Talking Points Memo recently launched a series called The Hidden History of the Privatization of Everything, focusing on what TPM calls “one of the most significant and pervasive politico-economic trends in the United States in the last half century.”
The series kicked off with Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest and a regular contributor to Capital & Main, writing The History of Privatization. Cohen traces the arc of privatization from its ideological roots in the mid 20th century through its development as a political movement, to the institutionalized force it is today in government, industry and advocacy.
Capital & Main recently talked with Cohen about this history and his work on the front lines fighting against privatization. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Capital & Main: Why write about the history of privatization?
Donald Cohen: I think it’s important to set the current efforts to privatize prisons, schools, water and parks — pretty much everything — in both a historical and an ideological context. [Privatization] became a political strategy that was articulated very clearly as a way to break the pro-government service coalitions and constituencies. Then it also became a useful tool for industry that wanted to get their hands on pieces of the $6 trillion or so that’s spent every year by governments. It’s just not about the day-to-day arguments of private versus public. It’s really about something much deeper than that: Who owns America, and in whose interest do we provide public goods?
So the players can use privatization politically, as can private companies that are after profits.
That’s right. Governments have been contracting forever. That’s not new. When the right-wing political strategists got involved, they basically turned the existing, normal contracting practice into an ideological activity. They both co-opted what was already happening and wrapped it in a larger ideology, and then opened the door for much more.
Has that ideological war changed how those day-to-day, traditional contracting practices happen?
In some ways, absolutely. Every proposal now – to outsource trash or sanitation, to create a new charter school run by a for-profit, or to use public-private partnerships to rebuild American infrastructure – is a battle over privatization, both from progressives saying, “Wait a second, we want to keep control of public goods,” and then from the other side saying, “Well you know that private enterprise and the market are better at those things.”
Your work with In the Public Interest straddles both of those discussions. You’re very involved in these writings on the ideological level, but you also do research on specific cases and privatization proposals. Do those fit together pretty well?
They do for us, yes. It’s not just the history we write on. We do reports and write on current issues. We send out a newsletter every week. This week’s newsletter went out on Paul Ryan’s supposed antipoverty plan that includes within it a handoff to Wall Street to solve poverty – which you can’t really do.
We [debunk the assumption] of privatization being cheaper, better and faster on the one side, and then on the other side, [explain] the importance of public goods.
Is there a natural tension between these different political and private-profit players? It seems like, to some degree, the smaller-government folks and the people making profits off of government spending might not always share the same interests.
Not usually. On the margins, in a few cases. Tea party types in Texas, and maybe other places, have fought public-private partnerships that use Wall Street financing and give private control of roads, because they don’t like corporate cronyism on the one hand, but they also don’t like tolls. We don’t have the same position on tolls. Whether they’re the right thing or not, we think we’ve got to pay for the stuff that we want. We’re not against tolling. So that’s a little bit of anti-crony capitalism on their side, and an anti-paying-for-anything on their side, too.
It’s not a tension as you describe it, but we look for places where we believe we have opportunities and advantages. People believe that government and public services should be transparent. They believe the public should be in control of them. They should be accountable to taxpayers and be effective and efficient. That’s bipartisan, all across people have those beliefs.
Part of our job is to show that when you privatize something you lose control. You lose transparency, and because there’s information you simply can’t get, you lose accountability.
You lose those things so we keep hammering on that. In fact, we have broad public support on the fundamentals. We’ve just got to get them to the ideological and practical [conclusions].
Are there instances where you’ve been effective using that angle?
Yes. There have been some bills passed in the past couple of years, even in conservative places – they may have come out of our policy agenda, but if not they were completely in sync with our agenda – around better transparency and better accountability in contracting.
Louisiana passed something like that. It was quite a good law, but we weren’t involved in it. Texas has passed improvements in their contracting law, and we were a little bit involved in that one.
You quote one privatization proponent, Robert Poole, the founder of Reason, as saying, “Most local services have few attributes of true public goods,” because you can identify people who benefit as consumers of the services.
Well, they’re wrong. What’s a public good? A public good is a thing that basically delivers good, sustainable economic security, and health to everyone. We can decide what’s a public good. Education is a public good. Transportation is a public good. They’re things that everybody needs, and we don’t want those things to rely upon whether you [as an individual] can afford to do it or not. It should be something that’s basic and universal.
Is that a good litmus test of what should be a public good — that it shouldn’t rely on people needing to afford it?
Yes. Though I’m not sure it’s complete. For example, clean air – it’s not a question of whether you can afford clean air, but clean air is something that we simply need and everyone depends on. It’s not just about paying for a public good. It’s also about the basic standards and the things that we have to do together.
