Public school teachers on strike in Los Angeles brought district officials back to the bargaining table on Friday as teachers picketed for the fifth straight day. Coming in an era in which the federal government has expressed a determination to cut funding for public schools and shift what public money there is towards charters and other privately-run alternatives, the LA teachers strike is the first strike in the district in some 30 years. The demands of the strikers’, however, are in some ways the same as they were decades ago — with modifications to suit the era of education reform.
The Los Angeles school district is the second largest in the country, serving some 640,000 students in the public schools. The strike has forced the district to accommodate for a lack of teachers by filling classrooms with substitutes and even administrators in an effort to keep schools running. The vast majority of students, however, have simply stayed home, and many have reportedly taken to the streets — their parents in tow — to show support for their teachers.
On Thursday, attendance in the district fell below 84,000 students, a figure that has had big consequences for district funding. Money allocated for public schools by the California state government is contingent on daily attendance, and as a result, the week-long strike has so far cost the district nearly 100 million dollars (although the district has saved 10 million dollars on teacher pay in the same amount of time).
Unlike the widely publicized fights by teachers unions against Republican governors and state legislatures pathologically bent on gutting public schools in Wisconsin, West Virginia, and elsewhere over the course of the last few years, the LA strikers are facing down local and state Democrats who, they say, have sold out to private interests at a time when public education needs most to be defended.
Negotiations between the district and the LA teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, have lasted since April 2017, with little progress on either side. As is typical of just about any teachers strike, the fight is for better pay, more teachers and support staff, and smaller class size in the district. Los Angeles in particular suffers from overcrowded classes in middle and high schools, and a demand by the union last month for an immediate increase in staff led to the final collapse in negotiations that precipitated the strike.
With negotiations reopened as every day of the strike adds millions to the cost to the district, union representatives reminded supporters that the fact of negotiations itself was no promise of victory. “We should be aware that we’ve been at this for 21 months and there are some very fundamental issues that there are key differences on,” Said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “So an agreement is not going to take shape overnight. But today there’s been good and hard work on that.”
Beyond those fundamental issues, however, the fight is over privatization and the capitulation of state and local politicians to big money riding in on the wave of ed reform interests that has crossed the country over the course of the last few years.
At 224, Los Angeles has more charter schools than any other city in the United States. Charter schools dip into the public budget but are run by private contracts, and have become the crux of the fight to preserve healthy and uncorrupted federal, state, and local public education budgets. Just last month, before negotiations fell apart, the union asked for a moratorium on setting up new charter schools in the district. This week, they will protest outside the California Charter Schools Association, a powerful pro-charter lobby that has the ear of state politicians. Such lobbies contribute formidable sums to state and federal Democratic candidates, which is the main reason why the party in Congress that draws the vast majority of support from public school teachers has, with notable exceptions, refused to address the public versus private character underlying the LA strikes. Only the left-most Democrats, including Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have acknowledged this core issue, while others have chosen simply to commend the strikers and encourage the district to pay them more, or to remain silent altogether.
As far as the teachers union and the strikers themselves are concerned, however, the issue of privatization is at the core of the fight for better wages, better support, and smaller classrooms for public school students. In an interview with NPR, Caputo-Pearl described the “decades of neglect” that had, first of all, deprioritized education funding at the federal level, in particular funding for programs designed specifically for special-needs and low-income children.
“And then at the local level, you have billionaires who are promoting that we not fund our schools and instead privatize them to create a parallel system that does not serve special education students, that does not serve students who have chronic problems,” he went on. What’s more, he said, the city was behind their teachers, as represented in the nearly 90 percent of students staying home from school and some 50,000 people in total that were marching by the end of the week, despite stormy weather.
The teachers union has asked that the district dip into its 1.8 billion dollar reserve in order to increase pay and hire more teachers and school staff in the immediate future. The superintendent, Austin Beutner, argues that that money has already been allocated for spending in the next three years and would crush its reserves for the future. Caputo-Pearl, however, says that argument is misleading because the district has consistently produced wildly incorrect financial forecasts.
“Three years ago, they predicted a 105 million dollar reserve, they ended with a 1.86 billion dollar reserve,” he said. “They were off by 1.7 billion dollars.”
Beutner, a businessman and former publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times, insists that the problem is a lack of resources and the state government’s unwillingness to allocate more to the enormous district. “I saw a lovely picture of a bunch of legislators in Sacramento wearing ‘Red for Ed.’ How about green? They’re the ones who appropriate the money,” Beutner said in an interview with the New York Times. “We don’t have enough funding for schools. In a generation, California’s going from the top of the charts to near the bottom of the charts. And the legislators want to stand up there and say they’re with the teachers.”
It’s true, union reps admit, the state government too is to blame for the overall lack of funding. More immediately, however, it is the district’s intransigence on the issue of spending its reserve funding that has been the focus of the strikers’ outrage, that and the growing threat of charter schools — some of them for-profit operations — to the quality of public education in Los Angeles.