Posted on August 30, 2021

Cecily Myart-Cruz’s Hostile Takeover of L.A.’s Public Schools

Jason McGahan, Los Angeles, August 26, 2021

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.”


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.”


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. {snip}


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. {snip}

{snip} 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.


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.” {snip}

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.” {snip}