It also seems that many of those things that Poole lists as not being public goods – libraries, transit, police and fire protection — are actually natural monopolies, which would torpedo his efficient-market arguments in some way.
What do you think the current trajectory is of the public discussion on privatization and public role of government right now?
Those are two different things. On privatization, I think the trajectory is in our favor. People are starting to realize that there’s fundamentally a corporate grab for the cash, for taxpayer funds. I think there’s increasing awareness of that, and there are big sectors where people have real doubts about whether profit should be involved in the delivery of those things, like corrections, like education. And the doubts are growing.
In terms of the role of government, that’s a larger question, and I think we’re in a pitched battle on that one. We’re losing some, we’re gaining some. It’s probably the most important thing we need to do: to develop a new public faith in the institutions of the public. But it’s going to take a while. Forty years of attack has done some real damage.
Obviously this year’s presidential debates and discussions have gone a little bit crazy, but have you seen a shift about how some of these issues are talked about this year as opposed to previous elections?
Presidential elections aren’t about detailed issues. They’re just different beasts. They’re really different beasts.
We’ll talk about education. The Obama administration is taking some really good actions against the for-profit colleges, and they’re getting pushback. If you read the Wall Street Journal, there’s a lot of pushback on what the president has done, or is doing, on for-profit colleges, and lots on charter schools and lots on corrections. Whether or not it’s top-tier, in terms of the presidential campaign, these are active debates that are happening in very real ways.
You wrote an op-ed recently in the State Journal-Register on Illinois, where Governor Bruce Rauner has been pushing hard for across-the-board privatization.
Right. The other piece here to think about, of course, in terms of the current political environment, is if you’re a conservative politician and you get elected to be governor, privatization is very appealing for a number of reasons. One, is you’re probably ideologically predisposed. Two, is you want a downsized government. And three, you want to bust public sector unions. So it’s kind of a threefer for the right wing.
One example you mentioned was Chicago’s privatization of its parking meters. It seems like one of the most egregious examples, and a lesson about putting an immediate need for money ahead of overall management of public goods.
There are two fundamental reasons that deal was so awful. The first is that even if they wanted to borrow money in that crazy way, by selling off future revenue, they sold a billion dollars too cheap. They got hosed by Wall Street.
The second and more fundamental reason is that now any decision the city council wants to make that would negatively impact parking revenues will require them to pay the private parking companies [for lost revenue]. Closing metered spots for a street fair, eliminating spots for bus, rapid transit or bike lanes. If it’s permanently eliminating parking spots, they’ve got to buy them back for the future value of the spot, meaning 75 years…probably about 69, now.
That’s pretty amazing.
That’s the assault on democracy and the ability to make decisions. Think about it. You’re on the city council and you want to do a street fair, and close a whole neighborhood, or a set of streets for the weekend — it’s going to cost you an extra million bucks. You probably don’t even make the proposal if times are tight.
Anything you would tell readers they should be paying attention to on a local level?
Education’s the biggest. Eli Broad and the Waltons – the Walmart Waltons – are waging a frontal assault on public education in Los Angeles. They want to destroy it. They want to create a parallel system that they control, and then have a public system that’s bled of resources. That’s the biggest issue in Los Angeles right now. It’s not just about charter schools. It really is an assault on public education at a very deep level.
The charter school political organizations are spending millions of dollars in Assembly and Senate races, and in school board races around the state. They’re actually focusing on Democrats, so they’re electing pro-charter, moderate Democrats.
As you mention, there are many Democrats who are pro-charter — tacitly pro-privatization in this area where they might not be on parks, trash pickup and other things.
Yes. And to be clear, we’re not against charter schools. They should be accountable, which they are not. They should be transparent, which they’re not. They should [be held to] high standards, which they are not. They should be controlled by local school boards, so that they are integrated into the entire public school system, which they are not.
This is about educating every kid, and they want to be able to segregate, and isolate, and do their own thing. That’s a problem.
What would the end game look like if they were to be successful and basically privatize these public school districts?
It’s a resegregation. New Orleans, after Katrina, basically went all charter. A bunch of research has been done, and the simple conclusion is that it’s a multi-tiered system. That’s a resegregation of public schools. That segregation hurts democracy in very deep ways.
It seems like that segmented, multi-tiered system has parallels in other services: In public safety or street services within gated communities, segments of the more well-off population are effectively buying out of different areas, in part using privatization. They no longer share the broader interest in these public goods.
And with charters, it’s all publicly funded, so it’s sort of a step towards vouchers. Some lower-income folks will do better and some won’t. It’s a commitment to the market principle of the need to “compete” — schools need to compete for the loyalty of parents to enroll their kids. We know what happens in markets. Some win and some lose.
That’s not okay for education. Everyone’s got to win.
