About 33,000 unionized teachers in the nation’s second-largest school district are walking out of classrooms across more than 1,000 Los Angeles schools today in their first strike in 30 years. The teachers are demanding much more than simply higher pay, smaller class sizes, and additional support staff such as nurses, counselors and librarians. They’re also calling for a moratorium on new charter schools in the district.
Schools are remaining open despite the strike, with the district reassigning more than 2,000 administrators and hiring more than 400 substitute teachers to take the place of striking teachers.
The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Los Angeles Unified School District remain at an impasse over critical issues affecting working conditions in classrooms serving more than 640,000 students. The strike, originally slated for last Thursday, was moved to today after the school district raised a legal technicality over whether the union had provided adequate formal notice. The L.A. Superior Court on Thursday agreed that it had, paving the way for today’s strike.
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The union balked at the district’s last-ditch offers last week to change their contract, noting that the alteration could end up actually increasing class sizes after one year. The negotiating team for the school district, led by District Superintendent Austin Beutner, said it agreed to provide $130 million to increase support staff to schools and to rein in class sizes.
The district has offered teachers a 6 percent raise spread out over the first two years of a three-year contract. However, the union’s demand is a 6.5 percent raise, and it also takes issue with the fact that the district’s offer of a wage increase would be contingent upon cutting future teachers’ health care benefits.
For its part, the union dropped demands for teachers to exercise more control over standardized testing and budget decisions at their schools, as well as a demand that teachers should have a say on when the district starts a new magnet program.
The district steadfastly contends that it is operating at a deficit and faces the threat of insolvency if it meets all the union’s demands, despite its more than $1.8 billion in reserve money. The union argues that the district’s previous projected deficits have never actually manifested. In fact, district officials previously projected, as of December 7, 2017, only a $368.99 million unrestricted ending balance for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Its actual ending balance was in the billions.
“We call it ‘broke on purpose,’” said UTLA Secretary Arlene Inouye, who spent 20 years working as a speech therapist at nearly 30 L.A. schools before leaving to work for UTLA. “We laugh because we don’t believe the district. They just try to fabricate a crisis in order to starve and divest [from] our students and our schools, and we’re not going to let them get away with that.”
Not only does the district often over-project how much it will spend, she says, it uses other kinds of accounting tricks to hide money in different accounts. Still, school officials have projected that future growth in employee pension and health care costs will outpace the district’s revenue. “A strike would harm the students and families we serve and will not help resolve the issues our District faces,” officials said in a statement.
Inouye accuses Beutner of repeating the same strategy of hoarding surplus cash that he used in 2010 when he headed L.A.’s Department of Water and Power. At that time, Beutner directed the utility to withhold a promised $73.5 million transfer to the city unless city officials approved an unpopular rate hike — even while the utility had $752 million in a “Power Reserve Fund.”
The union also emphasizes that even though California is the fifth largest economy in the world, it spends very little on public education. The state spent about $11,000 per student in 2016, and its education expenditures remain well below what other blue states like New York spend per pupil.
“We’re trying to get across to them that the crisis is now. The need is now,” Inouye says. “This could make a difference in the quality of life of our kids right now.”
Union leaders are not just targeting the district: They’re working with newly elected state representatives, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, to support their effort to place a measure on the 2020 ballot that would amend the state’s property tax law. The current law, which was passed in 1978, set a cap on property taxes, which dramatically limited state revenue for public schools. In particular, large, urban school districts took a major hit. The union’s proposed ballot measure, known as Schools and Communities First, would allow increased taxes on commercial (not residential) property. The measure would also address corporate and carried interest tax loopholes.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Governor Newsom has engaged both sides in informal talks, and will propose a state budget that increases funding for all California school districts.
L.A. joins five other states that saw teachers walk out of classrooms for fully funded schools over the past year, including Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, West Virginia and Colorado. The L.A. strike comes on the heels of the nation’s first charter school strike in Chicago in December.
