Last September’s sensational leak of the Great Public Schools Now Initiative, a half-billion-dollar plan to double the number of charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), sparked a firestorm of controversy. Citing the plan’s potentially crippling fiscal impact on a financially troubled district that already leads the nation in its number of charters (around 230), critics denounced the plan as “an outline for a hostile takeover” and “a declaration of war on public schools.”
The combination of public furor and the LAUSD school board’s unanimous repudiation of the initiative — which was quickly dubbed the “Broad Plan” after its sponsor, Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad — subsequently forced the nonprofit tasked with implementing it to beat a retreat in its rhetoric, if not its intent to transform half of Los Angeles’ public schools into charters.
Rosie Torres, Oakland School Board Member: “What’s going to happen if we continue to have charter schools opening and we destabilize the financing of public schools?”
Yet Capital & Main has learned that a similar private initiative has been on the table for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) for at least a decade. Virtually unknown to Oakland’s parents, and without the benefit of public exposure or open debate by its school board, the Oakland charter expansion scheme has been quietly driving policy under the political radar for a number of years. (The OUSD school board did not respond to Capital & Main’s request to comment for this article.)
Charter schools, which were born of the education reform movement of the 1980s, compete for public tax dollars but are today often run like private businesses and aren’t bound by much of the state’s education code. But what makes such large-scale expansions problematic, researchers contend, is how charters exacerbate existing inequities through access, retention and recruiting practices that “cream” high-achieving, inexpensive-to-educate children and “push out” students challenged by learning disabilities, limited English skills, academic deficits or chaotic family lives. That leaves already struggling urban district schools burdened with a larger percentage of high-needs kids but a smaller amount of money with which to serve them.
The major Oakland charter advocacy groups that responded to requests for comment about the 50 percent charter-school goal issued carefully worded denials or demurrals. Jason Mandell, a spokesperson for the California Charter School Association lobby group, admitted to “a goal for growth, but not a specific target in each district.” Rhonnel Sotelo, who has been executive director at the Rogers Family Foundation for nearly two years, said he’s never heard of a 50 percent goal for Oakland. And Debbie Veney, a spokesperson for the Silicon Valley-backed NewSchools Venture Fund, said she “can’t confirm that such a plan exists.” The city’s pro-charter coalition, Great Oakland (GO) Public Schools, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Yet according to Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, that 50 percent charter-school objective has been more or less an open secret in East Bay charter circles.
“They were probably talking about [it] 10 years ago, about whether they could take over Oakland. The idea’s been kicking around for a while,” he stated in an interview, recalling that he first heard the figure through the NewSchools Venture Fund.
Many charter supporters, Fuller added, believe a 50 percent stake is necessary to “drive the ‘reform’ agenda” in a school district. The problem with the way that charter school funding works in California is that there’s no way that a charter school’s expansion will not push a school district closer to bankruptcy. The math is simple: For every new charter seat created, a traditional district loses that much state Average Daily Attendance (ADA) money, which represents the bulk of its funding. Taking half of OUSD or LAUSD’s enrollment means taking half of their budgets.
Worse, though the ADA money follows the child to the charter, the students that remain in the public school actually become more expensive to teach. As students are siphoned from a neighborhood school to the charter down the street, the building overhead and paychecks to teachers, nurses, librarians and custodians at the non-charter do not go down correspondingly. It costs the district the same to open the doors of a classroom whether it is full or at 75 percent capacity. The emptier the classroom, the more the economies of scale that allow California districts to educate a student at the rock-bottom annual price of $9,794 collapse.
Bruce Fuller, University of California, Berkeley: The idea of charter schools taking over Oakland has been kicking around for a while.
Creaming and push-out by the charters only further inflate the expense as, over time, neighborhood public schools accumulate a disproportionate share of difficult and expensive-to-teach, high-needs kids. All a school can do is cut staff and services, along with art and music instruction, band, recess and phys ed. Eventually, those under-occupied classrooms are seen by districts budget managers as “overcapacity” and the neighborhood school itself must be closed.
Charter school defenders deny that charters are to blame and insist that districts can offset the fiscal chaos of ADA “siphoning” by simply restructuring school budgets to expand and contract with enrollment by, among other things, automatically cutting staff along with “legacy costs” like retiree health care.
Yet massive school closures were the scenario in Oakland in 2010, when OUSD’s then-superintendent, Tony Smith, floated a contentious plan to close 25 to 30 city schools. In the fierce public outcry over the destabilizing dislocations that the closures would pose for thousands of Oakland public school children, Smith and the board backed off, and in the end only closed five. Research on the student impact of mass school closures in Chicago and Philadelphia, triggered in part by charter expansions there, suggests the disruptions may hinder, and rarely help, students’ academic progress.
Mike Hutchinson, a local education activist and school board candidate who was at the center of the fight to save the schools, believes that when Los Angeles looks at the future of its public schools, it should consider what’s already happened to a large degree in Oakland. Districts like OUSD, he told Capital & Main, are being used as a kind of policy Petri dish by charter supporters, precisely to refine the kind of detailed takeover strategies outlined for Los Angeles by the Broad charter expansion plan.
“A lot of these policies were first tried out in Oakland,” he said. “If you go back and look at the Eli Broad handbook on school closures, a lot of the source information that they used for that report is from Oakland. Because they used Oakland to experiment for a lot of these things.”
One evening in February about 100 parents filled the auditorium of East Oakland Pride Elementary School, a stately, prewar Spanish Colonial Revival structure spread along a quiet street of low-income, single-family homes. The neighborhood sits at the center of the “Deep East,” a fingerlike diagonal of flatlands sandwiched between San Francisco Bay and the 580 Freeway. This community’s high-crime streets rank at the top of Oakland’s neighborhood stressor index.
Clarissa Doutherd, Executive Director, Parent Voices Oakland: “Racially we are a diverse city. But that doesn’t mean that we have to have the McDonald’s of schools coming in.”