California Ramps Up College Education Behind Bars
Co-published by the American Prospect
Prisons have been called universities of crime. What if they became, instead, actual universities?
A 2014 law is turning state lockups into de facto institutions of higher learning.
Co-published by the American Prospect
In January 2017, Peter Fulks, a former police officer, stepped inside the California Correctional Institution (CCI), a sprawling supermax prison of more than 4,000 inmates, located just west of the foothill community of Tehachapi. The previous year, Fulks had accepted a teaching job at Cerro Coso Community College, which serves the sparsely populated eastern end of Kern County. The baby-faced 32-year-old had only a semester under his belt when he had volunteered to take his course about criminal justice inside a criminal justice facility, part of a daring experiment in California to provide face-to-face college courses to people behind bars.
Fulks wasn’t sure what to expect at CCI. He admired the idea of teaching prisoners, and believed education could be transformative, but he was also prepared for resistance. “I was ready to argue for four months straight,” he said. The first day was rocky. After he announced that he would be dividing the inmates into groups, a man at the back of the classroom interjected, “Professor, I believe we have already established our groups.” Fulks looked at his new students, who had organized their seating arrangements by race, as so much else was organized inside the prison, and let it be.
Inmate: “Everywhere I turned, people were talking about what classes they have, what homework they had due, how many units they needed to complete their degree. I had to see what this was all about.”
Like Fulks, his students seemed to believe in the value of education—they had signed up for his intro course, after all—but he sensed they were skeptical that anything positive could come from their time in prison. (And for good reason, Fulks conceded.) The skepticism didn’t last. During the semester, they studied the history of prisons, analyzed the budget of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and wrote letters to elected officials regarding various public safety bills. The inmates were enthusiastic and sharp, and they were soon high-fiving and chest-bumping each other without regard to the institution’s racial order.
“I got to see in front of my eyes a complete breakdown of the prison’s subculture,” Fulks told me. He also saw a side of the criminal justice system that hadn’t been visible from the perspective of a beat cop: the talent, drive and dreams of the people he had once put away. After that first semester, he set out with his colleagues to scale up the program and has turned Cerro Coso into what is likely the largest provider of face-to-face college education in the nation. This academic year, 10 full-time and 36 part-time Cerro Coso instructors will teach more than 1,200 inmates at CCI and another state prison located in Kern County, the California City Correctional Facility.
* * *
Fulks and Cerro Coso stand at the forefront of a remarkable effort to turn California’s prisons into de facto institutions of higher learning, made possible by the passage, in 2014, of state Senate Bill 1391. Inmates had previously been mostly limited to GED, career technical and correspondence programs, but the new law allowed community college professors to teach inside prisons and be compensated for instructing inmates as if they were students on the outside. Though the experiment has been operating largely below the radar, the results have been striking: In the fall of 2018, nearly 5,000 inmates from all security clearance levels took face-to-face college courses. That’s more than in any other state, and more than the total number of students enrolled in the federal Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which began under the Obama administration in 2016.
Prison Teacher: “You are entering an area
of supreme control, of which you have none.”
There is plenty of evidence to support bringing higher education classes into prisons. Nearly all inmates will eventually be released, and a comprehensive 2013 RAND Corporation study found that inmates who participated in educational programs lowered their chances of recidivating by 43 percent. The RAND study also found that each dollar invested in correctional education returns between four and five dollars. And prisoners are often hungry to learn: Thus far, incarcerated students in California who take community college courses are consistently receiving higher grades than their campus counterparts.
One inmate, a student of Fulks who didn’t want to include his name, wrote that he had been transferred to a prison for disciplinary reasons. He described himself as a “multi-striker” who had first entered prison in 1993. After his transfer, he noticed “a buzz around the facility that I have never experienced in this environment. Everywhere I turned, people were talking about what classes they have, what homework they had due, how many units they needed to complete their degree. I had to see what this was all about and signed up for whatever I could get.”
Last fall, he took five courses, including art history and psychology, and is on track to earn his associate degree later this year. “For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like a ‘lost cause,’” he concluded, adding that he was “on the right path to becoming a success story [and a human being again].”
* * *
“People talk about reduced recidivism, safer communities, and saving money, and those things are true,” said Rebecca Silbert, a senior fellow at the Opportunity Institute in Berkeley and co-director of a statewide initiative, Renewing Communities, that supports providing higher education in prison. “But, fundamentally, this matters because we are a nation that believes in opportunity for all. What is the point of public higher education, if not to create opportunity for the public—meaning all of us, even those who made bad decisions in the past?”
