachers union, of which UTLA is the largest affiliate, spent $2.85 million during the first quarter of this year—the most of any special-interest group in Sacramento and more than twice as much as the second and third ranking lobbying funders—two Big Oil interests—according to an exclusive analysis of lobbying expenditures in Sacramento by the Bay Area News Group.
Closer to home in L.A., members of the board of education are elected, many of them with the support of UTLA, and if any harbor ambitions for larger public office, making nice with the teachers’ union is essential.
“Board members are looking at a political life down the road, and if they want a future in the Democratic Party, they have to tread carefully,” notes Katie Braude, chief executive of SpeakUp, a parent advocacy group that often clashes with UTLA. “They have to be very careful about not being characterized as anti-union. That accounts for some of the softness on the board, which gives the superintendent less power to negotiate.”
That may also explain why Beutner, the superintendent who had been negotiating with UTLA throughout the pandemic, stepped down on June 30. The former L.A. Times publisher and ex-first deputy mayor cooked up some fairly innovative responses to the crisis, like convincing local PBS affiliates to broadcast educational programs for students during the day and making sure every L.A. student who needed one was given access to an internet-connected laptop. More recently, he’d been pushing to take advantage of $5.4 billion in public funds being offered to schools this fall if they make up for lost learning time by shortening vacations, extending school days, or even adding weekend classes. But after a year and a half of dealing with the teachers’ union—and a school board that union helped to elect—Beutner clearly had had enough.
“UTLA leadership were asked to consider all the different ways to [return to classrooms] with full pay, including pension benefits for any additional work, extending the school year or school day, regular Saturday school, or shortening the long Thanksgiving or January breaks,” he said in his resignation statement in May. “They would not agree to any of these.”
A school-board source familiar with the negotiations assured me in July that UTLA is abiding by its agreement to reopen schools this fall, with a remote-learning option for parents who want it. There’s been no backtracking but rather back-patting from union leaders who feel the current panic over the Delta variant validates their hard-fought safety measures.
And UTLA is not opposed to a vaccine mandate for teachers, though Myart-Cruz pointedly stops short of endorsing mandates herself. (The decision, she points out, was made by the union’s board of directors.) “We encourage all folks who can, to get vaccinated to keep our educational community healthy and safe,” she says.
When a new superintendent is chosen by the school board, he or she will have to tangle with the woman sitting in the conference room at UTLA headquarters. And right now, she holds the cards, and she knows it. “We’re reenvisioning what the future of public schools will look like,” she says with assurance. In the end, Myart-Cruz may not get everything she wants—not even UTLA is powerful enough to end the conflict in the Middle East or even raise taxes on the wealthy—but it’s abundantly clear from the last year and a half how far she’s willing to go to push her agenda. For good or ill, she is a woman with a vision and a powerful drive to make it real. “If our union is stigmatized,” she says, “I’m glad. I will wear that as a badge of honor.”
Her old friend from Emerson Middle School, Garry Joseph, puts it best. “Cecily wishes the world could be more like a classroom where she could get people to break down the boundaries between them and make them into a community,” he says. “With her in charge.”
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