The gathering’s mostly Latino and black families had turned out for an “informational meeting” held by the Oakland school board for parents who were deciding whether to enroll their children in one of the 86 district-run neighborhood schools or one of the 37 charter school upstarts (seven more are authorized by the Alameda County Office of Education). These have given Oakland the largest percentage (over a quarter of all students) of charter enrollment in the state.
That night a tension hung in the room, caused by OUSD superintendent Antwan Wilson’s “common enrollment” program. The controversial $1.4 million plan, proposed by Wilson last fall, would for the first time in California combine district schools and charters in one enrollment process.
Oakland public schools advocates immediately condemned the policy as the latest move by Wilson and the East Bay’s charter school forces to accelerate the migration of district students to charters and tip the city’s already under-resourced neighborhood schools off a financial cliff. It’s a suspicion fueled by the fact that common enrollment’s main financial supporter is Educate 78, a local pro-charter school group financed by the NewSchools Venture Fund.
After board president James Harris brought the meeting to order, Silke Bradford, the polished and well-spoken director of OUSD’s charter school office, delivered a PowerPoint presentation of charts and side-by-side comparisons of district-wide performance statistics and demographics of charters and district-run schools. The show was flattering to charters, particularly in slides showing that charters bested district schools on the new, Common Core-oriented SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) standardized tests in math and reading by 13 to 22 percent. This, despite teacher complaints last spring that the tests were confusing and didn’t provide a meaningful assessment of academic performance.
However, one of the Oakland school board members, who are called directors, took a look but refused to sit with her colleagues beneath the auditorium’s proscenium arch. Later, District 5 Director Rosie Torres explained her decision to Capital & Main.
“I was so angry, I just walked out,” she said. “It seemed like everybody danced around and talked about wanting a strong leader, or talked about wanting diversity — everything but the issue [of] what’s going to happen if we continue to have charter schools opening and we destabilize the financing of public schools.”
It was a startling admission from a woman who, in 2012, enjoyed the endorsement and financial backing of CCSA and GO — the latter of which receives funding from NewSchools and the Gates and Walton foundations. GO was founded with seed money from the Rogers Family Foundation, Oakland ice-cream magnate Gary Rogers’ pro-school-privatization nonprofit. That election saw GO’s candidates wrest control of the school board, which ever since has generally supported GO’s policies in the face of increasingly vocal public opposition.
Torres said, however, that once she was in office she quickly dropped her charter “neutrality” when she learned of the scope of the East Bay charter advocates’ plans for Oakland. “They actually want 50 percent [of OUSD’s enrollment],” she said. “The former charter school association president said, ‘We’re going for 50 percent of Oakland school kids.’” Torres was stunned. “Financially, what is our role as a board if not to mind and to be directing public dollars in a way that would not decapitate us?”
The day after the East Oakland Pride meeting, Torres appeared at a rally in front of OUSD’s downtown offices to address teachers at a march organized by the Oakland Education Association, a teachers union. The teachers had come to protest common enrollment and the undue influence they say philanthropy-backed groups like Education 78 exert on their school district’s leadership.
“I’m concerned … about whether or not we will still have public schools in the future,” Torres announced through a bullhorn. “That 20, 30 years after a takeover, corporations can just turn around and walk away. What would happen if this was a complete charter district? We will be left with empty buildings, no teachers, no education for students who can’t afford to go to private schools, students who can’t afford to up and move to another city that will have public education.”
Oakland’s charter school movement has been growing since the district was taken over by the state in 2003 because of a $35 million budget deficit. It was put under the control of state administrator Randolph Ward, a Broad Academy graduate, by then-mayor Jerry Brown and then-California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell. By 2009 the district emerged from receivership — and from under two more Broad Academy administrators — having ballooned from 15 authorized charters to 33. (The academy is one of two Broad Foundation programs that groom future education officials in a pro-charter school environment.)
“The state takeover and appointment of a Broad-trained superintendent,” teachers union president Trish Gorham remembered, “was pretty much the writing on the wall. [Ward] began the school closures then.” Ward closed 14 traditional public schools during his three years and opened 13 charter schools, cutting into enrollment at district schools. Mike Hutchinson, the education activist, believes that the public pushback against school closures has made Oakland charter groups rethink their tactics but not their overall goal.
Part of that shift, Hutchinson says, is reflected in Oakland Education Strategy 2020, unveiled in 2014 by the Rogers Foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund. The program strives for “creating new and redesigned high-quality schools with the collective capacity to serve 10,000 students by 2020” – which would bring the charter schools’ share of Oakland’s total enrollment to just under 45 percent.
Though the Rogers Family Foundation’s Rhonnel Sotelo denied that the plan was “necessarily trying to add 10,000 new charter school seats,” the 2020 initiative certainly allows the expansion, even as it dovetails with OUSD’s Quality School Development Policy, announced by Wilson that same school year. Under the Wilson plan, the school board each year would designate persistently underperforming district-run schools to be placed in this Quality School Development Policy. Once selected, the school site then sets up a redesign committee and a redesign process to overhaul the school’s curricula and classroom culture.
Although Oakland is the state’s most racially diverse city, the East Bay’s charter expansion has not exactly been colorblind. The most telling slide in Silke Bradford’s PowerPoint presentation was how, at 19.2 percent, African-American students were dramatically underrepresented in Oakland charters, particularly compared to Latinos at 54.7 percent (compared to 29.5 percent and 42.9 percent respectively in district-run schools).
Mona Treviño, Parents United: “Why should the public school district pay for the enrollment of schools that are not accountable to the district?”
Oakland education’s emerging racial divisions worry Clarissa Doutherd, the executive director of Parent Voices Oakland. A single parent with an African-American son, Doutherd sees the racial disparities between charter and neighborhood school enrollments as part of a larger pattern of real estate development, gentrification and displacement that has been dividing the city’s communities and, in particular, impacting its African-American population.