Silbert has been heartened by what California has been able to achieve in a relatively short period. Still, challenges remain. Textbooks are expensive, especially for inmates who might earn only 25 cents an hour. Much of the administrative work is labor intensive and unfunded—to register students, someone has to physically travel to the prison yard with a clipboard. And professors must learn how to design lesson plans that don’t require the Internet and avoid assigning banned books, which in California include such titles as Dante’s Inferno and Freud for Beginners. There are delicate relationships, as well, to manage between CDCR and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union that represents prison guards. As a teacher in a prison, Fulks told me, “You are entering an area of supreme control, of which you have none.”
However, both Fulks and Silbert feel that California is on the right path and can provide a model for other states. Fulks told me that he had recently returned to teach a more advanced course to his initial students, a handful of whom have earned their associate degrees and want to pursue a PhD program. To meet this demand, Cerro Coso will soon be bringing in doctoral students from the University of California, Los Angeles, who will mentor inmates during their final year in prison and help place them into a bachelors-to-PhD program upon their release.
Fulks laughed, thinking about this prison-to-PhD pipeline: “That has happened zero times with my students on the outside.”
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Tipping Points: Are Charter Schools Oversaturating Their Markets?
Studies have found charter school glut and hyper-competition in many neighborhoods.
Evidence suggests that beyond challenging traditional schools, charters are also a growing threat
to other charter schools.
Charter school supporters maintain that the schools provide an important choice for parents in poorer neighborhoods with lower-performing schools. But the context of the recent Los Angeles teachers strike was their union’s claims that charter schools represent an existential threat to the school district by siphoning students from traditional public schools and the per-pupil funding that comes with them. Independent charter schools, unlike affiliated charters, which are essentially district-run schools, are run by non-profit organizations and do not report to the school district, even though they use district money to operate.
But evidence suggests that beyond presenting a serious challenge to traditional schools, charters are also a growing threat to each other.
“My concern is about charter school bubbles forming.”
Preston Green III, Professor of Educational Leadership and Law at the University of Connecticut, told Capital & Main that charter school growth, especially in California, is at a crossroads.
“There are people in the charter lobby that believe unfettered growth is a good thing,” Green said. “And there are people in many urban communities that don’t believe their needs are being met in a traditional system and they want better schooling. My concern is about charter school bubbles forming.”
This perception is gaining ground among some local educators. A 2018 op-ed written by a Los Angeles charter school teacher claimed that unregulated growth of charters is not only cannibalizing traditional public schools but other charter schools as well. “Between more charter schools being authorized and the impact of gentrification, we are finding it more and more difficult to meet our enrollment capacity with each passing year as the student population in the community declines,” Sylvia Cabrera wrote.
District data show widespread under-enrollment across LAUSD charters.
Total student enrollment across the Los Angeles Unified School District has been declining for years, due partly to the high cost of living, which is pushing out families from the city. The latest LAUSD Superintendent Budget showed an overall enrollment decline of approximately 100,000 K-12 students districtwide — at the same time enrollment in charter schools increased dramatically over the past 14 years.
According to the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), 118,820 students are being served at 249 charter schools throughout LAUSD. The CCSA also reports that there are more than 16,000 students on a wait list for charters authorized by LAUSD, and nearly 20,000 on wait lists for all charters in greater Los Angeles. The waitlist estimates are based on reported counts given by charter leaders; CCSA says that its estimates take into account duplicate students applying to multiple schools.
Unless there are a few standout charters that every student is applying to, those wait list figures are hard to square with district data that show widespread under-enrollment across LAUSD charters.
Kreative Webworks’ offers charter schools digital marketing, social media and pay-per click web searches — all specifically tailored to a school’s ideal parent.
A November 2018 LAUSD interoffice memorandum on charter school enrollment showed that more than 80 percent of the 224 district-authorized independent charter schools were under-enrolled:
The aggregate enrollment projections from the schools anticipated that 128,374 total students would be enrolled. The official Norm Enrollment figures show that the actual number of students for 2017-2018 was 112,492 students (or 15,882 fewer students than the schools projected).
* * *
With more charters chasing fewer students, marketing and outreach have become increasingly crucial to enrollment.
Chuck Bankoff, who runs Kreative Webworks, a California-based marketing and strategy firm devoted to school promotion and branding, said that charter schools are seeking his services because of the growing difficulty in getting new students.
Traditional public schools don’t have marketing budgets, putting them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis charters.
“There are more charter schools and much more competition among them now,” Bankoff told Capital & Main. Kreative Webworks’ offerings, which include digital marketing, social media, and organic (such as Google) and pay-per click web searches, have to be specifically tailored to a school’s ideal parent.
“Sometimes people who contact us are in the process of setting up a charter but they have no clue how to populate it with kids,” Bankoff added. “They assume the kids will come.”
