Here’s Why LA Teachers Are Walking Out in a Historic Strike

Julianne Tveten

Venice High School teacher Lisa Thorne, left, joins other teachers, retired teachers and parents as they voice their support for UTLA in front of Venice High School in Venice, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

After near­ly two years of bar­gain­ing, pub­lic-school teach­ers in Los Ange­les have ini­ti­at­ed a strike in protest of their district’s poli­cies. Start­ing today, teach­ers are pick­et­ing out­side of their work­places, under­scor­ing an invet­er­ate lack of invest­ment in pub­lic schools made worse by a pro-char­ter-school aus­ter­i­ty agen­da.”

From April of 2017 to Jan­u­ary of this year, Unit­ed Teach­ers of Los Ange­les (UTLA) — which rep­re­sents more than 35,000 teach­ers, nurs­es, librar­i­ans and coun­selors in Los Ange­les Uni­fied School Dis­trict (LAUSD) — had been in nego­ti­a­tions with the dis­trict, and even­tu­al­ly reached an impasse. The union’s pro­pos­als address griev­ances includ­ing pref­er­en­tial fund­ing for char­ter schools, and such relat­ed prob­lems as inflat­ed class size, inad­e­quate sup­port for spe­cial and bilin­gual edu­ca­tion, and exces­sive stan­dard­ized testing.

The strike is the cul­mi­na­tion of a pro­tract­ed bat­tle against the de fac­to pri­va­ti­za­tion brought on by the growth of char­ter schools, which are pub­licly fund­ed but pri­vate­ly oper­at­ed — that is, inde­pen­dent of local school board reg­u­la­tions. In Los Ange­les Coun­ty, char­ter-school enroll­ment has risen 35.7 per­cent since 2012 to 2013, ren­der­ing the coun­ty, among dozens of oth­ers in Cal­i­for­nia, one of the fastest-grow­ing hubs of char­ter-school education.

In recent years, Los Ange­les char­ter-school advo­cates have gen­er­at­ed unprece­dent­ed financ­ing: Pro-char­ter groups, for exam­ple, were respon­si­ble for more than two-thirds of the $14.3 mil­lion in cam­paign spend­ing in a May, 2017, LAUSD school board elec­tion. That elec­tion saw pro-char­ter can­di­dates clinch a major­i­ty and, the fol­low­ing year, appoint for­mer invest­ment banker and deputy may­or Austin Beut­ner as superintendent.

Much of this growth can be attrib­uted to char­ters cur­ry­ing favor with Wall Street and Sil­i­con Val­ley as grounds for tax breaks, real-estate invest­ments, and busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties. In Los Ange­les specif­i­cal­ly, char­ter schools have become the pet projects of promi­nent bil­lion­aires, includ­ing Net­flix chief Reed Hast­ings and real-estate devel­op­er and financier Eli Broad.

UTLA con­tends that the polit­i­cal cli­mate of the school board has stripped tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools of fund­ing. A 2016 report com­mis­sioned by the union found that char­ters had siphoned $591 mil­lion from tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools. The union also says that the dis­trict has $1.86 bil­lion in unre­strict­ed” reserves, which UTLA claims can be used to fund LAUSD’s pub­lic schools. Beut­ner argues that the reserve funds exist, but are already being spent.

Accord­ing to UTLA trea­sur­er Alex Oroz­co, there’s no evi­dence the reserve funds have been spent, and the cur­rent dis­tri­b­u­tion of funds has bred unten­able stu­dent-to-teacher ratios. Oroz­co told In These Times that he vis­its schools with aver­age class sizes in the 40s — a num­ber that LAUSD’s own sta­tis­tics for mid­dle- and high-school class­es confirm.

Beut­ner respond­ed to these con­cerns via an arti­cle in the Los Ange­les Times, propos­ing to add teach­ers and reduce class size at 15 mid­dle schools and 75 ele­men­tary schools in com­mu­ni­ties that have the high­est needs.” UTLA holds that this falls short. You can just feel the dis­re­spect,” Oroz­co said. The pro­pos­al that he put out addressed class size, which in the 16 months that we were in nego­ti­a­tions, not once did they address class size. But they addressed class size at the bare min­i­mum, which is focus­ing on our need­i­est schools.”