Pushing Back Against Privatization
The strike is not just about school funding and bread-and-butter issues: Teachers are also zeroing in on what they see as district leaders’ privatization schemes as charter schools continue to rapidly expand in L.A.
One in five students there attends a charter school, and there are more than 200 such schools in the district — one of the largest proportions in the country. Meanwhile, public enrollment has declined by more than 100,000 in the last decade. While charter schools often operate with public funds, they are privately run as either for-profits or nonprofits and are subject to fewer rules, regulations and statutes than traditional public schools.
What’s more, charter teachers are supporting this week’s walkout. Some unionized charter teachers will even be joining public school teachers on the picket lines tomorrow, with teachers represented by UTLA at three charter schools operated by The Accelerated Schools announcing a January 15 strike deadline of their own. Ninety-nine percent of network educators voted to authorize a strike after nearly 20 months of negotiations over critical issues like turnover. If the network’s educators walk out tomorrow, theirs would be only the second charter strike in the nation.
While a cap on charters is technically outside the scope of UTLA’s contract with the district, the union has asked for a moratorium on new charters. Beutner has offered to create a task force to examine issues raised by charters, but that hasn’t assuaged the union, which is working with Governor Newsom and the new State Superintendent Tony Thurmond on the issue.
According to Inouye, many unionized charter members agree that a cap is necessary because they say their enrollment rates have decreased as more charters have opened. The union, which estimates that new charters in L.A. have drained $600 million from the district, is engaged in another fight at the Alliance charter network over unionization.
A handful of billionaires, including the Walton family (of Walmart fame) and real estate and insurance magnate Eli Broad, poured most of the $9.7 million spent on the school board election in L.A. in 2017 into flipping the pro-union Board of Education to a pro-charter Board. In 2015, the Los Angeles Times obtained a confidential draft of a plan devised by the Broad Foundation to place half of the students in the district into charter schools over the next eight years.
The new Board appointed Beutner, a former investment banker with close ties to Broad, to head the district in May 2018 after the district’s former superintendent resigned due to health complications. Beutner, who has no educational experience, made at least $100 million on Wall Street after his investment advisory firm went public in 2006. He and a cadre of pro-charter businesspeople were picked to cut costs and tame unions at troubled school systems in New Orleans and Detroit, among others.
“We feel that this strike will affect … the charter school industry — in particular the California Charter School Association that has been pouring money into our school board elections and that ultimately is the one who brought us Beutner,” Inouye says.
She sees Beutner’s plan to divide the L.A. school district into 32 networks as a step toward his overall goal of decentralizing the district as a precursor to the total dismantling of public education in the city. The fragmentation plan is “cut from the same cloth,” Inouye says, as privatization models that have been used elsewhere, such as New Orleans, where a major public school district no longer has any real public schools: They’re publicly funded, but they’re all charters. Beutner’s plan for L.A. would do away with central oversight and accountability. The union fears this would allow “the unchecked spread of the worst of the charter sector abuses.”
“It’s a privatization scheme,” Inouye says. “First of all, you starve schools, which [district officials are] trying to do now. Then you use test scores to determine which schools failed and which schools get closed, and you start closing schools, firing educators and giving over some of those schools to private enterprises.”
Georgia Flowers Lee, a UTLA board member who has taught for more than a decade as a special education teacher, and currently teaches at Saturn Street Elementary in West L.A. in what she calls “a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood,” tells Truthout that a nearby charter middle school regularly “siphons off” her school’s fifth graders.
She blames the district, telling Truthout that the district turned the closest public middle school into a magnet campus, so her school’s students, upon graduating, have to be bussed to the next public middle school farther away, if they don’t want to attend the charter. “For many of our parents, that is not an option even though that school has better test scores than the charter that’s nearby,” she says.