Depending on what the strategy is, Bankoff’s fees range from $1,500 – $2,500 per month per school, plus advertising budgets, if needed.
Where the funds come from to pay those fees isn’t entirely clear. A spokesperson for LAUSD said that it’s impossible to know how much money charter schools in the district spend on marketing, because there is no line item for that expense.
In an email, Brittany Chord Parmley, spokesperson for CCSA, said, “Each charter school’s marketing budget and capacity varies and we do not have figures, guidelines, or recommendations on what this should look like from school to school.”
What is clear is that traditional public schools don’t have marketing budgets, which puts them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis charters.
Arlene Irlando, chief of staff for LAUSD school board member Scott Schmerelson, said the district’s schools “don’t take out ads in newspapers or use any money for advertising. That means we also don’t have resources to tout our schools’ successes.”
* * *
With 224 independent and 53 affiliated charter schools, L.A. Unified leads the nation in charters, and nearly one in four district students attends a charter. But their proliferation is not limited to Los Angeles.
Over the past quarter century, California has opened nearly 1,300 charter schools serving 620,000 students, or 10 percent of the state’s total student body, according to a 2018 report on the financial impacts of the growth of charters in three school districts. Looking at Oakland, where 30 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools, the report, prepared by In the Public Interest, determined that unchecked growth was damaging educational opportunities for students in nearby public schools.
“When the district can’t stop anyone from opening [a charter school] it loses control over having any rational plan for the number of schools or the kind there should be,” the report’s author, Gordon Lafer, recently told Capital & Main.
Charter school advocates like Charla Harris, founder of a new school in South L.A., say that they’re filling a need, especially in poorer neighborhoods where parents feel traditional schools have let students down. Preston Green said he doesn’t disagree with that claim, but believes that unchecked charter school growth spells trouble for the schools.
“The focus,” said Green, “has been on increasing the number of charter schools without thinking about whether the money was there for those schools, without thinking about whether the business plans were good, without thinking about whether they were going to be serving the students.”
California isn’t alone in facing the charter bubbles that concern Green. A 2019 study of charter school expansion in Chicago showed a glut of new schools being located in communities next to public schools that have closed. The study found that “69 percent of new charter schools were opened in areas with significantly declining under-18 population and approximately 80 percent of charter schools were opened within walking distance of closed school locations.”
On January 29 Los Angeles’ school board, shortly after unanimously approving a new contract with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), met another demand of the union by calling for a temporary local moratorium on new charter schools until a study can assess the impact of the 1992 California charter law that has allowed the green-lighting of new charter schools. (Only Sacramento lawmakers can change that law, although Gov. Gavin Newsom and state schools superintendent Tony Thurmond have both endorsed a temporary, statewide charter school moratorium.)
On that day a raucous crowd of about a thousand charter school advocates demonstrated outside LAUSD headquarters before the vote, showing that the us-versus-them chasm between supporters of charters and of traditional schools isn’t likely to be bridged soon.
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What the New L.A. Teachers Contract Means
Tuesday’s real winner was union president Alex Caputo-Pearl, who cited district concessions on class-size reduction and on hiring more nurses, librarians and counselors as the biggest victories for LAUSD families.
It’s over. Following a 21-hour, all-night bargaining marathon, United Teachers Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner appeared with Mayor Eric Garcetti on Tuesday morning, the sixth day of the L.A. teachers’ walkout, to announce a tentative settlement of the first Los Angeles teachers strike in 30 years. Teachers and their students will resume classes today.
Garcetti, who last Thursday locked the two sides into a City Hall room and, for the next five days, personally mediated the negotiations, called the agreement “historic.”
“You have to be fiscally responsive but you also, as the saying goes, sometimes have to make sure that your reach exceeds your grasp,” the mayor told the hastily assembled room of reporters and negotiating team members.
Both Beutner and Caputo-Pearl took up Garcetti’s historic significance theme, as each underscored what they considered their respective wins and emphasized the need to reverse the 40 years of disinvestment in California public schools triggered by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.
“That issue does not go away now that we have a contract,” Beutner noted. “The importance of this moment is public education is now the topic in every household in our community. Let’s capitalize on this. Let’s fix it.”
* * *
The real winner in the room was Caputo-Pearl, who cited district concessions on class-size reduction and on hiring more nurses, librarians and counselors as the biggest wins for the union, for LAUSD families and for the district itself. Over the last four years he had virtually rebuilt UTLA from the bottom up and forged new alliances with students, parents and the district’s Latino communities. By positioning the strike as a continuation of last year’s “red state teacher’s rebellion” and moving beyond salary issues, the union leader also succeeded in making the strike a national symbol for the threats posed to American public education.
