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Moonlighting Teachers Learn Hard Lessons from Uber

Co-published by The Nation
Alissa Quart reports on teachers who drive for Uber.

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Co-published by The Nation

Matt Barry teaches history and economics to eleventh and twelfth graders at Live Oak High School, a public school in a suburb of San Jose, California. At 32, he’s in his ninth year on the job, teaching 35 students in each class. But Barry also has a second life that’s becoming increasingly common for American schoolteachers: He spends his after-school hours and weekends as an Uber driver in order to earn extra money.

Barry and his wife, Nicole, are both teachers, and each earns $69,000 per year, which should place them solidly within the middle class. If Silicon Valley hadn’t sprawled around them, that’s where they would be. But the explosion in wealth that has accompanied the tech boom has sent housing costs well beyond the reach of longtime working- and middle-class residents. In the town where Barry teaches, the median home price is $800,000, ensuring that the people who spend their days educating Live Oak students will never live near them. In Barry’s own neighborhood of Gilroy, a 20-minute drive from his school, the median home price is $650,000. When Barry’s child is born—Nicole is pregnant—the family will pay an additional $6,000 dollars in health insurance annually; if she takes time off, that will more than double, to $14,400.

Barry shocks his Uber passengers when he tells them about his day job as he shuttles them around ritzy Morgan Hill, where his high school is located. Between rides, he grades papers. Among teachers, he’s not even the worst off—he and Nicole each earn an income, and they own their home. Even so, they are on the financial edge. “Teachers are killing themselves,” he says. “I shouldn’t be having to drive Uber 8 o’clock on a weekday. I just shut down from the mental toll: grading papers in between rides, thinking of what I could be doing instead of driving—like creating a curriculum.”

Yet it’s no accident that Barry is driving for Uber. For the last two years, the company has sponsored initiatives to encourage teachers to moonlight as chauffeurs. The campaigns differ from city to city and from year to year. In 2014, the Uber campaign’s discomfiting motto was “Teachers: Driving Our Future.” In 2015, Uber offered teachers in Chicago a summer job; to sweeten the deal, the ride-share company gave a $250 bonus to any teacher who signed up to drive by a certain date and completed 10 car trips. In Oregon, Uber notifies riders when their driver is a teacher and trumpets the fact that three percent of each fare goes back to the driver’s classroom. The company also offers a $5,000 bonus to the school with the most active drivers.

Uber has promoted its teacher/driver initiative as an act of civic altruism, a perfect private-sector remedy to the failures of the public sphere. An Uber blogger named “Lindsey” gushed: “Every day teachers are asked to do more with less, constantly faced with new challenges and limited resources. Uber opens the door for more possibilities and delivers a meaningful impact to the communities we serve.”

Yet beneath this feel-good veneer, there’s a far more troubling reality: Teachers like Matt Barry are “asked to do more with less” because the public, and the politicians who represent us, don’t value teachers enough to pay them more. This has been true since the dawn of this country’s modern education system. But the consequences have grown particularly acute in boom regions like Silicon Valley, where the mismatch between teacher salaries and local housing costs has become ever more pronounced. In these places, wealthy residents shell out for custom-built houses with swimming pools and “super basements” but are rarely willing to pay higher taxes so that their teachers can afford to pay rent.

Uber has hailed this arrangement as an “opportunity” for teachers, a chance to boost their earnings while “dedicating their lives to shaping students’ futures.” It’s supposedly a prime example of the “sharing economy” at work. Yet stripped of their gloss of generosity, Uber’s teacher/driver campaigns also share in a more twisted Silicon Valley fantasy: low taxes, good schools—and your kid’s teacher might drive you home after your expense-account meal with a venture capitalist!

Teaching has always been a poorly paid profession, particularly considering its educational requirements and responsibilities. Part of the reason for the lower pay is that at the dawn of the modern public-school system, teaching was considered “women’s work,” and thus the second income in families, according to Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s no longer the case, but the weak pay that reflects an earlier sexism endures.

To help make up the shortfall, teachers—even those who earn a 12-month salary—have often taken on an additional job during summer. What’s new is the degree of desperation. Teachers who are chronically underpaid in places like Oklahoma are forced to rely on soup kitchens and food stamps in addition to second jobs. In Mandan, North Dakota, Rebecca Maloney, an elementary-school teacher and single mother with three kids, turned to the crowdfunding site GoFundMe to raise $1,000 for a career-development class at the local university. Meanwhile, teachers working in increasingly expensive locales like San Francisco and Chicago are forced into the lowest echelons of the gig economy or to work other side jobs like bartending in order to survive.”