“Racially we are a diverse city,” Doutherd said. “But that doesn’t mean that we have to have the McDonald’s of schools coming in. Letting the market decide who my son’s going to be, I can’t imagine that. That’s a scary future.”
The 44-page Great Public Schools Now Initiative, which lays out a step-by-step blueprint for the creation of “260 new high-quality charter schools” and the generation of “130,000 high-quality charter seats” in eight years, more than doubling LAUSD’s current charter enrollment, openly states its intention to make Los Angeles a model for similar charter takeovers in other cities.
In Los Angeles, however, even the Broad Foundation’s Greg McGinty later backed off from the initiative’s takeover rhetoric. McGinty, the Broad Foundation’s executive director and managing director of policy, insisted that the plan was created only “for discussion purposes.” And Myrna Castrejón, a former CCSA lobbyist who was named executive director of the new, eponymous organization created to implement the plan, held out the hope that some of the plan’s privatization philanthropy could conceivably be used to expand LAUSD’s successful pilot school program, though she maintained that the plan’s “original intent hasn’t changed.”
The simmering anger of last February’s East Oakland Pride meeting — the one Rosie Torres walked away from — was eventually vented in the school’s parking lot as parents, teachers and board members headed to their cars. Mona Treviño and Kim Davis of the activist group Parents United, along with another parent, Tylon Hunter, paused to speak about their frustrations over what they felt had been left unsaid —that the board was pitting parent against parent.
“Why is our board putting us in this position?” asked Davis. “This was, ‘Listen to what these people say.’ You know, they want this kind of division between us, and I’m not sure why.”
“We’re not having a conversation about whether or not the district should pay for charter school enrollment,” Treviño added. “Why should the public school district pay for the enrollment of schools that are not accountable to the district? I mean, the district is accountable — or the county — for allowing these [charter] schools that are pushing kids out.”
“They should be held accountable,” Hunter agreed emphatically, “because it’s not public school parents against the charter school parents. We all should be looking at the district. And really, if you’re going to take money from the state, the county, then you should abide by the same rules that the public schools abide by.”
At the dawn of the charter movement, the education writer Alfie Kohn noted that the biggest hurdle facing meaningful education reform was Americans’ attenuated sense of community. That much of the charter school movement effectively says to parents, “’Never mind about what’s best for kids; just shop for the school that’s best for your kids.’ It’s not a community; it’s a market — so why would we expect things to be any different inside the school?”
This is the underlying concern of Oakland’s neighborhood public schools advocates — what happens to the communitarian safeguards of democratic governance that have guided public education for the last century as that system is replaced by one of philanthropic noblesse oblige?
All photos by Bill Raden
Charter Schools’ Winners and Losers, by Capital & Main Staff (with video)
Yardsticks and Rulers: Measuring Charter School Performance, by Julian Vasquez Heilig
The Charter School Movement’s Powerbrokers, by Capital & Main Staff
Who’s Accountable? Searching for Charter School Transparency, by Bobbi Murray
School Solutions and Turnarounds, by Bobbi Murray and Bill Raden
Solutions for Struggling Schools: Nine Takeaways, by Julian Vasquez Heilig
Plus video interviews with John Rogers, Director, UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.
Is LAUSD Crying Wolf With Its Claims of Financial Distress?
Persistent claims of poverty by the district have been the most contentious issue separating LAUSD and UTLA.
UTLA has aggressively challenged LAUSD on its “structural deficit” narrative that the union dismisses as little more than political theater.
As the first Los Angeles teachers strike in 30 years entered its fifth day, negotiators from both sides returned to the bargaining table, this time at L.A. City Hall, with Mayor Eric Garcetti mediating. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) bargaining team co-chair Arlene Inouye said on Wednesday that the talks, which had been arranged through a back channel that included Garcetti and state schools superintendent Tony Thurmond, would likely continue through the weekend and that teachers would remain at the pickets.
Persistent claims of poverty by the district have perhaps been the most contentious issue separating LAUSD and UTLA. The district has steadfastly insisted that LAUSD runs an annual operating deficit of $500 million and is already projected to dip .04 percent below the threshold of its $75 million statutory reserve. The cost, it adds, of the union’s core demands, which it puts at just over $800 million, will quickly lead to insolvency.
Capital & Main’s own analysis of the LAUSD budget finds that funding exists that would more than cover UTLA’s core demands without touching the district’s surplus. Our research also raises questions over how much of LAUSD’s budget projections are more of a creative art than a hard-nosed science.
“There is a history of the district crying wolf over negative balances two years out that then never seem to arrive,” agreed former Board District 5 member David Tokofsky. “If the budget were a basketball game, LAUSD would see a 20 point, final quarter lead by the Clippers as too close to call.”
LAUSD: “Los Angeles Unified simply does not have enough money to meet all of UTLA’s demands.”
The union has framed the walkout around core educational justice demands that go beyond wages and confront foundational questions about the future of public education and what kind of schooling best serves the needs of Los Angeles families.
“This is about our students,” said Inouye of declaring an impasse at a January 11 press conference. “It is about their learning conditions and the educators’ working conditions.”
The unresolved issues include contract demands for lowered class sizes, additional nurses, librarians, counselors and social workers. The union also insists that the district commit a significant chunk of a contested, nearly $2 billion budget surplus to increases to bilingual and adult education, and to making major investments in community schooling. The union has also been advocating for curriculum reforms that include a teacher say in achievement testing (UTLA wants less testing) and ethnic studies at every school.
Class-size reduction is a basic sticking point in the negotiations.
If there has been a single deal-breaker on the table, it is the district’s lack of movement on “Section 1.5” — a contractual holdover from the Great Recession unique to LAUSD and anathema to UTLA because it allows the district to unilaterally raise class sizes. The union wants it gone; the district wants it replace with “Section 1.8,” which would raise some class sizes beyond the current memorandum of understanding that Section 1.5 has nullified.