“So this is much more than a narrow labor agreement,” Caputo-Pearl emphasized. “It’s a very broad compact around things that get at social justice, educational justice and racial justice.”
- Class Size Reduction: Elimination of the old contract’s “Section 1.5,” which had allowed the district to unilaterally raise class sizes; also includes year-by-year reductions to caps spelled out in the 2014-17 contract.
- Salary: A six percent increase, with three percent for the 2017-2018 school year and three percent for 2018-19.
- Community Schools: Thirty schools to be designated as community schools by June 30, 2020, with additional funding and a full-time community schools coordinator.
- Nurses & Librarians: Yearly increases to get a full-time nurse at every school and a full-time librarian at every secondary school by 2020-2021.
- Counselors: Seventeen additional full-time counselors by October 1, 2019, to maintain a counseling service ratio of 500-to-one per secondary school.
- Charter Co-Locations: Gives a UTLA member at each co-located school site a seat at the table to negotiate a shared-use agreement.
- Testing: A joint UTLA/LAUSD committee will develop a plan to reduce the number of assessments by 50 percent.
Common Good Issues
- Student searches: A pilot program ending random backpack searches will be expanded to 28 schools by the 2021-2022 school year.
- Green Space: A joint Green Space Task Force between LAUSD, UTLA and the City of L.A. will create a plan to increase green space on LAUSD campuses that includes bungalow and asphalt removal, and creating green play areas, water retention systems, and community school parks by December 2019.
- Immigrant Defense Fund: LAUSD will provide a dedicated hotline and attorney for immigrant families and will collaborate with UTLA for further services.
* * *
Perhaps the most remarkable, albeit symbolic win by UTLA negotiators, was to persuade Beutner to put a resolution for a charter school cap to a vote at the next LAUSD school board meeting. Although the resolution will certainly be voted down by the board’s pro-charter majority, for a superintendent who, only a month ago, had dismissed charter controversies as a “shiny distraction,” and who has been working behind the scenes on a plan that would accelerate charter growth through his “Re-Imagine LAUSD” plan, the concession’s symbolism is striking.
“We talked about charter schools and the importance of investing in existing schools, and really having accountability and regulation on charter schools, which is a part of this broader agreement,” Caputo-Pearl affirmed.
Afterwards, the UTLA president credited the contract breakthrough to the solidarity of the rank and file, as well as to assurances from Governor Gavin Newsom that LAUSD could expect further help from Sacramento. Those pledges included backing a union bill that would bring in more money by adjusting administrative ratios. And the governor has also agreed to statewide action on community schooling and to earmark more state funding for special education.
Newsom has already acted on at least another assurance to the union. On day one of the strike, he told reporters that he wants to see legislation on charter school transparency and accountability during this session. “I’m going to be advancing with a sense of urgency,” he vowed.
The deal immediately went before a closed session of the LAUSD school board and will get a formal vote next week. UTLA’s rank and file voted their approval on Tuesday night by what Caputo-Pearl described as a “vast supermajority.”
“What we were able to win in this agreement,” added Caputo-Pearl after the vote, “is a testament to you, our members, and you making a sacrifice by going on strike in order to improve the public education system for our students, our families and our communities.”
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Los Angeles’ Schools Strike Was a Teachable Moment for Students
Co-published by the American Prospect
The scenes unfolding outside students’ schools were dramatic by any measure, giving them daily glimpses of their teachers’ commitment and the power of collective action.
Breaking: Striking teachers and the Los Angeles Unified School District reached a tentative contract agreement this morning.
Co-published by the American Prospect
Now that it’s tentatively over, the first teachers strike in 30 years to hit the Los Angeles Unified School District can be said to have given students at least one critical lesson. Since last week, when their teachers began picketing in the pouring rain across L.A., demanding both better wages and essential support and staffing, a new generation of kids has experienced first-hand the purpose and power of organized labor.
“What they are witnessing is unions standing up for the rights of teachers — but really also for the rights of the students, the needs of education,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center. “That’s an important lesson about power, no matter what happens.”
The scenes that unfolded outside their schools had been dramatic by any measure. Each weekday at sunrise 30,000 teachers, dressed in their union’s red shirts and jackets, gathered across the city to demand not only a 6.5 percent pay raise but also that schools be fully staffed with the nurses, librarians, counselors and other support personnel once standard at L.A. Unified. This flexing of collective muscle came at a time when public awareness of labor activity had faded — along with the number of Americans who belong to unions, a membership that has dropped by nearly half since 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The strike could have a lasting influence on today’s children and teens in Los Angeles. Back in 1970, Kent Wong was a student at L.A.’s Thomas Starr King Middle School, and walked his first picket line there as a teenager during a monthlong teachers strike over wages and class sizes. It changed the direction of his life.