This summer, I spoke to a number of schoolteachers who are now racking up miles as Uber drivers. These include John Daniels, a history teacher at James Lick High School in east San Jose, California, who has started giving rides for Uber in his Toyota 4Runner on Thursday and Friday nights, and Anthony Arinwine, a first-grade teacher at Malcolm X Academy in San Francisco, who spends 20 hours per week driving for the company in his Nissan Altima.

“My rent was increasing, and the cost of utilities was going up,” he explains. “My normal salary”—$70,000—“didn’t have a lot left over compared to previous years.” Though San Francisco boasts some of the highest rents in the state, with the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment at $3,500 a month compared to a statewide median of $1,750, San Francisco’s school district ranks 528th in terms of teacher pay out of the 821 districts in California. As Arinwine watched his rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the East Bay jump from $1,300 to $1,500 and then to $2,000, he began driving for the ride-share company, often late into the night. Despite driving on the side, he eventually had to give up the apartment. Now he’s renting a room from a friend. “I’m not able to buy a house. I may have to move to a state that’s less expensive, unless I get married and have a dual income,” says Arinwine. His parents, a civilian worker in the military, now retired, and a clerk at the police department, only attended “some junior college.” Yet he describes them as more financially comfortable dwelling in Orange County, where they lived until recently, than he is in the Bay Area. “I couldn’t afford to have a child on my income. I can’t imagine giving kids what they need to be happy. I thought I’d not be worrying about money by now,” adds Arinwine, who is 46. “I thought I’d be making my way to retirement.”

For Uber, the struggles of these economically challenged teachers represent a dual opportunity: a marketing coup as well as a ready labor force. When Uber started to take off three years ago, the company’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, claimed that working for Uber could be a full-time job, with drivers making as much as $100,000 a year. But when reporters examined Uber drivers’ pay stubs, they discovered this was far from the truth. In recent years, with the help of former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, who was hired in 2014 as a senior vice president, Uber has been trying to market itself as the ride service that employs struggling middle-class people, not only teachers but municipal workers, nurses, journalists, and academics. (Plouffe has since been replaced and is now serving as a “strategic adviser” to the company.) “Uber has been extremely clever at finding occupations like this—they say that this is your neighbor driving for extra money,” notes Steven Hill, author of Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers.

When I reached out to Uber for comment, Michael Amodeo, an Uber spokesman, directed me to an essay that Plouffe had written for Medium that gave Uber’s PR strategy a civic-minded bent. Freelancing for Uber, writes Plouffe, serves as the “pay raise they [the drivers] have not received in their other jobs.” In an e-mail, Amodeo asserted that “What we’ve learned is that teachers and educators see Uber as a flexible way to make money with their car.”

Little of the desperation I heard from drivers comes across in Uber’s marketing campaign. Instead, the company’s website teems with cherry-picked profiles of middle-class Uber drivers who ride-share as a way to collect extra spending money. Monique, a schoolteacher in New Orleans with “12 years of teaching experience under her belt,” turned to Uber to “help during the 2015 holiday season.” For nurse-cum–Uber driver Rory, “Driving is just ‘a hobby.’… Rory is, in fact, a full-time nurse at Hartford Hospital, working the night shift from 7 p.m.-7 a.m. three days a week. Though he has a tough schedule, he enjoys having four days off in a row”—which he uses to drive for Uber to “help with my car payments.” Another of the drivers profiled is a frustrated special-education teacher sick of doing “paperwork” rather than working with children; she started driving for Uber to help pay for a renovation for her porch.

These testimonies, accompanied by inspirational videos of real-life driver/teachers on YouTube, fit nicely with Uber’s portrait of its “UberEducators” as wholesome, hardworking professionals. But they also telegraph something else: that Uber’s workers have turned to driving not as a full-time profession, but as a second job.

“People who drive with Uber value the freedom to push a button rather than punch a clock.” —Michael Amodeo, Uber spokesman

This is a useful message for Uber, which has been working hard to push the idea that its 450,000 drivers are independent contractors, not employees of the company. As employees, drivers would be entitled to a minimum wage, overtime pay, and basic labor protections, and full-time drivers could be eligible for benefits—things that would strike at the very core of Uber’s business model.