“Class size is the fundamental issue that we’ve got to deal with,” argued UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl at the January 11 news conference. “Their [insistence] of continuing to . . . be an outlier in the state of California is unacceptable.”
LAUSD’s last known offer (both sides have agreed to a media blackout during the current round of bargaining) hadn’t budged from its position that the union’s demand for a 6.5 percent pay raise be contingent on cannibalizing the retirement security of future teachers to fund it. What was new on Friday, January 11, was the district’s modest offer to add 200 new hires — or 1,200 in all — for class-size reduction, nurses, librarians and counselors. But for the nation’s second-largest school district, this represented a $130 million drop in a 900-campus bucket — and the lowered levels would expire after one year.
Much if not all of LAUSD’s gap could easily be closed simply by applying for waivers.
The offer was extraordinary both for its timing and its explanation of how LAUSD would fund the classroom reductions. The $25 million increase to the $105 million it had previously offered, a district press statement said, would include a recent $10 million pledge by Los Angeles County. It also kicked in $15 million from what LAUSD had estimated would be the $40 million in savings from $3 billion in pay-downs of rate increases and pension liability for CalSTRS, California’s giant teachers’ pension fund, that Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled January 10 in his first state budget.
UTLA immediately challenged the district’s $40 million windfall estimate, claiming that its own call to the state Department of Finance turned up an additional $100 million in ongoing revenue. By Wednesday, LAUSD had clarified that the $40 million figure merely represented the district’s share from Newsom’s recalculation of this year’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) cost of living adjustment increase, which was revised upward from the November’s projected 2.57 percent to 3.46 percent. (The actual gain, which represents an additional $120 per student for L.A. Unified’s non-charter enrollment, should bring the district closer to $49.2 million).
The school district didn’t allow Governor Newsom’s recent good financial news to dispel its fiscal gloom.
The district estimated its takeaway from Newsom’s $700 million contribution rate buy-downs at $60 million over the next three years. But there will also be ongoing cash savings from lowered liability that should be dramatic. (Some have estimated that the buy-downs could be worth as much as $200 million to the district.)
Newsom’s budget had other good news for LAUSD. It included an extra $576 million to school districts in special education funding, which would be worth roughly $75 million to LAUSD. The biggest windfall, earmarked for early education, should net Los Angeles roughly $180 million as its share of $1.8 billion for expanded kindergarten and preschool and childcare infrastructure (using a longstanding ballpark calculation that LAUSD claims roughly 10 percent of many statewide education appropriations).
The district didn’t allow the new wealth to dispel its fiscal gloom. “Every independent expert who has reviewed Los Angeles Unified’s finances agrees the District has serious budget issues,” its January 11 press statement noted. “Los Angeles Unified simply does not have enough money to meet all of UTLA’s demands.”
To underscore LAUSD’s claims of near-insolvency, the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) last week waded into the disagreement — the union asserts at the invitation of schools superintendent Austin Beutner — with a LACOE “fiscal expert” expressing “great alarm and concern,” according to a LAUSD press release.
UTLA argues that a contract cannot be bargained on future promises.
UTLA, which said it has its own forensic accountant pouring over the district’s books, has aggressively challenged LAUSD on the budget and a “structural deficit” narrative that the union dismisses as little more than political theater embroidered with scripted performances from allies within LACOE.
“There’s a $2 billion reserve that we believe is not all accounted for,” Caputo-Pearl said again on Wednesday. “We’ve pointed out that in the books and supplies line item, they consistently over-project, so there is money over-projected to the tune of $200, $300 million per year. … There’s no doubt about it. California is the richest state in the country. The money’s there for kids.”
To prove its point, the union notes that the reserve has been increasing over the past five years from $500 million in 2013-2014 to today’s $1.9 billion — a yearly average of roughly $300 million more than the district is spending. UTLA also points out a fact that has been mostly lost in the budgetary debate — namely, that neither the county, the state’s Department of Education, December’s fact-finding panel nor the other experts cited by the district have actually independently performed an audit. Never, the union adds, has it ever seen LACOE contradict a district budget when the district claims that it is in financial crisis. Everybody — the press included — has simply accepted LAUSD’s three-year projections at face value.
Capital & Main has sifted through the public reports of new and existing district revenues to see how LAUSD’s poverty claims stack up against the core contract demands that could get teachers back to the classroom.
LAUSD might have had $330 million more to bargain with had a July parcel tax resolution pushed by two school board members made it to the November ballot.
The union says that its demand to reduce the counselor-to-student ratio can be cost-neutral merely by redistributing the district’s existing counselors to meet a one-to-500 ratio at each school instead of district-wide. But we’ve thrown some new hires into our core contract offer along with more school psychologists. As such, the price tag for UTLA’s core demands works out to $411.3 million for each year of the contract.
UTLA Core Demands
- $189 million (LAUSD’s figure) for a 6.5 percent across-the-board raise, retroactive to one year
- $188 million for a 2,000 new-hire package of class-size reduction, and school counselor and school psychologist increase (based on a median annual salary and benefits cost of $94,000 per hire)
- $25.3 million for a full-time nurse at each of the district’s 720 elementary, middle and high schools (or 299 new hires at $84,809 per nurse for salary and benefits)
- $10 million for a full-time school librarian at each of LAUSD’s 223 secondary schools (or 118 new hires at $84,809 per librarian for salary and benefits)
To pay for it, we’ve included both LAUSD’s onetime windfalls from the governor’s budget plus UTLA’s less conservative estimate of $140 million in ongoing savings — a total of $944.2 million in additional revenue. But the roughly $640 million of additional annual unrestricted funding alone — new money from the governor plus excavated over-projections of books and supplies and LAUSD’s hidden annual LCFF increases — more than covers the core demands without touching a surplus that is 2533 percent over the statutory reserve of $75 million. The $217.43 million left over is enough for a generous commitment to community schooling or bringing schools up to full strength in psychiatric social workers, plant managers, assistant principals, restorative justice advisors and psychiatric social workers.