“I realized even then that my teachers had dedicated their lives to the teaching profession, and were deeply committed to ensuring an education for all of us,” said Wong, now director of the UCLA Labor Center. “It was a transformational event in learning about the power of collective action and the sacrifices that my teachers had to make to fight for something as basic as quality education.”
The experience set a path for Wong, who later participated in a high school walkout against the Vietnam War and would work as a volunteer for the United Farm Workers. Like his own experience, Wong said, labor activity and social movements “absolutely inspire large numbers of people to become politically conscious and aware.”
In the early 1970s California still ranked among the very best public school systems of any state in the country which, Wong noted, put it at No. 1 in terms of per-pupil funding. After the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 made severe reductions in property taxes — the main source of school funding — the Golden State’s position dropped precipitously over time. Per-pupil spending here is now at No. 43 among all 50 states.
As only the third strike in the LAUSD’s half-century history, this month’s action by United Teachers Los Angeles came after 21 months of bargaining had brought no agreement, and it emphasizes universal benefits to the school community over modest salary demands. One result is broad public support for the strike, even as student attendance dropped below 20 percent the first week, which has already cost the district millions in attendance-based state funding.
“In previous decades, students in the L.A. school district were more likely to have family members who belonged to a union . . . and to have been exposed to unions that way,” John Logan, director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University, said in an email to Capital & Main. “In most recent teachers disputes, unions have aligned their goals with those of parents and community members, and in that sense students are more likely to gain a positive impression of labor groups than, say, in the case of a transit dispute, [when] the only impact was to inconvenience parents and students.”
Wong added that the strike is also a new experience for teachers, since most of them were not involved in the last strike, in 1989. Many became politically aware just a few years later, after voter approval of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and an ensuing debate about pushing a half-million immigrants out of state schools. “They confront the daily issues that their students confront in terms of immigration, poverty, homelessness,” Wong said of the current era of educators. “This is a very conscious group of teachers.”
That consciousness will inevitably leave a lasting impression on students, said Julian Vasquez Heilig, professor of education policy at Sacramento State University and the education chair for the California NAACP. “What students see is a resurgence of resistance,” said Vasquez Heilig, who grew up in a union household in Michigan. “Teachers are standing up for the students, and it is a moment that the students get to see [them] in action — teachers demanding opportunity and equity . . . The wealthy provide excellent public education for their kids. It’s quite unfair that students in L.A. are dealing with longterm problematic conditions.
“You don’t have to go to Finland to see an example of well-resourced schools, fully unionized, that are successful,” he added. “All you have to do is go across the tracks or [to] Beverly Hills — wherever you provide a nice home, you will get nice public schools. It’s a straight correlation. Everyone knows that’s the case in their country and it’s despicable.”
UC Berkeley’s Ken Jacobs noted that even as popular media and U.S. culture emphasize the power of the individual, the teachers strike shows another way: “You have a generation of kids in the city that will understand something more about labor and the possibilities of collective action. This is a big demonstration of what happens when people come together.”
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Los Angeles Teachers Strike Rally at Grand Park (Photos)
Over 60,000 people attended the
massive rally at Grand Park in Downtown Los Angeles in support of public
education and UTLA’s week-long strike.
Images by Joanne Kim
Deaf School’s Chants Are Heard Loud and Clear in Teachers Strike
There was one key difference between last week’s picket lines of Marlton School teachers and students, and those of other LAUSD schools: Marlton’s chanted “Strike, strike, strike!” in American Sign Language.
Teacher: Privatization and other LAUSD reorganization schemes pose a threat to the culture of Deaf education.
Like other educators in the Los Angeles Unified School District, school counselor Janette Durán-Aguirre spent last week on the picket line with her colleagues and their students. Draped in red plastic ponchos, and carrying the “We Stand With LA Teachers” signs seen all over the city, they danced, drummed and chanted to draw attention to the demands and grievances United Teachers of Los Angeles has brought against business as usual at LAUSD.
But there was one key difference between their protests and the ones at other schools: These teachers and students chanted “Strike, strike, strike!” in American Sign Language. Their Baldwin Hills school, Marlton, “is the only day school in LAUSD designed for Deaf students,” wrote Durán-Aguirre, who is herself Deaf, in a text message from the picket line. “We don’t want our students to be more marginalized than they already are.” She worries that circulating plans to turn more traditional public schools into charter schools would mean the end of Marlton’s specialized, bilingual learning, which will never pencil out in any calculus of standardized test scores and per-student investment.
In the long term, schoolchildren are already collateral damage in a war that’s been fought since 1978, when California voters passed Proposition 13.