Many drivers, along with leading labor advocates, don’t agree that Uber’s drivers are independent contractors and have begun challenging the company in court. Uber is currently fending off nearly a dozen lawsuits alleging that it has misclassified its workers, including a sprawling class-action suit filed on behalf of drivers in California and Massachusetts. (In April, the company agreed to settle with the plaintiffs, promising $100 million in exchange for the right to continue classifying the drivers as contractors, but in August the judge rejected the settlement.) When I asked Amodeo via e-mail whether Uber drivers were employees or contractors, his answer was curt: “People who drive with Uber are independent contractors…. They value their independence—the freedom to push a button rather than punch a clock.”

It remains to be seen whether Uber, valued at $62.5 billion at the end of 2015, will get its way. What is clear is that the continuing crisis in teachers’ pay won’t be going away with the touch of an app.

Uber is hardly the first company to exploit the financial vulnerability of teachers—and the desperation of public schools more broadly—to score PR points. Amazon, Boeing, Bank of America, and other corporations have played the part of school benefactor, offering everything from reward programs to school supplies. And their largesse is often welcome. In a world in which teachers can’t pay their rent—and students don’t have access to basics like textbooks—they may have no other choice.

And yet, there must be other options—other answers for teachers besides grading papers while idling at red lights.

In recent years, a handful of local governments have begun to offer partial solutions, most notably in the form of housing-assistance programs for teachers. In Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Hertford, North Carolina, among other places, school districts have invested in faculty housing as a way to keep up with the cost of real estate. Three years ago, Newark opened Teachers Village, a six-building complex that includes residential housing marketed to teachers as well as retail stores. Thanks to the oil boom, the cost of living in Williston, North Dakota, rose sharply, and the school district offered subsidized housing in response. “The cost of housing went up to $2,000 dollars a month, [while] first-year teachers made about $30,000 to $32,000 a year,” says Kelly Hagen, a communications director for North Dakota United, a state teachers union. “When the teachers weren’t living together in the affordable housing, they were sometimes living in the most decrepit places and not able to afford food.”

Affordable teacher housing is one fix. But the larger problem of undervalued—and underpaid—teachers persists. “It should be a warning sign to us that teachers have to grade papers between giving lifts,” says the University of Pennsylvania’s Ingersoll. “Just look at high-test-scoring Asian nations, where teachers are in the top of their college classes and are well paid. How do we compare?” Matthew Hardy, communications director for the United Educators of San Francisco, has seen the fallout of this country’s failure to support its teachers. “Due to the cost of housing, the district is unable to recruit and maintain professionals. Too many of them just leave to go to higher-paying suburbs or out of state.”

Jodi Zipkoff is a special-education paraprofessional at San Francisco’s Mission High School who drives for Lyft (Uber’s chief competitor) because, she says, if she wants to live in San Francisco, she has no other choice: She makes just over $20 an hour working with public-school students with cerebral palsy, and makes more money ride-sharing than she does helping kids. She drives for Lyft seven days a week, 30 to 35 hours a week, during the summer, plus weekends during the school year.

When I catch up with Matt Barry, the history teacher and expectant father, at the end of the summer, he says he’s not driving anymore. “You don’t make much money in the summer, and the surges have gone down,” he explains. Since he and his wife are expecting their first child, however, he’s come up with another way to make a little extra money—he and Nicole rented their house out to golf caddies for the US Women’s Open.


This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Education

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.

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‘How Long Will the L.A. Teachers Strike Last?’ May Be the Wrong Question

Important byproducts of the walkout include robust dialogues about charter schools and on how much we are willing to invest in public education.

Danny Feingold

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Photo: Bill Raden

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.”

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It goes without saying that no one wants a protracted teachers strike; earlier today both sides agreed to return to the negotiating table, with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti serving as mediator. All things being equal, kids are better off in school, as are teachers.

But strikes usually happen because all things are not equal. Indeed, the goal of a strike is almost invariably to even the playing field.

Sometimes this happens quickly. Fifty years ago, Chicago teachers staged a two-day walkout that led to pay increases and greater job protections. A year earlier, in San Francisco, a one-day strike resulted in raises and smaller class sizes. But as the teacher strikes in Philadelphia and Cleveland illustrate, quick resolutions are not always possible if progress on the underlying problems is to be achieved.

Part of why some in the media are anxiously wondering when a settlement will occur is the relative scarcity of strikes in modern American society, particularly open-ended work stoppages that affect a much larger number of people than the employees in question. This was a major factor in the reaction to last year’s teacher strikes – we are simply not accustomed to seeing labor strife, and having it impact our day-to-day lives.

The unusual nature of a citywide teachers strike in Los Angeles is underscored by the now well-reported fact that the last teacher walkout here was 30 years ago. That means an entire generation has never witnessed picket lines massed in front of a public institution they rely on. Janitors and hotel workers have staged high-profile strikes, but for most of us the direct connection of these actions to our daily routine is minimal.