LAUSD Additional Revenues
- $180 million for L.A.’s roughly 10 percent share of onetime early education
- $49.2 million onetime net for the 2019-2020 Proposition 98 LCFF COLA bump to 3.46 percent.
- $75 million onetime special ed money
- $300 million in average ongoing hidden LCFF revenues
- $140 million ongoing pension contribution savings
- $200 ongoing for the pot based on annual over-projections of books & supplies spending.
Some of that, of course, represents state promises still two or three years out, but bridging revenue gaps has become a matter of routine education finance in California. A recent study by the nonpartisan research group WestEd found that 53 percent of the districts sampled did not expect revenues to cover expenditures over the period of 2017/18 to 2019/20. And many holes that appear can temporarily be patched simply by applying to the State Board of Education for waivers — for example, to shift, say, restricted special ed funds for computers to class-size reduction.
The irony is that the district might have had $330 million more to bargain with had a June parcel tax resolution pushed by LAUSD school board members Scott Schmerelson and George McKenna as an act of bargaining good faith made it to the November ballot. Despite polling that suggested strong voter support, the measure was blocked by Beutner and his allies in the pro-charter board majority. “It just seems like too ad hoc of a strategy,” said Board District 4 member Nick Melvoin in casting his no vote.
In an abrupt about-face, the same board last week signed onto a new resolution by Schmerelson and McKenna to put a parcel tax and a facilities bond on the 2020 ballot.
“This is an olive branch to try to say … we want to work with the union to generate more revenue for this district,” Melvoin explained to Capital & Main.
In fact, all the money for the education justice investments demanded by teachers could already be on the way. Backers of the Proposition 13 split-roll tax reform initiative that will be on the 2020 ballot estimate it will pump $1.4 billion more annually into Los Angeles County K-12 schools and community colleges.
Other potential revenue ideas include persuading the new U.S. Congress to fully fund federal Title I and IDEA supplemental funding for children living in poverty and students with disabilities, which could conservatively bring LAUSD as much as $400 million. The district could also begin collecting the $2 million each year in additional oversight fees allowed under the law from under-enrolled charter schools co-located on public school campuses, or, as former board member Tokofsky has urged, aggressively pursue developer fees owed the district out of billions of dollars in new construction. And Sacramento could close the carried interest income tax loophole, which would bring LAUSD a share of the estimated $1 billion that would pour into state coffers.
But, as the union has been arguing, a contract cannot be bargained on future promises. To bring the teachers in from the cold, LAUSD will need to offer concessions at the city hall negotiations that seriously address UTLA’s concerns about enrollment stabilization, which to the union means reining in the proliferation of new charter schools. And Beutner will need to finally deal teachers into his portfolio district downsizing initiative, “Re-Imagine LAUSD,” the elephant in the bargaining room that both sides know has profound implications for district-labor relations. Striking a deal will mean each side allowing the other the optics of a meaningful win in a contract that ultimately affirms L.A. Unified’s belief in itself.
Copyright Capital & Main
L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Four
Laura Palacios and other teachers take a break from the rain to have lunch, then return to the picket line.
‘How Long Will the L.A. Teachers Strike Last?’ May Be the Wrong Question
Co-published by the American Prospect
Important byproducts of the walkout include robust dialogues about charter schools and on how much we are willing to invest in public education.
Co-published by the American Prospect
In 1973, Philadelphia teachers went on strike for nearly two months. Cleveland teachers walked off the job in 2002 and didn’t come back for 62 days. Last year, teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma lasted 10 and nine days, respectively.
Nevertheless, just three days after teachers hit the picket line in Los Angeles, the media started to frame the strike in dire terms. One headline in a prominent news outlet asked, “Are the kids all right? LA teachers strike drags into third day with no end in sight,” while another asserted, “L.A. teachers bask in support for strike, but pressure grows to settle amid financial losses.”
It goes without saying that no one wants a protracted teachers strike; earlier today both sides agreed to return to the negotiating table, with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti serving as mediator. All things being equal, kids are better off in school, as are teachers.
But strikes usually happen because all things are not equal. Indeed, the goal of a strike is almost invariably to even the playing field.
Sometimes this happens quickly. Fifty years ago, Chicago teachers staged a two-day walkout that led to pay increases and greater job protections. A year earlier, in San Francisco, a one-day strike resulted in raises and smaller class sizes. But as the teacher strikes in Philadelphia and Cleveland illustrate, quick resolutions are not always possible if progress on the underlying problems is to be achieved.
Part of why some in the media are anxiously wondering when a settlement will occur is the relative scarcity of strikes in modern American society, particularly open-ended work stoppages that affect a much larger number of people than the employees in question. This was a major factor in the reaction to last year’s teacher strikes – we are simply not accustomed to seeing labor strife, and having it impact our day-to-day lives.
The unusual nature of a citywide teachers strike in Los Angeles is underscored by the now well-reported fact that the last teacher walkout here was 30 years ago. That means an entire generation has never witnessed picket lines massed in front of a public institution they rely on. Janitors and hotel workers have staged high-profile strikes, but for most of us the direct connection of these actions to our daily routine is minimal.
Conventional wisdom is that the L.A. teachers strike will not last more than a couple of weeks. But the problems at the heart of the strike have been building for 40 years, and may not lend themselves to a quick fix – especially given the stark divide that has arisen between the two sides.
The strike has its roots in the radical defunding of public schools in California, triggered by the 1978 passage of Proposition 13. Layered on top of this is the two-decade-old battle between charter school advocates and defenders of traditional public schools, which has intensified in the past several years.
