On Super Tuesday, the LA Teachers’ Strike Paid Off Again

Sammy Feldblum March 5, 2020

The legacy of the LA teachers' strike is now fueling electoral victories. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Last January’s Los Ange­les teach­ers’ strike saw some 30,000 edu­ca­tors walk out of the class­room in the nation’s sec­ond-largest school dis­trict and return six days lat­er with a new con­tract. The teach­ers fought not only for wage increas­es but broad­ened their demands to include school­ing con­di­tions for the district’s more than 500,000 stu­dents. They called for caps on class sizes and extra sup­port staff, includ­ing a full-time nurse in every school and a librar­i­an for all mid­dle and high schools. They pushed for greater over­sight of char­ter schools and against their fur­ther expan­sion. The com­mu­ni­ty over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port­ed the teach­ers, and, by and large, the teach­ers won.

Now, the strike’s lega­cy is help­ing fuel elec­toral vic­to­ries, which will deter­mine school fund­ing deci­sions and the district’s approach to char­ters. One con­tract doesn’t solve all the decades of dis­in­vest­ment in our schools,” says Ceci­ly Myart-Cruz, pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Teach­ers Los Ange­les (UTLA). When you have pri­va­tiz­ers knock­ing at the door — no, they ain’t knock­ing. They’re bull­doz­ing our doors in.”

The issues at stake in the strike were on the bal­lot on Super Tues­day in Los Ange­les. School board elec­tions in the dis­trict typ­i­cal­ly pit the union against char­ter school advo­cates. The UTLA backed can­di­dates in all four of the seats up for grabs. One, George McKen­na, ran unop­posed. Anoth­er, local pro­gres­sive lumi­nary Jack­ie Gold­berg, won an out­right major­i­ty of her district’s votes. Scott Schmerel­son, an incum­bent in the west San Fer­nan­do Val­ley, failed to reach a major­i­ty and will go to a runoff elec­tion in Novem­ber. The same goes for Patri­cia Castel­lanos, run­ning to replace the term-lim­it­ed Richard Vladovic, who was seen as the swing vote on the board. In an indi­ca­tion of the atten­tion paid to the school dis­trict, Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bernie Sanders, whom the union endorsed, him­self endorsed Castel­lanos. Both she and Schmerel­son, after fin­ish­ing atop their pri­maries, will face can­di­dates backed by char­ter advo­cates this fall.

In recent years, the spend­ing on Los Ange­les Uni­fied School Dis­trict (LAUSD) races has grown dra­mat­i­cal­ly. This year, out­side expen­di­tures topped $6.2 mil­lion dur­ing just the pri­maries, mak­ing them the most expen­sive U.S. school board pri­maries ever. And char­ter school advo­cates out­spent the UTLA 3 to 1. The record they sur­passed? The 2017 LAUSD elec­tions, in which char­ter school lob­by­ists spent $9.7 mil­lion to secure a 4 – 3 major­i­ty on the board, as UTLA shelled out $5.2 mil­lion. That major­i­ty evap­o­rat­ed when one of the char­ter-friend­ly can­di­dates, Ref Rodriguez, pled guilty to cam­paign-finance vio­la­tions and resigned from the board. Gold­berg, who served on the board in the 1980s before mov­ing on to the L.A. City Coun­cil and the State Assem­bly, won a spe­cial elec­tion last May to fin­ish out his term.

Jack­ie Gold­berg knows more than any­one,” says John Rogers, pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion at UCLA. Hav­ing helped steer the dis­trict through its last major teach­ers’ strike in 1989, Gold­berg is now back in the after­math of anoth­er. Rogers notes that where the 1989 strike focused most­ly on bread-and-but­ter eco­nom­ic issues, the focus of the recent walk­out was on con­di­tions of teach­ing and learn­ing: small­er class­es, more sup­port staff, and bar­ring ran­dom search­es of stu­dents, which was very much a racial jus­tice issue for young peo­ple in Los Ange­les” — a dis­trict where near­ly 9 in 10 stu­dents are stu­dents of col­or. Rogers calls this approach social-jus­tice teacher union­ism: empha­siz­ing that schools are nest­ed in a broad­er set of social con­di­tions that need to be addressed in order for the full devel­op­ment of young peo­ple and their com­mu­ni­ties to be possible.”

School fund­ing in Cal­i­for­nia has been trou­bled ever since vot­ers passed Propo­si­tion 13 in 1978, lim­it­ing the local prop­er­ty tax rev­enue avail­able to fund pub­lic schools. This means that Cal­i­for­nia spends around $1,500 per pupil less than the nation­al aver­age, despite its robust econ­o­my. The sit­u­a­tion wors­ened after the finan­cial cri­sis of 2008, says Rogers: After the Great Reces­sion, you saw a dra­mat­ic reduc­tion in bud­get and growth of char­ter schools in a very unreg­u­lat­ed lais­sez-faire kind of way.” Char­ters are union­ized at much low­er rates than non-char­ter pub­lic schools. As such, the expan­sion of char­ters rep­re­sent­ed a de fac­to under­cut­ting of union­ized teach­ers, and there­fore a poten­tial method of reduc­ing costs. 

In 2018, the school board brought in Austin Beut­ner as dis­trict super­in­ten­dent. With a back­ground in invest­ment bank­ing and no expe­ri­ence in edu­ca­tion, Beut­ner was sup­posed to get the dis­tricts’ finan­cial ducks in a row, but has since become some­thing of a boogey­man for the UTLA. He came in with a busi­ness mod­el,” says Myart-Cruz. We know that our kids, our babies are not wid­gets. Our mem­bers are not robots, they’re not automa­tons. You can walk into any school, and all of the staff have more expe­ri­ence than our super­in­ten­dent. How the hell does that hap­pen?” Beut­ner serves at the plea­sure of the board, so his future with the dis­trict may depend on the out­comes of the runoff elec­tions in November.

Tues­day didn’t all go to plan for the UTLA, how­ev­er. An oppor­tu­ni­ty for finan­cial relief was vot­ed down — anoth­er (unre­lat­ed) Propo­si­tion 13, in which the state would have sold $15 bil­lion of bonds to fund infra­struc­ture improve­ments to K‑12 and high­er edu­ca­tion facil­i­ties, pri­or­i­tiz­ing health- and safe­ty-relat­ed projects and mak­ing funds more read­i­ly avail­able to poor­er dis­tricts. True to form, the Howard Jarvis Tax­pay­ers Asso­ci­a­tion — an anti-tax lob­by­ing group named for the man who led the push for the infa­mous ear­li­er Propo­si­tion 13opposed this new­er propo­si­tion as well.

The UTLA had sup­port­ed Propo­si­tion 13 as part of its cam­paign against aus­ter­i­ty and for more robust school fund­ing. The fight is mul­ti­fac­eted: the actions of last year’s strike flow into the union’s elec­toral efforts, some­thing more union mem­bers are now com­ing to grips with, says Myart-Cruz. At the end of the day, teach­ing and work­ing with chil­dren is a polit­i­cal and rev­o­lu­tion­ary act. So a lot of folks will just say, I want to teach, I just want to work with my stu­dents, and I don’t want to do all that polit­i­cal stuff.’ But pol­i­tics can get us what we want. Pol­i­tics can get us the need­ed resources that we deserve.

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