Conventional wisdom is that the L.A. teachers strike will not last more than a couple of weeks. But the problems at the heart of the strike have been building for 40 years, and may not lend themselves to a quick fix – especially given the stark divide that has arisen between the two sides.

The strike has its roots in the radical defunding of public schools in California, triggered by the 1978 passage of Proposition 13. Layered on top of this is the two-decade-old battle between charter school advocates and defenders of traditional public schools, which has intensified in the past several years.

One silver lining of the L.A. teachers strike is a long-overdue civic conversation about charter schools. This is critical, because a thriving public school system and an inexorably growing charter school movement may not be compatible. Another important byproduct of the strike is a robust dialogue on how much we are willing to invest in public education. Critics of LAUSD have long focused on low test scores and graduation rates, but have seldom been willing to address the fundamental issue of how limited financial resources affect student outcomes.

As the union and the district resume talks, the questions of charter school growth and reinvestment in public schools loom large. If the two sides punt on these in order to achieve a quick settlement, we may see a replay of teacher walkouts in the not-too-distant future. The long-term interests of students, parents and teachers may be better served if the overwhelming public support for teachers forces the district to change course. That could mean looking for new revenue sources, slowing the growth of charter schools that siphon money or Superintendent Austin Beutner pulling back from the expected breakup of the district.

Whether a one-week walkout can produce such a sea change is unclear. For now, the most important question is not how long the strike will last, but how it can achieve the greatest good.


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L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Three

The rain and the strike drag on for teacher Laura Palacios, who balances family duties with picket line vigils.

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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.

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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.

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Photo: Larry Buhl

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.

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TAS and UTLA had reached an agreement in March 2018 for an average salary increase of 17 percent for teachers working 195 days in the current school year. But sticking points remained, including binding arbitration to enforce the contract, “just cause” language to govern terminations or nonrenewals, so that teachers can’t be fired arbitrarily, and competitive health benefits. According to Hong Bui, UTLA’s Charter Representative, TAS management proposes to freeze the company contributions, so that any future increase in health-care premiums is borne by employees. Bui noted that binding arbitration and just cause are “enjoyed by 90 percent of unionized teachers in Los Angeles County.”


Grandmother: “There is no excuse that we’re at this point. The money is there. We are not investing in the kids’ education as was promised.”


“Most unionized charter schools have some due process and just cause, but TAS schools do not,” Bui said. Without these protections, the employer can and has made life unbearable for those teachers who speak up.”

Bui added that between 2016 and 2018, TAS schools had nearly a 50 percent staff turnover.

On Monday TAS co-founder and CEO Johnathan Williams said, in a prepared statement: “TAS presented UTLA with a new offer that included a process for teachers with strong performance evaluations to receive a guaranteed two-year contract with a $2,000 bonus upon completion. UTLA refused the offer. Teachers who are doing a great job for students will always have a place at TAS. On behalf of our students, we implore UTLA to work with us to find a reasonable resolution that puts kids first.”

Los Angeles has the nation’s most charter schools, with 277 independent and affiliated schools serving more than 154,000 students. The breakdown can get complicated: District-affiliated charter schools are directly operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and their teachers are part of the larger strike that began Monday against the LAUSD.


Union: Between 2016 and 2018, The Accelerated Schools had a nearly 50 percent staff turnover.


Thirty-seven independent charter schools are unionized, and some of those unionized schools, like TAS, are represented by UTLA, while others are represented by the California Teachers Association. (Disclosure: The CTA is a financial supporter of this website.) But their collective bargaining agreements are negotiated with the charter school management, not LAUSD. The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) estimates that 30 percent of charter schools in the state have some form of a collective bargaining agreement or representation.

At a news conference last week, teachers emphasized that their goal is to improve teacher retention by increasing teacher protections. German Gallardo, who has taught 12th-grade history at Wallis Annenberg High School for the past two years, says that educational progress cannot be made with high teacher turnover. “I have students who have missed teachers for a year, and that inconsistency hurts when we send them off to college,” he said, referring to students who had substitutes for an entire school year.


Randi Weingarten: Educators are not the ones who have framed public schools and charters as competitors. “That’s done by people like Austin Beutner.”


Second-grade teacher Simone Barclay told Capital & Main that TAS instructors are technically “at will” employees without the ability to appeal dismissals, and who don’t know whether their contracts will be renewed year to year. “It creates anxiety and stress and doesn’t allow us to advocate for our students, whether it is [for] special education or resources for our classroom. And it leads to much higher turnover,” Barclay said.
The TAS strike comes after the release of a report by a state-appointed fact-finding panel that included recommendations for resolving many of the outstanding contract issues at TAS.

