The nation’s second-largest school district will be upended Monday as Los Angeles teachers are set to go on strike.
Teachers and their union say they are fighting for higher pay, lower class sizes, and more support for district schools. The district says it agrees with many of the union’s demands, but can’t pay for them given its fiscal realities.
The United Teachers of Los Angeles rejected a final offer from the district Friday afternoon, which included steeper class size reductions and more nurses and counselors for schools. There was no bargaining over the weekend.
What will happen at Los Angeles schools on Monday?
Schools will remain open — with other staff, emergency substitutes, and parent volunteers supervising kids. Teachers will be outside picketing. Inside, the L.A. Times reports that “schools have been preparing to keep students together in large spaces and use online education when they can.”
Is this a continuation of the #RedForEd wave of teacher protest?
Yes and no. Schools staying open marks one crucial difference from what happened when teachers went on strike in West Virginia last year, closing schools for nearly two weeks. That was the start of a wave of teacher activism focused on school funding and teacher pay, reaching Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.
The L.A. Times has a helpful look at why this strike is both similar to and different from the ones across the country last year. Unlike in those red states, it notes, California teachers can’t be portrayed as “victims of Republican machinations” because the state government is reliably Democratic:
An us-versus-them construct, however, does not translate readily to California, where unions are among the state’s most powerful special interests. And L.A. teachers must face off against a district whose leaders echo their union’s demand for increased state and federal funding for schools. The union leader also is trying to put forward a complex argument on funding. While [UTLA president Alex] Caputo-Pearl argues that the state needs to do much more, he also says that L.A. Unified is hoarding a fortune — and that district leadership is choosing to starve its schools.
What are the union and the district really fighting about?
The L.A. Times broke down the essential disagreement over funding in a separate story this weekend. In short: Although the district currently has a substantial surplus, the district’s analyses, as well as one from L.A. County, suggest it will soon turn into a deficit. The union claims the district is “hoarding” money, while the district says it’s simply being prudent. At the same time, a proposed budget from the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, could bring an infusion of new resources. Reporter Howard Blume ends it here:
Beutner says the union’s demands would cost $3 billion. That’s debatable, partly because the union has not responded to the district with specifics on how much smaller it is asking for classes to be. The union’s position, so far, is to demand the elimination of a contract clause that gives the district broad authority over class sizes. … Everyone wants smaller class sizes — teachers, parents, students. But meaningful class-size reduction is one of the most expensive reforms in education.
What about charter schools?
Unlike in most places that saw teacher strikes last year, Los Angeles is set to see charter schools play a big role in striking teachers’ rhetoric.
The union has gone on the attack against charters, which serve about one in five Los Angeles public school students and are mostly non-unionized. UTLA recently called for stopping any new charters from opening, pinning the district’s financial struggles on their growth.
The union also believes that the district wants to implement a “portfolio model” of managing schools, a controversial idea that often brings about charter school growth and holds district and charter schools accountable for their results in similar ways. (The district says it has no such plans.)
These union–charter battles have deeply shaped the district’s politics. The last set of school board elections were the most expensive in American history, with charter supporters spending nearly $10 million and unions putting in over $5 million.
But the union’s contract demands only briefly touch on charters. Charters, though, are the focus of many district educators’ anger over not having the resources they say they need and, in the unions’ telling, amount to privatization of public education.
Some of L.A.’s charter schools share buildings with district schools, making some confrontation possible on Monday.
The head of the state charter association wrote an open letter to Caputo-Pearl before the strike. “Please be kind to both our District and charter community,” wrote Myrna Castrejón on Friday. “Students, parents, and school staff aren’t crossing picket lines to make political statements.” (The union’s strike guidelines tells members not to “get involved in confrontations or debates,” threaten people who cross the picket line, or block entrances for kids. “It’s okay to make adults wait a little while to get in [to schools], though,” UTLA says.)
As to the substantive debate, each side can point to research backing up one of their key points. Academic analyses from other states, as well as a union-backed report from Los Angeles, show that districts really do lose resources as charters grow, at least in the short term. At the same time, studies show Los Angeles charter students do better on state tests than similar students in district schools.
What does this mean for teacher unions nationwide?
As the strike kicks off, other teachers unions will be paying attention — wearing red in solidarity or watching for cues as they inch toward strikes of their own. In Denver, for one, the teachers union is entering its last week of negotiations. And as CALmatters noted on Jan. 11:
Issues at the forefront of the LAUSD dispute, such as rising pension costs, declining enrollment and the charged debate over charter schools, are also brewing in other school districts across the state. The looming strike in Los Angeles has made ripples in local unions across California. Teachers in the Oakland Unified School District, for example, are nearing a potential strike and plan to rally Saturday similar to a demonstration UTLA held in downtown Los Angeles in mid-December.
What will the political ramifications of the strike be?
That’s not at all clear, and likely depends on the length of the strike and the public response. But there is a special election around the corner to fill the seventh seat on the closely divided LAUSD board. Expect the strike and its fallout to play a big role in the race.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is mulling a run for president, has tried to broker an agreement between the two sides, to no avail. A strike would complicate a campaign kickoff.
“Launching a presidential bid while thousands of chanting, sign-toting teachers take to the streets would seem to be a non-starter,” the L.A. Times wrote. “A strike could force Garcetti to push back any presidential announcement, as better-known rivals enter the race, soak up media attention and begin fundraising.”