One silver lining of the L.A. teachers strike is a long-overdue civic conversation about charter schools. This is critical, because a thriving public school system and an inexorably growing charter school movement may not be compatible. Another important byproduct of the strike is a robust dialogue on how much we are willing to invest in public education. Critics of LAUSD have long focused on low test scores and graduation rates, but have seldom been willing to address the fundamental issue of how limited financial resources affect student outcomes.
As the union and the district resume talks, the questions of charter school growth and reinvestment in public schools loom large. If the two sides punt on these in order to achieve a quick settlement, we may see a replay of teacher walkouts in the not-too-distant future. The long-term interests of students, parents and teachers may be better served if the overwhelming public support for teachers forces the district to change course. That could mean looking for new revenue sources, slowing the growth of charter schools that siphon money or Superintendent Austin Beutner pulling back from the expected breakup of the district.
Whether a one-week walkout can produce such a sea change is unclear. For now, the most important question is not how long the strike will last, but how it can achieve the greatest good.
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L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Three
The rain and the strike drag on for teacher Laura Palacios, who balances family duties with picket line vigils.
L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Two
Los Angeles teacher Laura Palacios confronts the second day of a citywide strike with coffee, doughnuts and a sore throat.
L.A. Charter School Teachers Also Flex Strike Muscles
Obscured by Los Angeles’ massive public teachers strike, a separate charter-schools walkout targets many of the same issues.
Teachers at three charter schools are decrying a lack of job protections and rising health-care costs.
A day after more than 30,000 teachers in the country’s second-largest school district went on strike, 80 teachers at three South Los Angeles charter schools coincidentally also walked out, marking only the second charter school teacher strike the nation has seen.
Earlier this month 99 percent of the teachers at the three schools operated by The Accelerated Schools (TAS) voted to authorize a strike. Their demands, aside from a pay increase, have been different from those of other United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) teachers who walked off on Monday.
TAS and UTLA had reached an agreement in March 2018 for an average salary increase of 17 percent for teachers working 195 days in the current school year. But sticking points remained, including binding arbitration to enforce the contract, “just cause” language to govern terminations or nonrenewals, so that teachers can’t be fired arbitrarily, and competitive health benefits. According to Hong Bui, UTLA’s Charter Representative, TAS management proposes to freeze the company contributions, so that any future increase in health-care premiums is borne by employees. Bui noted that binding arbitration and just cause are “enjoyed by 90 percent of unionized teachers in Los Angeles County.”
Grandmother: “There is no excuse that we’re at this point. The money is there. We are not investing in the kids’ education as was promised.”
“Most unionized charter schools have some due process and just cause, but TAS schools do not,” Bui said. “Without these protections, the employer can and has made life unbearable for those teachers who speak up.”
Bui added that between 2016 and 2018, TAS schools had nearly a 50 percent staff turnover.
On Monday TAS co-founder and CEO Johnathan Williams said, in a prepared statement: “TAS presented UTLA with a new offer that included a process for teachers with strong performance evaluations to receive a guaranteed two-year contract with a $2,000 bonus upon completion. UTLA refused the offer. Teachers who are doing a great job for students will always have a place at TAS. On behalf of our students, we implore UTLA to work with us to find a reasonable resolution that puts kids first.”
Los Angeles has the nation’s most charter schools, with 277 independent and affiliated schools serving more than 154,000 students. The breakdown can get complicated: District-affiliated charter schools are directly operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and their teachers are part of the larger strike that began Monday against the LAUSD.
Union: Between 2016 and 2018, The Accelerated Schools had a nearly 50 percent staff turnover.
Thirty-seven independent charter schools are unionized, and some of those unionized schools, like TAS, are represented by UTLA, while others are represented by the California Teachers Association. (Disclosure: The CTA is a financial supporter of this website.) But their collective bargaining agreements are negotiated with the charter school management, not LAUSD. The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) estimates that 30 percent of charter schools in the state have some form of a collective bargaining agreement or representation.
At a news conference last week, teachers emphasized that their goal is to improve teacher retention by increasing teacher protections. German Gallardo, who has taught 12th-grade history at Wallis Annenberg High School for the past two years, says that educational progress cannot be made with high teacher turnover. “I have students who have missed teachers for a year, and that inconsistency hurts when we send them off to college,” he said, referring to students who had substitutes for an entire school year.
Randi Weingarten: Educators are not the ones who have framed public schools and charters as competitors. “That’s done by people like Austin Beutner.”
Second-grade teacher Simone Barclay told Capital & Main that TAS instructors are technically “at will” employees without the ability to appeal dismissals, and who don’t know whether their contracts will be renewed year to year. “It creates anxiety and stress and doesn’t allow us to advocate for our students, whether it is [for] special education or resources for our classroom. And it leads to much higher turnover,” Barclay said.
The TAS strike comes after the release of a report by a state-appointed fact-finding panel that included recommendations for resolving many of the outstanding contract issues at TAS.
In the past year there has been a groundswell of public teacher walkouts and strikes in states including West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky and Colorado. But until December’s walkout of 500 charter educators in Chicago, strikes at charter schools were unheard of. According to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), between 10 and 12 percent of the charter school sector nationwide is unionized, and the rapid growth of charter schools is outpacing the growth of unionization. (Disclosure: AFT is a financial supporter of this website.)
California’s explosive charter growth and competition for students have made charter detractors worry about those quasi-public schools siphoning resources from traditional schools. UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said teachers are asking for “common-sense regulations on charter school growth” as part of their contract demands, making the concurrent strikes by TAS and LAUSD school educators, in theory, somewhat awkward, although teachers at both schools have told Capital & Main that, no matter where they work, they are in solidarity with one another.
Until last December’s walkout of 500 charter educators in Chicago, strikes at charter schools were unheard of.
Randi Weingarten, president of AFT, said educators are not the ones who have framed public schools and charters, per se, as competitors. “That’s done by people like [LAUSD Superintendent] Austin Beutner . . . and that creates a survival of the fittest. For years they have said that competition in schools is good, but this is a very wrongheaded premise.”
