Cecily Myart-Cruz: Spirited defender of teachers

Cecily Myart-Cruz
Cecily Myart-Cruz, photographed at the Los Angeles Times in El Segundo on Nov. 6.

The all-but-anonymous mom volunteering as a crossing guard at her kid's school stood out on this particular morning in her sun hat and dressy batik-pattern outfit.

After her crosswalk duties, Cecily Myart-Cruz hustled to a conference at UCLA, where she was a featured speaker on the crucial role of arts education.

"We must be focused on restoring, healing — restoring and bringing joy into our classrooms," she said. "We have the power to lead the nation and do it now. Our babies need everyone in here and everyone listening: This is what our mission and work is. We cannot fail."

Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, enjoys being involved at her seventh-grader's school, but she has an impact on the education of all students as head of the union representing 35,000 teachers, counselors, librarians and school nurses in the nation's second-largest school district.

Elected last year to a second term, Myart-Cruz, 50, won with an agenda that goes well beyond wages and benefits. Her demands include social-emotional learning, culturally relevant curriculum and eliminating school police. She also wants to reduce and then end standardized testing, which she said cuts into learning time and narrows instruction.

'We must be focused on restoring, healing — restoring and bringing joy into our classrooms.'

Cecily Myart-Cruz

She's pursued these goals relentlessly, through nuts-and-bolts union organizing and fiery speeches.

In a rally leading up to a three-day strike in March 2023, she exhorted members: "I want you to be all the way pissed off."

The strike brought her union together with another that represents nonteaching employees, such as custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Their combined clout shut down schools.

Cecily Myart-Cruz
Cecily Myart-Cruz

Both unions won significant raises. The UTLA contract makes its members among the nation's best-paid teachers.

The unions have joined forces again to oppose planned cuts for the 2024-25 academic year, including the denial of health benefits to some low-wage workers.

"Who wants to come and work at this school district where we treat people like trash?" she asked at a June school board meeting. "Stop the austerity cuts!"

Myart-Cruz, who taught in elementary and middle schools before becoming a full-time union officer, is excited about the growth of community schools, which bring together the district, unions, parents, other government entities and community groups around student needs, including healthcare, mental health services and tutoring.

Critics accuse her of supporting members at the expense of students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when campuses were closed, L.A. teachers bargained for less live online teaching than many other school systems. Student achievement in L.A. suffered during the pandemic — although no worse than at comparable school systems.

The union also catches flak for trying to dictate education policy and going beyond education matters, such as advocating for low-income housing for community members.

Her core passion, she said, remains teaching and nurturing students, which she refreshes in the crosswalk — duties that "fill me up as a person."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.