LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA — Teachers at Beachy Avenue Elementary School are weary. They’re tired of paying for so many of their classroom supplies, having very few physical education options for students, lacking laptops for students to regularly use, the co-location of charter schools, and dealing with the burden of constant testing.
And they’re willing to go on strike.
Over the past few months, rhetoric between the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has only continued to heat up. In September, the UTLA teachers voted to authorize a strike. It would be the first strike since 1989, and the largest action since 2009, when thousands of Los Angeles teachers called in sick after they heard about possible teacher layoffs.
Teachers want smaller class sizes, reductions in standardized testing, a 2 percent bonus, 6.5 percent salary increases, and a $500 stipend for materials and supplies. Teachers are also interested in expanding charter school accountability, spending more money on ethnic studies and bilingual education, and creating school climate and discipline plans, an open letter from the union shows.
Oralia Reyes, a third grade teacher at Beachy Avenue Elementary School, said she grew up in Los Angeles and knows about lack of equality in the area, which makes school struggles “hit closer to home.”
“I think that is one of the reasons why I went into teaching was because I was one of those children who was bussed to another area and when I went to elementary school, I remember thinking I lacked nothing. This was from very young and yet I knew,” Reyes said. “Then I moved to another school and I felt the lack. I don’t want any of my students to feel like they’re lacking. I don’t want any of them to feel second class or anything. That is what I am fighting for. And I think the parents once they hear that, understand that we’re not in it for ourselves.”
The union said it reached an impasse with LAUSD in July. The union has to fulfill regulatory requirements before a strike happens. Since then, there has been mediation and now they have reached the stage called the fact-finding process. Once that process is over, teachers send advance notification of a strike. Fact-finding could be over fairly soon. The process, which began in mid-October, is usually over in six weeks, according to the LAist’s interview with Tim Yeung, a labor attorney. Fact-finders make non-binding recommendations for both sides at the table, but neither side has to adopt them.
LAUSD schools are experiencing racial segregation and teaching kids living under poverty and kids learning English as a second language. The schools are very racially segregated with more than half of the district’s students attending a school that is more than 90 percent Black and Latinx. In 1978, parents refused to participate in a mandatory desegregation busing plan, and in 1979 voters amended the state constitution to outlaw it. At Beachy Avenue Elementary, 92.6 percent of students are Latinx. There are also a lot of unhoused students in LAUSD, with somewhere between 16,000 and 21,000 of them in the district. They are eight times more likely to repeat a grade. According to the LA School Report, the district is considering the possibility of using its property to house those families.
Reyes said large class sizes, few resources, and a lack of respect for the teaching profession don’t help matters. She said that even with other challenges, it’s a bit easier to teach now that she has 21 instead of 32 students to teach.
“How can we decide we can educate our students to the best of our ability when [our classes] are overflowing with students and students with needs? These kids are not all gifted or all on grade level. Each of them is an individual.” she said. They tell us to teach to the whole child. Well we have 32 bodies that we need to make whole. How do we do that? How do we do that when they don’t give us the resources?”
According to University of California, Los Angeles researchers, fewer than half of the 70 percent of students who graduate high school finish courses required for admission at University of California and California State University schools. English language learners’ reading test scores showed no growth at all in reading over the last year throughout the state and in LAUSD, less than 4 percent of English language learners scored proficient in reading, according to the LA School Report.
The school district has said it doesn’t have the money to give teachers what they want. The Los Angeles County of Education has cautioned LAUSD about spending. The county says its reserves have been projected to drop from $778 million this school year to $76.5 million in 2020-2021. The union says the district is understating how much money it has and said LAUSD has nearly $2 billion in reserves.
“The state requires only a 1% reserve, yet LAUSD has 26.5% in reserves. We have not been shown why it is so high,” UTLA said in a September statement. Coalitions for educational equity that have included United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Urban League, the Mexican American Legal Defense, and Educational Fund have said that the district is not properly allocating money to reach students most in need.
Reyes said she and other teachers didn’t necessarily intend to become active in arguing for policy changes but that the district has forced their hand.
“To supply our classroom with what they need, of course sometimes we’re looked at as the bad guy that’s whining but that’s not what it is,” she said. “It’s just that if we wanted to be in politics we would have been in politics. But I feel like it’s been put in our lap and we are trying to be the voice for students who don’t have that voice.”
Teachers say there aren’t enough counselors for students who have have mental health needs, that the physical education and equipment is extremely insufficient, and that students who have to regularly take tests on computers get very limited access to them in school.
Victoria Casas, a third grade teacher at Beachy Avenue, said teachers are exhausted from working in a system that they believe is intentionally underfunded. Casas and other Beachy Avenue teachers were also worried about charter school expansion. That expansion has been enabled by Prop. 39. Prop. 39, approved by voters almost two decades ago, included a provision that said school districts have to provide equitable and adequate unused space to charters. In some cases, school communities have pushed against co-locations. Earlier this year, North Hollywood High School students started a petition against sharing a campus with a charter school, and said some of the classrooms were wrongly identified by the district as “standard classrooms” when they should have been classified as “small classrooms.”
“There is a whole movement to privatize and we see that right under our noses,” Cases said. “The system is so rigged and they come inside a school and get half pretty much … For example, computer labs have been shut down because of a co-location coming in. Dance studios from a co-location have been put on top of special education classes and are disruptive all day long to those special education students.”
Teachers are also frustrated with what they see as disrespect of their profession from the district. Their concerns are felt across the country. USA Today recently sent 15 teams of journalists across the country to speak to teachers and found that teachers feel like they aren’t being listened to and aren’t respected, which is exacerbated by a lack of school funding after the Recession and the pressure to meet certain government measures and mandates. Teachers have been sharing this sentiment for years. This spring, there were statewide teacher strikes in several states, which mostly occurred in those with the worst education funding cuts.
“They won’t listen to us,” Reyes said. “They’re saying no, you only moved this far so you’re doing it wrong. We know what we’re doing. The things at the university that I know I need to teach kids, I know I’m lacking. We know what to do. The university knows. Why don’t we implement them?”
Rocio Lopez, a first grade teacher at Beachy, said the job is so tiring that she doesn’t have energy for family when she comes home.
“This job is so much that I go home and I have nothing for my own kids and that angers me. It frustrates me,” Lopez said as she began to tear up. “It gets me emotional because I give everything to my students and yet somebody above me thinks I’m not doing a good enough job because the test scores don’t show that. How about the love I give to my students, the attention they get, where does that come in? … The cycle continues. It never gets fixed. Now somebody’s going to have to pick up the pieces for my kids.”
Casas said she is experiencing many of the same things as Lopez and is ready to leave the teaching profession if school conditions don’t improve soon. Reyes and Lopez nodded and said “yes” as Casas explained why.
“I personally would rather end my career than come to this again. I’m done,” Casas said. “This is not about a raise. This is not about getting a few less kids in the class. This is about saving a civic institution that makes this country. This is why what happens here in Los Angeles is going to be important to the rest of the country.”
“This is not about getting a kids few less in the class. This is about saving a civic institution that makes this country.”
Lopez also she said believes underfunded public education is a national problem.
“This is a bigger than a local issue. We’re talking about corporate billionaires going in and rewriting our rights,” she said.
When asked how long they would be willing to strike for, they say they’re willing to go on strike for as long as they need to to achieve better school conditions for themselves and students.
“I’m done working under these conditions,” Lopez said, her voice quivering.
“I’m not willing to go through it anymore for my own mental health, for my family, for my students. Because if I can’t give them 100 percent because I am beaten down by the system we’re in, how is that making me a better teacher? How am I helping them? So as long as it takes.”