Los Angeles teachers began a strike on Monday to demand that their school district increase pay and take steps that they say will improve students’ quality of education. This is the first Los Angeles teachers strike since 1989 and follows a year packed full of teacher work stoppages.
United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), which has more than 30,000 union members, wants the Los Angeles Unified School District to give teachers 6.5 percent salary increases and a $500 stipend for materials and supplies, improve charter school accountability, and acknowledge teachers’ concerns about over-testing. Teachers also want the school district to create school climate and discipline plans and to increase spending on ethnic studies and bilingual education. Twenty-five percent of the student population at LAUSD are English language learners.
What the L.A. strike means for every student
Brad Marianno, assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the
University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the strike announcement was a continuation of a “year of teacher unrest” after the spring teacher strikes.
In 2018, teachers went on long statewide strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. There were also smaller work stoppages and rallies in Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina. They fought for more education funding, better health and retirement benefits, higher pay, and in some cases, tax proposals to increase education funding.
“We saw successful or partial teacher strikes statewide and it comes on heels of unprecedented labor unrest in Washington state where we saw at least 10 school districts had strikes,” Marianno said. “I think this strike is different. This one is obviously largely hung up on issues of salary and class sizes, which is fairly common in labor negotiations. What makes this unique is that it’s the second largest school district in the nation and in terms of scale, would impact a lot of students and parents and teachers.”
In September, teachers in several Washington state school districts went on strike after the Washington Supreme Court said the state of Washington had fully implemented a school funding plan after a 2012 court order. The court order said the state violated its constitution when it underfunded its K-12 schools. State lawmakers put $2 billion toward teacher salaries to comply. Teachers unions negotiating contracts argued salaries should be higher to meet the mandate.
“They’re trying to privatize entire systems. They’re trying to gentrify entire cities.”
Of course there are important differences between the L.A. strike and statewide strikes in 2018, said Michael Hansen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy. Los Angeles teachers are in a single district dealing with a contract dispute; it’s not a strike across district boundaries to advocate for the state legislature to change policies.
“California is a longtime union state where collective bargaining is part of the process, where all these prior strikes were primarily in right-to-work states where collective bargaining is not in the deal,” he said.
The American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) list of strikes showed 17 strikes for individual districts that weren’t part of the statewide strike wave, with teachers represented by the National Education Association, AFT, and Service Employees International Union. Many of the strikes were in Washington state, but they also took place in Illinois, Oregon, California, and New Jersey.
What led up to strike
Although Los Angeles teachers and statewide teacher strikes have distinct differences, what Los Angeles teachers seek is similar to what teachers across the country sought last year: more resources for traditional public schools. Another common theme in teacher activism in recent years has been concern about charter schools’ effect on traditional public schools.
“They’re trying to privatize entire systems,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said in July. “They’re trying to gentrify entire cities. Their program is huge. So our response has to be big.”
Caputo-Pearl’s warnings about privatization could easily be linked to the head of LAUSD, Austin Beutner, a billionaire and former investment banker who didn’t have any experience as an administrator.
In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported on a leaked plan to put half of L.A. students in charter schools over the course of eight years. Many charter school proponents championed the plan, and one notable advocate included the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. The organization’s founder has business connections to Beutner, who became the head of LAUSD last year.
Much like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a philanthropist with a pro-school choice agenda and no direct experience in education is now leading the department.
ThinkProgress asked Olivia, an LAUSD teacher who did not want her full name or school name in this article out of concern for retaliation, what she thinks of the job Beutner has done so far. She mentioned his inexperience as a liability. Beutner also plans to divide the school system into 32 “networks,” and reduce staff at the central district office, which Olivia sees as an indication Beutner would manage them like a stock portfolio. Although the district has said it doesn’t plan to use a portfolio model, there are indications LAUSD is doing exactly that.
“The schools that are underperforming will be shut down and taken over, and students with the highest needs will be impacted the most,” she said.
A 2017 report on charter schools in L.A. from In The Public Interest, a research and policy center promoting democratic control of public goods and services, asserts that public funding is spent on charter schools that offer no improvement in quality of education over neighborhood public schools, and that public facilities funding has gone to schools with discriminatory enrollment practices.
Olivia, like many Los Angeles teachers, is concerned about charter schools.
“To reinvest in public education, the number one priority is to put a cap on the independent charter growth in our district,” she said. “The unregulated charter expansion drains an estimated $600 million annually. These funds could be going to our public schools to support students with nurses five times a week, more counselors, librarians, special resource teachers, smaller class sizes, music, art, and classroom resources.”
In July, the union said it was at an impasse with the district. Teachers voted to authorize a strike in August and went through several regulatory requirements before scheduling a strike, such as mediation and a fact-finding process. The fact-finding report recommended the district “involve a percentage of money to be used for the employment of teachers and other staff to reduce class size and provide additional student access to the services of librarians, nurses and other professional staff.” It also supported greater oversight of co-location of traditional public schools and charter schools. But the report supported the district’s salary offer only a 3 percent raise retroactive to July 2017 and a 3 percent raise retroactive to July 2018, compared to the union’s ask of a 6.5 percent raise retroactive to July 2016.
