Teachers in Los Angeles will be walking a picket line on Monday for only the third time in the Los Angeles Teachers Union’s (UTLA) five-decade history.
The battle lines drawn in this dispute appear to be about not only salaries and class size, but also the very future of public education in the city.
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is a behemoth—the second largest school district in the country, with 1,000 schools, 640,000 students and over 60,000 employees. The district’s annual budget is $7.5 billion.
The teacher’s union is in a strong position to take on the district. It had weathered the Supreme Court’s Janus decision this past June, which removed the requirement that employees pay fees to a union in their industry. In a recent organizing drive members voted overwhelmingly to increase their dues by 30 percent to help fund the fight against the district’s move toward restructuring.
When vote on a possible strike was held this August, not only did 98 percent of current members approve, over a thousand teachers became union members so they could cast a vote in the matter. That means most of the district 34,000 teachers supported the decision to walk out until they some of their key demands met.
There are the basic contract disputes over salary and staffing:
The teachers want more nurses, librarians, social workers and counselors district-wide, smaller class sizes and a say in the role of charter schools. Negotiations over salary increases stalled when the union rejected the district’s offer of a raise of 3 percent a year for two years of the three-year contract. The teacher’s held fast at 6.5 percent a year, retroactive to last year when their contract expired.
Austin Beutner, LAUSD’s superintendent, tried to get closer to an agreement with the addition of state school funding announced Thursday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, giving the district an additional $140 million.
This allowed Beutner to up his offer to include a full-time nurse for every elementary school, more librarians, and a reduction of two students per class in middle schools. High schools were offered more academic counselors. But this agreement would only guarantee class size reductions for a year, and the teachers don’t trust the district to keep to it once they are no longer contractually obligated.
Parents are bracing for the impending strike. They will have to make decisions about sending their kids to school to be watched by substitutes and district administrators. School support staff throughout LAUSD, including teacher aides, special education assistants, custodians, food service workers, and campus supervision aides represented by SEIU Local 99 have pledged to refuse assignments that include “supervising students without the presence of a teacher or other credentialed staff,” according to a statement from that Local’s Executive Director Max Arias. In 10 of the district schools Local 99 members have also pledged to strike in solidarity, further complicating staffing issues.
It’s not an easy choice for working parents, especially those with children who get one or more meals provided by the school. Those receiving meals from their schools range from 95 percent in the Pico-Union area to 75 percent in more affluent Los Feliz.
City Councilperson Mitch O’Farrell sent out an email alerting his constituents to additional city-provided resources during the strike to assist harried parents:
“City recreation centers and libraries, as well as Metro and LA City DASH and Commuter Express routes, will provide additional support for LAUSD families during the strike. These resources will offer adult supervision, lunch, and free transportation to students.”
In an interview with local Los Angeles radio station KCRW, Thomas Starr King Middle School history teacher Joel Laguna said the teachers from his school in Los Feliz created a GoFundMe campaign to help students who depend on the school-provided meals. With community support they raised $2,000 — $500 more than their stated goal. The funds will go toward distributing a simple meal of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fruit, a nutrition bar and water to students staying out during the strike. Encouraged by that success, teachers are planning to spread the program to other elementary schools.
Such help with feeding students might prove essential in the days ahead. Los Feliz Elementary School teacher and union chapter chair Amanda Sherren, 54, anticipates a long road ahead. She told the California Globe the stakes go far beyond this specific contract: “The billionaires in control are trying to take over schooling in LA. It’s the slow attrition of education, trying to destroy schools by starving them of funds. And it’s not just about Los Angeles, the very wealthy are trying to get control of education in the entire country.”
There are now 277 private or non-profit charter schools in Los Angeles, serving 138,000 students.
Charles Kercher, a labor relations historian and professor emeritus at Claremont Graduate School, agrees with this larger vision of what’s at stake. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times he said, “This is a strike about the soul of public education.”
Kercher believes UTLA head Alex Caputo-Pearl has made clear he’s fighting for “community schools with wrap-around services” while Superintendent Beutner is moving toward creating “a safe haven for charter schools.”
Wil Page, 41 a teacher at Thomas Starr Middle School for 12 years and a strike leader for UTLA, agrees the most difficult issues to resolve are those over staffing and funding.
“We were once in the top 10 states for school funding, now we’re in the bottom 10,” Page told the Globe. “If we don’t make some categorical changes we’ll wind up like Newark, New Orleans or Detroit.”
Page is referring to restructuring programs like the “Portfolio Model.” Union president Caputo-Pearl made clear in a Los Angeles Times op-ed Monday he believes this approach will be disastrous for the school district. The plan would mean expanding charter schools and closing any district schools that don’t meet certain standards, rather than increasing funding and resources for struggling schools. New Orleans’ Recovery School District moved to an all-charter school system in 2014, the first district in the country to make that move.
Beutner’s plan, called “Reimagining Los Angeles Unified,” does not completely follow the Portfolio Model but he has hired consultant Cami Anderson, the former superintendent of Newark, New Jersey, public schools. According to a report in Capitol & Main under Anderson’s tenure there were mass firings from public schools along with a jump in the number of charter schools before parents demanded a stop to the program.
Chalkbeat, an education-focused news outlet, reported that the district has also hired consulting firm Kitamba, which has helped districts implement portfolio-style strategies in other districts throughout the country.
Teachers Page and Sherren both worry this approach will put education almost entirely in private hands, and ultimately hurt minority and disabled students by further draining schools of the resources they need to adequately address those student’s needs.