It gets worse: The nearby charter, the New Los Angeles Middle School, recently opened its own elementary school. Charter administrators now regularly pressure parents with middle schoolers at New Los Angeles who have siblings at Saturn Street to instead send their little ones to its New Los Angeles Elementary campus. The new elementary is “co-located” on “probably the last remaining predominantly Black elementary school in L.A. Unified,” Flowers Lee says, which has lost its art space and computer lab to the new charter.
L.A. Teachers’ Struggle
Flowers Lee’s classroom is at its maximum enrollment of eight special needs children, but she says she’s had up to 12 kids in the past, and a school nurse staffs her campus only two days a week. She struggles to provide the resources necessary to execute her curriculum, and has to beg parents for ink for color copies and sand for the classroom’s sand table.
On top of that, she has to deal with the high cost-of-living expenses in L.A. and can’t afford to live anywhere near her campus, instead commuting about an hour each day. “You pay the bills, and you look at what’s left and you decide, ‘OK, what do I do without this month?’” she says.
Flowers Lee admonishes the district’s legal maneuver aimed at blocking special education teachers from striking, which a federal judge threw out this month. “[The district] was alleging that we are critical staff, which to every special education teacher sounds laughable because the district literally gives no attention to special education students. It’s a constant battle, so the fact that the district was arguing we were indispensable is hilarious,” she says, telling Truthout she intends to stand proudly on the picket lines today.
Another teacher in the district, Kirti Baranwal, who has taught for 28 years, and currently teaches second and third graders in the Spanish-English dual language program at the UCLA Community School, criticized the district for spending the money on pursuing its recent legal challenges against the union and special educators instead of using the money to simply meet teachers’ demands.
Baranwal’s current classroom is enrolled at 24 kids, and has had many students over the years who have faced a variety of struggles, from low-income and homeless students, to those with dealing with severe trauma.
“What I’ve seen in my career in the past: kids who have seen their parents taken away by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], or kids who have seen family members shot by [the Los Angeles Police Department]. They’re not coming into my classroom feeling safe or feeling loved, and it’s hard for me as a teacher to then expect them, every day, to be ready to learn,” Baranwal tells Truthout, sounding audibly tired after a teaching shift. “I need a lot of support in terms of their socio-emotional health…. So our demands for counselors really speak to that.”
Further she says, these needs are why teachers’ demands for increased community schools are so important. She emphasizes that it’s critical to engage in “creating schools that can support the whole child and not just focusing on test scores and academic needs. Because, that’s my job as a teacher, but I do much more than that.”
Baranwal, a single mother, also struggles to make ends meet and finds the balance between teaching and testing difficult, especially for young children who are still learning to become independent. Moreover, her school’s library tech doesn’t have the budget to order enough Spanish-language books for the children in the dual language program.
“We’re all trying to figure out how to manage, and the district is trying to balance their budget on the backs of students and teachers, and it’s like, we need this money now,” Baranwal says.
The district’s chronic under-resourcing of its schools is also a racial justice issue, as L.A.’s public school students are disproportionately Black and Latino.
“I don’t understand how a state this wealthy can continue to create these conditions for working-class communities that service primarily Black and Latino students. It’s beyond unjust to me,” Baranwal says. “It is racist, it is classist, it is inhumane.”
According to a study from the University of California at Los Angeles’s Civil Rights Project, Latino students in the district are more segregated than anywhere else in the U.S.
Beyond L.A., the union is hoping its strike this week will further galvanize the national movement for fully funded public schools, and has received an outpouring of support from teachers across the country.
“We believe [our strike] signals that there needs to be a change in this country about pay and validating public educators and public education. The privatization movement has been affecting public schools, and even though it’s relatively small, it’s growing, and it’s bleeding the resources from the public schools,” UTLA’s Inouye says. “This is a fight really for the foundation of our democracy.”
Special educator Flowers Lee agrees. “We don’t want to do this, but we feel like we have no other choice,” she says. “We are watching the death of public education, and public education is the ‘great equalizer,’ and no matter their rebranding, charter schools are not public schools; they have public funds but they are not public.”