The union decided to transfer up to $3 million from its strike fund for immediate use in September. In December, thousands of Los Angeles teachers and their supporters marched to demonstrate their commitment to their contract demands and the union announced the strike date. The union said it gave advance notice of their intention to strike, but the district said the union did not. On Wednesday, the L.A. Superior Court ruled that teachers were to free to strike on Monday.
Before the strike date announcement, Alex Caputo-Pearl said the district did not move on issues such as class sizes and charter school regulation at all and that the district has the money to meet some of their demands, with nearly $2 billion in its reserve fund.
How LAUSD has responded
Meanwhile, LAUSD has pursued several tactics to try to control the public perception of negotiations and to stop teachers from striking. Other than its claim the union did not give proper notice of a strike, it also tried to stop special education teachers from striking, claiming it would deprive students receiving special education services of support and mentioning that it is being monitored under a federal consent decree for special education services. A federal judge rejected the district’s case. Marianno explained that districts often attempt court orders to get teachers back to work, the court mandates often have “little bite” to them.
“With 33,000 teachers out of the classroom, I think there is little you can do to get them back in the classroom until bargaining and negotiations are complete,” he said.
LAUSD has also spoken to the press of offers to the union that the union said were not made through official channels. In December, the district issued a statement saying that the union agreed to a 6 percent raise and said about the claimed agreement that it would “provide the basis for a reasonable settlement of the remaining items” but UTLA later said no such agreement had been reached. Caputo-Pearl accused the district of “perpetuating falsehoods.”
“I feel like the teachers I’ve worked with and met, these are people who really care about our kids and the things they’re asking for are not terrible things.”
Both parties have filed unfair labor charges against each other. The district has filed unfair labor charges against the union after it said UTLA directed teachers to boycott faculty meetings. The UTLA filed an unfair labor charge against LAUSD saying that the district unlawfully interfered with the August strike vote. Marianno said it is fairly common for there to be unfair labor charges involved in contract disputes.
Susan, whose son is in kindergarten at a traditional public school, said she’s pleased with her son’s education but is unhappy with how the district handled negotiations. She is not providing her full name out of concern for her family’s privacy. She considered sending her son to a charter school but was worried about school safety and regulations there and thought her son wouldn’t believe in an equitable education if he attended a charter.
“I feel like the district is throwing up their hands by saying ‘Oh you knew what screw it we’re just going to go to charters and screw you regular school teachers. I feel like the teachers I’ve worked with and met, these are people who really care about our kids and the things they’re asking for are not terrible things,” she said. “They’re asking for a reasonable raise, for all the teachers to have the same health care …”
She added, “In their rush to embrace this free market baloney thing, they’re forgetting there are great schools with great parents and great teachers who want to improve things and the way to do that is by working with the teachers and working with the parents and bringing in more progressive learning materials and more progressive learning methods — stuff that is very researched and known to be true.”
What comes next
Teacher strikes don’t typically last more than two weeks, Marianno explained. Parent support like Susan’s will be a critical factor in deciding how long these strikes will last.
“Parental support is a big deal and the more pressure parents put on the situation, the more likely you’ll see a resolution,” he said. “If they go longer than two weeks that’s pretty unprecedented.”
Susan said she is fortunate enough to work from home and will make rules for her son to watch education television, visit the park, and only spend so much time on video games. She said that if the strike lasts an unusually long time, she may help other parents who don’t work remotely and welcome their kids to spend time at her house.
Olivia said that since last June, she has prioritized saving money in case teachers went on strike. She said her UTLA Chapter has been reaching out to community members to gain more support and has informed parents about why teachers are striking.
“While many parents are supportive and ready to be with us on the picket line, I have reminded parents that they should make their own decision about whether to send their children to school during the strike because every family has their own circumstances,” she said. “My hope is that either way parents could view this as a learning experience to explain to their child that teachers are uniting and going through this struggle to voice what matters in society, our civic institutions.”
Usually strikes work out well for teachers, Marianno said. But distrust between teachers and the district could fester after a major work stoppage such as one.
“If you look at the recent history, they tend to turn out well for teachers in terms of securing the wages and working conditions that they want,” he said. “Washington state was somewhat of a unique situation because the state earmarked money to go to salaries but teachers won large salary concessions there. So these cases turn out well for the teachers because ultimately, the power is in their favor in these cases.”
Marianno said at a district as big as LAUSD, striking teachers will have a lot of power.
“It’s very hard for a district to replace those teachers so walking out of the classroom gives them a tremendous amount of power in labor negotiations. On the flip-side, these things can set back labor negotiations for years to come. They can harbor a lot of mistrust between employees and employers and so they’re often difficult to overcome in terms of regaining trust and improving morale and relationships.”
Olivia said she is prepared to strike for as long as it takes to receive a fair contract.
“I have my picket sign made, rain poncho, and umbrella ready to strike come rain or shine on January 14th.”