“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to firstname.lastname@example.org, @BillRaden.
Fasten your seatbelts Los Angeles, it’s going to be a bumpy strike. That was the subtext to a tumultuous week that saw over 50,000 L.A. teachers, students and families take to the streets Saturday to support a union faced with budgetary saber-rattling by Los Angeles Unified, and that climaxed on Wednesday with United Teachers Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl setting a January 10 walkout date — unless Los Angeles Unified negotiators meet key union demands for investments in the district’s highest-poverty students.
Caputo-Pearl’s announcement came a day after L.A. Unified superintendent Austin Beutner erroneously claimed that the union had accepted the district’s six percent pay raise offer, as recommended in Tuesday’s report by state-appointed fact-finders who also urged LAUSD to kick in the modest equivalent of a one to three percent salary increase for new hires to reduce class sizes, and for both sides to work together to lobby Sacramento for more state funding.
Fact-finding panel chairman David A. Weinberg mostly punted on 19 of 21 unresolved equity demands that form the heart of what UTLA has framed as a fight to save L.A.’s “civic institution of public education.” The union won some minor points, like the allowing of teacher input on charter co-locations, and on scrapping a district privilege to unilaterally lift class size caps during fiscal crunches. But by accepting at face value LAUSD’s latest claims of imminent bankruptcy, Weinberg left unanswered a critical question: How could LAUSD annually project catastrophic, three-year deficits and still have its unrestricted cash reserves balloon from $500 million to nearly $2 billion during the same five-year period?
“We have watched underfunding and actions of privatizers undermine our students and our schools for too long. No more,” Caputo-Pearl warned on Wednesday.
The controversy over LAUSD’s “structural deficit” is already defining next March’s special school board election. Ten candidates have thrown in their hats for the seat left vacant by the July resignation of disgraced ex-Board District 5 member Ref Rodriguez. At stake is the single-vote edge enjoyed by Rodriguez’s former pro-charter voting block, currently led by board president Monica Garcia. But the race heated up considerably last week when former two-time BD 5 representative Jackie Goldberg won the UTLA board’s overwhelming endorsement. The contest hinges on which of the other candidates will attract the lucrative support of charter school backers, who in 2017 spent a record-shattering $6.6 million to oust former board president Steve Zimmer in favor of staunch Beutner ally Nick Melvoin.
Also heating up is speculation on how Governor-elect Gavin Newsom’s State Board of Education picks will alter the ideology of a board that has been seen as bending over backwards to favor charter schools. This week, the nonprofit education news site EdSource pointed out that, although it will take years to fully reshape the Jerry Brown-appointed, 11-member board, Newsom’s first opportunity will come on his January 7 inauguration day. That’s when current president Michael Kirst, who was instrumental in California’s adoption of dubious Common Core State Standards, retires. Departing a week later will be Trish Boyd Williams, whose pro-charter charter enthusiasm and career ties to corporate-reform cash have been the bane of local school boards. Also leaving in 2019 will be Bruce Holaday. The term of Karen Valdes, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in 2017, ends in January.
Copyright Capital & Main
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 Five
Teacher Laura Palacios reflects on the strike during Friday’s Grand Park rally.
‘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 Four
Laura Palacios and other teachers take a break from the rain to have lunch, then return to the picket line.
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. 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 Two
Los Angeles teacher Laura Palacios confronts the second day of a citywide strike with coffee, doughnuts and a sore throat.
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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L.A. Teachers’ Potential ‘Meta-Strike’ Reveals Battle Lines in U.S. Public Education War
Co-published by the American Prospect
Superintendent Austin Beutner and his allies have made it clear they do not believe that the L.A. Unified School District in its current incarnation is worth investing in – or even preserving.
Co-published by the American Prospect
Sometimes strikes are exactly what they seem to be – battles over wages and working conditions, with relatively few implications for anything or anyone else. But sometimes a strike is about something much bigger: a fundamental clash over vision and values, with repercussions that extend far beyond the warring parties. Call it a meta-strike.
If Los Angeles teachers walk off the job January 14, as widely expected, it will be a meta-strike with extremely high stakes not only for teachers, students and parents in L.A., but for public education across the U.S. The stalemated negotiations over wages, class size, staffing and other issues matter – but they are proxies for an epic fight that has been playing out in American school districts for more than a decade.
The head of the country’s second-largest school district is aggressively advancing a controversial blueprint that could make LAUSD almost unrecognizable.
On one side of this divide are those who believe that public education as an institution should be preserved more or less in its current form, with a greater infusion of money to address chronic underfunding and understaffing. On the other side is an array of forces that want to radically restructure public schools, and who have made it clear they do not believe that the L.A. Unified School District in its current incarnation is worth investing in – or even preserving.
Austin Beutner, LAUSD’s superintendent, is nothing if not a proponent of radical restructuring. He was appointed to his post not because of his experience in education – he has never held a position in that field – but because he is a fervent advocate of an approach that has its roots in the private sector, where he spent the bulk of his career. Beutner made his considerable fortune in business, starting at the powerhouse private equity firm Blackstone and then co-founding the investment banking company Evercore Partners.
Selected by a divided school board in May, Beutner is now arguably the most powerful figure in the national movement to upend traditional public education. As head of the country’s second-largest school district, he is aggressively advancing a controversial blueprint that could make LAUSD almost unrecognizable.
Though Beutner has yet to unveil his proposal, he has tipped his hand in a big way with the hiring of consultant Cami Anderson, the former superintendent of Newark, New Jersey public schools. In Newark, Anderson pushed through a disruptive plan called the “portfolio model.” As the L.A. Times reported in November, under the portfolio model the district would be divided into 32 networks. These networks, observed reporter Bill Raden on this site, “would be overseen like a stock portfolio. A portfolio manager would keep the ‘good’ schools and dump the ‘bad’ by turning them over to a charter or shutting them down much like a bum stock. The changes in Newark included neighborhood school closures, mass firings of teachers and principals, a spike in new charters and a revolt by parents that drove out . . . Anderson.”
Why Beutner and the board majority that hired him think that the portfolio model will be more successful in L.A. than it was in Newark is uncertain. They don’t see the unchecked growth of largely unregulated charter schools as a problem, despite more and more evidence that charters discriminate against disabled students, increase racial stratification and on the whole do not perform better than traditional schools. On the contrary, they view charter expansion as elemental to the future of the district.
This is in stark contrast to United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union, which sees investment — in the form of higher salaries, reduced class sizes, more support staff including psychologists and nurses – and the regulation of charters and community schools as the linchpin of progress. They do not see the public school as a failed institution, but as an egregiously underfunded one whose challenges have been made significantly worse by the rise of charter schools that drain resources from traditional schools. While some influential philanthropic and community organizations have embraced Beutner’s restructuring plan, the teachers union has been somewhat successful in building community support for its vision of reinvestment, particularly for the idea of public oversight and for schools that address all the complex needs of an overwhelmingly poor student population.
While the two sides continue to negotiate, they could hardly be farther apart in how they view the future of public education. Which is why a teachers strike is almost certain.
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