Public school teachers in Los Angeles voted overwhelmingly in late August to authorize a strike over stalled contract negotiations, but the issues really energizing the union membership go far beyond a new contract. Instead, say union leaders and rank-and-file members, the teachers are growing increasingly alarmed at a small clique of billionaires that has won considerable sway over the L.A. school board and is aggressively promoting charter schools as a replacement for public education.
In a stunning display of solidarity, 98 percent of some 28,000 union members voted to authorize strike action. Arlene Inouye, co-chair of the contract bargaining committee of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) union, tells In These Times that the vote reflects the dismay of the teachers and other education professionals at the actions of the school board.
For many teachers, the focus right now is on Austin Beutner, the new schools superintendent chosen by the board of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) earlier this year. Beutner is a former investment banker with no experience running public schools who replaced a former teacher as superintendent. The appointment was “a scandal,” says Inouye. One of Beutner’s first moves in his new job was to lead the LAUSD into an impasse with the union over the new contract.
The Beutner appointment is merely the tip of the iceberg as far the union is concerned, Inouye continues, noting that teachers and other educators were “outraged” last month to see school board member Ref Rodriguez plead guilty to charges of political money laundering. The charges had been brought last year, according to Inouye, yet Rodriguez continued in his school board post while he negotiated a plea deal with local prosecutors. Throughout his career, Rodriguez has consistently voted in favor of the charters — and has been strongly backed by the California Charter School Association and other pro-charter groups.
The Beutner and Rodriguez episodes came hard on the heels of a May election that saw unprecedented charter school money pouring into races for two seats on the LAUSD board. In a strategic blow to the union, pro-charter-school forces gained strength. The May victories were a culmination of a long campaign by pro-charter forces to gain board control, and foreshadow “a fight for the very soul of public education in this city,” says Inouye.
Rodriguez resigned in July, reducing the voting power of the pro-charter forces on the board, although they still wield considerable power on many issues, the UTLA leader explains. Attention is already turning to a special election planned for next March to fill the Rodriguez seat. According to Inouye, some UTLA members have already stepped forward with their intentions to run, so a repeat of the expensive and highly contentious elections of earlier this year seems likely.
Much of the funding for these pro-charter elections come from what education reformer Diane Ravitch has called “The Billionaire Boys’ Club” – a clique of rich business owners dedicated to overthrowing public education. Particularly prominent in Los Angeles are Netflix executive Reed Hastings and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.
That was the background then when union members voted to authorize a strike. The vote was less a declaration of a desire to strike, Inouye says, than a signal flare to LAUSD that teachers are united in their determination to push back against the pro-charter forces. Most teachers hope for a fair and peaceful settlement, but neither are the teachers afraid if LAUSD wants to provoke a strike, she tells In These Times.
Reflecting that fearless spirit, the UTLA held a leadership conference in late July and invited teachers fresh from the picket lines in West Virginia, Arizona and Puerto Rico. The strikers were roundly celebrated at the conference, inspiring the L.A. teachers with their stories of struggle, Inouye says. “They were genuinely inspiring for us,” she says, adding that “there is definitely a change in consciousness for teachers” since the West Virginia teachers electrified the teacher unions.
For rank-and-file ULTA member Michael Gearin, the strike vote was an affirmation that the union membership is committed to battling privatization of the public schools.
“The main reason teachers voted yes is they feel disrespected by the school board,” Gearin says.
Gearin describes Beutner as a “corporate hatchet man.” According to Gearin, the push for more charter schools is a statement that the current board wants to replace public education with privatized classrooms.
“As teachers, we are asked to do more with less, over and over again,” Gearin emphasizes. “And then that is turned against us to justify destroying the public school system.”