“The charter school industry said their teachers are private school employees,” Weingarten added, “but most charter schools by laws are public schools funded by taxpayers and must enable a voice for parents and educators.”
Charter school supporters, such as TAS founding member and grandmother Hilda Rodriguez-Guzman, say that charters ideally provide a higher quality and more robust education with more flexibility.
“But that’s not what’s happening [at TAS],” Rodriguez-Guzman recently admitted. “There is no excuse that we’re at this point. The money is there. We are not investing in the kids’ education as was promised. It is not acceptable that we keep losing good quality teachers and having substitutes. Sometimes we have computers teaching kids in high school, when they need that human instruction and interaction.”
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L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day One
Laura Palacios is a Los Angeles public school teacher married to another teacher. Today the mother of two joined 33,000 other union members in the first L.A. teachers walkout since 1989. This week Capital & Main will follow Palacios during the strike.
Why a Teachers Strike in Los Angeles Could Bring Big Rewards as Well as Risks
Los Angeles teachers’ demands have moved away from bigger raises and toward more funding to alleviate deep education cuts. But what would constitute victory for their union?
A teacher walkout would cast the strike as a challenge to the creeping absorption of public schools by charter management organizations.
If Los Angeles’ public school teachers go on strike Monday, they will face off against a school district headed by superintendent Austin Beutner, a multimillionaire investment banker and former L.A. Times publisher with no experience in education policy. Perhaps more important, this strike will play out on an education landscape that has radically changed since 1989, when the United Teachers Los Angeles union last walked out. Foremost has been the national rise of charter schools — which, in California, are tax-supported, nonprofit schools that operate within public school districts, yet with far less oversight and transparency than traditional schools. Only a fraction of charter schools are unionized, a situation preferred by the charters’ most influential supporters, who include some of California’s wealthiest philanthropists.
For 21 months negotiations have ground on between UTLA and the second-largest district in the nation. (The Los Angeles Unified School District enrolls 640,000 students.) The more nuts-and-bolts issues on the table include union demands for a 6.5 percent pay raise, a limit to class sizes (that can now hover around 38 pupils per classroom), and a push for more support staff such as nurses and librarians.
Kent Wong, executive director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center, notes that UTLA’s demands have moved away from larger raises and toward more funding to alleviate the deep education cuts that have been made over the years.
“It is important to understand the bigger forces at work here,” said Wong, who added that the pro-charter forces have invested millions of dollars to elect a pro-charter majority on the Los Angeles school board to shift resources from public schools to charters.
Recent teacher strikes “are not just about pay. They are about the quality of education.”
All strikes are risky undertakings and it’s an axiom that no one wins a strike. But a UTLA walkout would dramatically raise the stakes by casting the strike as a challenge to the creeping absorption of public schools by private charter management organizations.
“A strike is a big deal,” Wong said, because “you have this massive privatization scheme that’s been gutting support for public education and resources for public education. That’s the broader scenario that’s at stake here.”
A walkout by the Los Angeles union (whose 33,000 members include librarians, student counselors and other support staff) would have a recent, successful precedent. Against great odds, Chicago teachers won a seven-day 2012 strike, which became a model that transformed the school-community relationship and how teachers interact with parents. That strike was launched after a careful grassroots effort to build support among parents and the Chicago union; it is cited by Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, as a national example.
In Los Angeles signs have popped up in the windows of local businesses declaring, “We Stand With LA Teachers.”
“You could look at the Chicago teachers strike and say that was a brilliant strategy in terms of the level of community support,” said Jacobs. “But stepping back—teachers care about education. If you look at the strikes, they are not just about pay. They are about the quality of education.”
An all-in strike strategy may be risky for UTLA, but the union and others see peril for district management as well. “If [Beutner] is thinking it might be advantageous to provoke a strike,” said Jacobs, “given the recent history we have seen in states across the country and in Chicago, that seems like a foolish position to take.”
The issue in Chicago was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to close schools and the union’s push to keep them open. This was different from the situation in L.A. and in states along what Jacobs calls the “red thread”– West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, where the teachers joined with parents to oppose the underfunding of education that has occurred since the 2008 recession. Still, Chicago offers potential lessons for Los Angeles teachers.
Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs UC Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy, calls Chicago “the de facto leader of the teachers unions in the country.”
The Chicago teachers union would later reach out to teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, sharing their members’ experiences, he said, adding that, in organizing for a potential strike, the traditional big fear is that the parents are going to turn against the union. That didn’t happen in Chicago because of mindful base-building and teachers’ connections with their students and their parents.
That lesson hasn’t been lost on UTLA.
“The union will emerge stronger from this regardless of what happens. They have done a good job of mobilization among their members and with parents.”
In Los Angeles signs have popped up in the windows of local businesses declaring, “We Stand With LA Teachers,” and local parent groups have banded together to support the educators.
“I think the union will emerge stronger from this regardless of what happens,” Lichtenstein said of a possible UTLA strike. “They have done a good job of mobilization among their members and with parents. Things could turn around–a long strike and parents get upset—but I think UTLA is sophisticated enough to know what’s happening. They’d cut their losses.”
What would constitute “victory” for Los Angeles teachers?
“One definition would be very concrete things [like raises and staffing issues] —the union could win some of that,” Lichtenstein said. “The other definition is bigger—it could be the re-funding of public education in California and the country. This kind of strike is a powerful impulse to tell the [Democratic] supermajorities in Sacramento to modify Proposition 13, to bring new sources of funds so that school districts are not starved.”
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Los Angeles Teacher Contract Talks: The Sounds of Silence
With a January 10 strike deadline looming, little progress has been made in negotiations between teachers and their school district.
“I think universally there is support,” says ESL instructor Monica Braunstein. “Parents are saying, ‘What can we do to support the teachers?’”