If Marlton is privatized or closed, she says, Deaf students will have to rely on interpreters in their schools, which deprives them of opportunities for “identity development in a language-rich environment.” Privatization and other LAUSD reorganization schemes pose “a threat to the culture of our Deaf students and the culture of Deaf education.”
Even before LAUSD began picketing on January 14, much ink had been spilled about how the strike would affect kids:
- “Kids would be deprived of an education during a strike,” wrote Katie Braude, executive director of the LAUSD parents’ advocacy group, SpeakUP, on the website LA School Report. “Kids’ futures should never be collateral damage in this war between adults.”
- “Children shouldn’t be used as pawns in a struggle over money,” said the conservative Heartland Institute, in a post by Tim Benson and Lennie Jarratt.
- In USA Today, Kristin Lam reported the stories of parents who say that the strike could set back thousands of children “with developmental disabilities who need special education and consistency.”
Those criticisms aren’t completely off-base, says John Rogers, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Teachers being on strike does mean that young people across Los Angeles are not in classrooms in the appropriate way. Good teachers acknowledge that.” But that’s only in the short term. In the long term, schoolchildren are already collateral damage in a war, one that’s been fought since 1978, when California voters passed Proposition 13, limiting the state’s property tax revenues and starving schools of funds. That war has intensified with the rise of charter schools — publicly funded, privately run institutions that eat up some of the resources that would otherwise go to traditional public schools.
“Deaf” is an identity, with its own language.
“The strike is both about trying to gain some changes in district policy and informing the broader public about the inadequacy of funding, and the conditions that prevail in our schools,” Rogers says. “It holds out the possibility that students today and students in years ahead will be better off.”
The stakes and consequences of this particular battle have been put into harsh relief for children who need specialized education, as well as for their teachers and counselors. Technically, charters have to adhere to the same laws other public schools do when it comes to accepting students with disabilities. One of those laws, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, guarantees that children who need special education be guaranteed a “free appropriate public education,” complete with “auxiliary aids and services” if required.
Charter advocates say their schools do this. But data show differently. A 2014 study by Gary Miron, a professor in the College of Education at Western Michigan University, found that while enrollment for students with disabilities in public schools averages 13 percent, at charter schools it averages only eight to 10 percent. A “mystery-shopper” investigation conducted in 2018 by Peter Bergman of Columbia University and Isaac McFarlin, Jr. of the University of Florida, found that researchers posing as parents of children with special education requirements heard back from charter schools at a far lower rate than did researchers whose queries did not signal any special needs. There was no difference in response rates when public schools were contacted in the same fashion.
Marlton’s teachers, students and staff aren’t only fighting for smaller classrooms and a moratorium on new charters. They are fighting for Deaf culture.
That’s not necessarily because charters set out to be discriminatory, says Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor in the College of Education at Sacramento State University. But they end up discriminating because students in need of specialized instruction are expensive. “When they design an individualized education plan, that costs money. If a student has to be assigned an aide all day, that costs money.” For a Deaf student in a mainstream school, an interpreter can cost an extra $50,000 a year or more.
“Not all charter schools have the resources to pay that,” Vasquez Heilig says. Some — though not all — also employ lower-skilled, uncertified (and non-union) teachers in an effort to save money, teachers who may not have experience teaching special ed kids.
But for Janette Durán-Aguirre, there’s even more to it than that. Deaf people don’t always view deafness as a disability. “Deaf” is an identity, with its own language. Marlton, which was founded in 1968, “was created to provide students with an environment where they could communicate with everyone on staff without an interpreter,” she says. Elsewhere, Deaf students have to adapt to a hearing environment. At Marlton, it’s the other way around.
Or at least it’s meant to be. Neglect from the district, she claims, has caused its standards to deteriorate. School administrators have been hired that lack fluency in ASL, and Marlton has had five principles in eight years, plus some interim administrators. Sports, drama and vocational programs have been cut, leading students to defect to the state-run California School for the Deaf in Riverside County. “That,” says Durán-Aguirre, “led to even less funding and fewer resources for those students who remain,” almost all of whom are from low-income families, and are consequently less able to move or commute. The school educates only 135 of the roughly 2,100 Deaf students in the school district.
The teachers, students and staff who stood out in last week’s downpours weren’t only fighting for smaller classrooms and a moratorium on new charters. They were fighting for Deaf culture. And for the students who joined them, there has been another benefit, in both the strike’s short and long term, says John Rogers. “It affords them opportunities to see their teachers fighting for them and for their communities,” he says. On the picket line, “they forge an understanding that we don’t have to just accept the conditions we face in daily life. When we examine them and come to the conclusion that they’re inadequate, we can change them.”
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L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Five
Teacher Laura Palacios reflects on the strike during Friday’s Grand Park rally.
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.
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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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