Avail­abil­i­ty of essen­tial per­son­nel out­side the class­room, includ­ing nurs­es, librar­i­ans, coun­selors and school psy­chol­o­gists, has also been com­pro­mised. For the 2014 to 2015 fis­cal year, Cal­i­for­nia ranked as the worst state in stu­dent-to-teacher librar­i­an ratios. Mean­while, Cal­i­for­nia suf­fers a trou­bling short­age of school nurs­es. UTLA main­tains that near­ly 40 per­cent of LAUSD pub­lic schools have a nurse for only one day a week. Accord­ing to Oroz­co, many schools are forced to pay out of pock­et for a nurse.

This scarci­ty dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affects stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties and spe­cial needs, who may ben­e­fit from more reg­u­lar vis­its. After appoint­ments, nurs­es and school psy­chol­o­gists are spend­ing a lot of time doing paper­work,” says spe­cial-edu­ca­tion teacher and UTLA rank-and-file mem­ber Alli­son John­son. So if they’re only there one day a week, then how much time are they actu­al­ly get­ting to pro­vide care for the students?”

Johnson’s con­cerns raise ques­tions about the district’s sup­port for stu­dents who depend on accom­mo­da­tions for dis­abil­i­ties, lan­guage bar­ri­ers, and oth­er needs. Tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools are legal­ly required to pro­vide for these stu­dents. Char­ter schools, how­ev­er, aren’t held to the same stan­dards. A report from the Los Ange­les Board of Edu­ca­tion found that, as of 2014, the per­cent­age of total LAUSD char­ter stu­dents with severe dis­abil­i­ties was less than one-third that of tra­di­tion­al dis­trict schools.

Anoth­er symp­tom of char­ter­i­za­tion, UTLA says, is an excess of stan­dard­ized test­ing. Accord­ing to UTLA pres­i­dent Alex Caputo-Pearl, the dis­trict requires up to 18 dis­cre­tionary stan­dard­ized tests—despite mount­ing nation­wide crit­i­cism of stan­dard­ized test­ing — in addi­tion to those man­dat­ed by the fed­er­al and state gov­ern­ments. Oroz­co told In These Times that these tests are admin­is­tered so fre­quent­ly in order to gen­er­ate school per­for­mance data, which can be lever­aged into jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for char­ter models.

Tests make it very easy for the char­ters to come and pri­va­tize our schools based on this data that was col­lect­ed by these exams that real­ly are not nec­es­sary,” he said. We want our teach­ers to be able to use their pro­fes­sion­al judg­ment and assess the kids in many oth­er dif­fer­ent ways.”

When con­tact­ed for com­ment, LAUSD referred In These Times to its web­site, which includes the fol­low­ing state­ment: We hear our teach­ers and want to work with them. Los Ange­les Uni­fied and teach­ers agree — small­er class sizes, more teach­ers, coun­selors, nurs­es and librar­i­ans in schools would make our schools bet­ter. We know teach­ers deserve to be paid more and a work­ing envi­ron­ment where kids can have the best pos­si­ble education.”

In addi­tion to its class-size reduc­tion pro­pos­al, LAUSD has offered a six-per­cent pay raise to teach­ers, back pay for the 2017 to 2018 year, and no changes to their health ben­e­fits. In antic­i­pa­tion of a strike, the dis­trict has already hired 400 non-union sub­sti­tute teach­ers for its more than 600,000 students.

Still, UTLA, frus­trat­ed by 20 months of fruit­less bar­gain­ing and lies and manip­u­la­tion,” as well as Beutner’s and oth­er crit­i­cism in the media of the edu­ca­tors for their demands and deci­sion to strike, feel this is far from enough. Echo­ing the con­cerns of many of her col­leagues, John­son argues that while a strike isn’t ide­al, teach­ers have been left with no choice.

It’s not about the raise,” she said. Peo­ple are mad. They want things to change. They want the pro­fes­sion to be respect­ed and to have what we need to be able to func­tion as educators.”

Julianne Tveten writes about tech­nol­o­gy, labor, and cul­ture, among oth­er top­ics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Cap­i­tal & Main, KPFK Paci­fi­ca Radio, and elsewhere.
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