Los Angeles’ public school drama resumed Wednesday amid a flurry of finger-pointing over responsibility for stalled contract negotiations between Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) that are now in their 21st month.
The new year began with an LAUSD press release charging that UTLA had refused the district’s offer to resume talks since the December 17 release of the state fact-finding panel’s report. “We are willing to work around the clock to resolve all of the outstanding issues, but we cannot make progress if UTLA will not even meet or engage in any discussions,” LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner said in the statement.
The panel’s report had tried to strike a compromise by urging LAUSD to at least partly agree to union demands for lowering class sizes with a modest set-aside for hiring more social services support staff, and for the union to accept the district’s six percent pay raise offer. But the fact-finders didn’t address such non-salary union issues as investments in community schooling, early and adult education, and putting limits on standardized testing. And it left untouched what has emerged as one of the negotiations’ most contentious issues — the district’s protestations of poverty even as it’s built up a nearly $2 billion surplus.
Later that Wednesday morning, Beutner claimed on KPCC radio that the district had asked the union to come back to the table over the holidays but that “UTLA has refused to engage in any kind of bargaining.” The superintendent again asserted that L.A. Unified did not have the money to meet all of UTLA’s demands and that it was up to the union to decide which of them were more important to their members than others.
That brought a quick rejoinder from UTLA, whose own press statement asserted the union hadn’t received a bargaining proposal from LAUSD since October 30 and that the union’s bargaining representatives were still waiting for a formal proposal outlined in informal emails sent by the district on December 28 and 31.
“Rather than formally communicate with the union that represents all LAUSD teachers,” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl declared, “Beutner once again tries to spin the narrative to make it seem UTLA is unreasonable.”
UTLA followed with a second statement Wednesday night that included a formal rejection of the district’s latest offer, which it described as “basically the same as LAUSD has been putting forward for months, just dressed up slightly differently.” The union added that its bargaining team would be available to meet on Monday, “if the district has a legitimate and clear offer for us to consider.”
In the meantime, both sides continue to brace for the January 10 strike deadline, with the district hiring about 400 non-union substitute teachers and promising that schools will remain open, and teachers at school sites organizing pickets. What remains unclear is how many students will cross those picket lines.
Like many UTLA teachers who are also LAUSD parents, Monica Braunstein, a 15-year adult education ESL teacher at the Abram Friedman Occupational Center, is hoping to avoid a walkout but says that if the mood at her son’s high school is any indication, then parents and students will be squarely behind the strike.
“I think universally there is support,” said Braunstein “The parents are saying, ‘What can we do to support the teachers?’ And there’s been debate. Parents are asking, ‘Are you keeping your kids home? Are you sending them to school?’ My son plans to go picket with the teachers and not cross the picket line.”
Braunstein and other veteran Friedman teachers have already had their hopes dashed by LAUSD’s refusal to negotiate the union’s demand that adult ed teachers be brought up to the same salary schedule as K-12 teachers.
The last time L.A. teachers struck was 1989’s nine-day walkout. According to Jackie Goldberg, who during that dispute was a school board member representing Board District 5 —a seat she is again seeking in the March special election — the relatively minor differences between the district and the union on salaries aren’t the sticking point this time around.
“It’s about the teaching conditions,” she said by phone. “We need more teaching assistants. Every school should have its own plant manager instead of sharing them. It’s ridiculous — [LAUSD is] behaving like we’re still in the Great Recession. Almost every other public agency in California has [restaffed] most if not all the [positions] they either didn’t fill or they laid off since the Great Recession. So we have huge class sizes — amongst the largest in the nation.”
One similarity between 1989 and 2019 that LAUSD’s current surplus dramatically illustrates, Goldberg added, is the district’s credibility problem over its pessimistic, annual three-year budget forecasts.
“In the last 30 years they’ve never been right,” she said. “No one’s saying spend all $1.8 billion. Spend half of it. Spend $800 million. Put $200 million [into] hiring 2,000 classroom teachers, reduce class sizes from the 45 that they are now, or the 40, depending on which school you’re at. There are things they could be doing right now and still put away a billion dollars for reserve.”
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Top Education Stories of 2018
We look back on 10 Capital & Main stories that reported on the changing conflicts within public education.
Bill Raden: It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken, following four decades of disinvestment and tuition hikes.
David Sirota: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. Now, however, prominent Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly have slammed the idea of offering taxpayer subsidies to the retail giant.
Co-published by Splinter.
Bill Raden: The state’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction will have a historic opportunity to correct the course of a system in which the public good has increasingly been compromised by the competing demands of private interest.
Gabriel Thompson: A January study found that 11 percent of students on the California State University’s 23-campuses reported being homeless during the past year. At Humboldt State nearly a fifth said they’d been homeless at one point during 2017.
Bill Raden: The Los Angeles Unified School District has more homeless students than many school districts have in total enrollment. In response, the district has created some innovative policies.
Deborah Klugman: When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many school districts take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk.
Bill Raden: In California, where 76 percent of its K-12 enrollment is students of color, diversifying public colleges and universities is a top priority.
Gustavo Arellano: There are over a dozen streets, parks or monuments in Orange County named after former Klan members — and one elementary school.
Bill Raden: Of California’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.
Bill Raden: Austin Beutner, who has no background as an educator, was widely seen as the more politically connected of two finalists, as well as being the prospect most sympathetic to charter schools.
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Is LAUSD Crying Wolf With Its Claims of Financial Distress?
L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Four
‘How Long Will the L.A. Teachers Strike Last?’ May Be the Wrong Question
L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Three
L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Two
L.A. Teachers’ Potential ‘Meta-Strike’ Reveals Battle Lines in U.S. Public Education War
The Tests Facing California’s New Governor
Wall Street Investors Intensify Affordable Housing Crisis
L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day One
Is LAUSD Crying Wolf With Its Claims of Financial Distress?
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