In the past year there has been a groundswell of public teacher walkouts and strikes in states including West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky and Colorado. But until December’s walkout of 500 charter educators in Chicago, strikes at charter schools were unheard of. According to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), between 10 and 12 percent of the charter school sector nationwide is unionized, and the rapid growth of charter schools is outpacing the growth of unionization. (Disclosure: AFT is a financial supporter of this website.)

California’s explosive charter growth and competition for students have made charter detractors worry about those quasi-public schools siphoning resources from traditional schools. UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said teachers are asking for “common-sense regulations on charter school growth” as part of their contract demands, making the concurrent strikes by TAS and LAUSD school educators, in theory, somewhat awkward, although teachers at both schools have told Capital & Main that, no matter where they work, they are in solidarity with one another.


Until last December’s walkout of 500 charter educators in Chicago, strikes at charter schools were unheard of.


Randi Weingarten, president of AFT, said educators are not the ones who have framed public schools and charters, per se, as competitors. “That’s done by people like [LAUSD Superintendent] Austin Beutner . . . and that creates a survival of the fittest. For years they have said that competition in schools is good, but this is a very wrongheaded premise.”

“The charter school industry said their teachers are private school employees,” Weingarten added, “but most charter schools by laws are public schools funded by taxpayers and must enable a voice for parents and educators.”

Charter school supporters, such as TAS founding member and grandmother Hilda Rodriguez-Guzman, say that charters ideally provide a higher quality and more robust education with more flexibility.

“But that’s not what’s happening [at TAS],” Rodriguez-Guzman recently admitted. “There is no excuse that we’re at this point. The money is there. We are not investing in the kids’ education as was promised. It is not acceptable that we keep losing good quality teachers and having substitutes. Sometimes we have computers teaching kids in high school, when they need that human instruction and interaction.”


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L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day One

Laura Palacios is a Los Angeles public school teacher married to another teacher. Today the mother of two joined 33,000 other union members in the first L.A. teachers walkout since 1989. This week Capital & Main will follow Palacios during the strike.

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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?

Bobbi Murray

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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.

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For 21 months negotiations have ground on between UTLA and the second-largest district in the nation. (The Los Angeles Unified School District enrolls 640,000 students.) The more nuts-and-bolts issues on the table include union demands for a 6.5 percent pay raise, a limit to class sizes (that can now hover around 38 pupils per classroom), and a push for more support staff such as nurses and librarians.

Kent Wong, executive director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center, notes that UTLA’s demands have moved away from larger raises and toward more funding to alleviate the deep education cuts that have been made over the years.

“It is important to understand the bigger forces at work here,” said Wong, who added that the pro-charter forces have invested millions of dollars to elect a pro-charter majority on the Los Angeles school board to shift resources from public schools to charters.


Recent teacher strikes “are not just about pay. They are about the quality of education.”


All strikes are risky undertakings and it’s an axiom that no one wins a strike. But a UTLA walkout would dramatically raise the stakes by casting the strike as a challenge to the creeping absorption of public schools by private charter management organizations.

“A strike is a big deal,” Wong said, because “you have this massive privatization scheme that’s been gutting support for public education and resources for public education. That’s the broader scenario that’s at stake here.”

A walkout by the Los Angeles union (whose 33,000 members include librarians, student counselors and other support staff) would have a recent, successful precedent. Against great odds, Chicago teachers won a seven-day 2012 strike, which became a model that transformed the school-community relationship and how teachers interact with parents. That strike was launched after a careful grassroots effort to build support among parents and the Chicago union; it is cited by Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, as a national example.


In Los Angeles signs have popped up in the windows of local businesses declaring, “We Stand With LA Teachers.”


“You could look at the Chicago teachers strike and say that was a brilliant strategy in terms of the level of community support,” said Jacobs. “But stepping back—teachers care about education. If you look at the strikes, they are not just about pay. They are about the quality of education.”

An all-in strike strategy may be risky for UTLA, but the union and others see peril for district management as well. “If [Beutner] is thinking it might be advantageous to provoke a strike,” said Jacobs, “given the recent history we have seen in states across the country and in Chicago, that seems like a foolish position to take.”

The issue in Chicago was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to close schools and the union’s push to keep them open. This was different from the situation in L.A. and in states along what Jacobs calls the “red thread”– West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, where the teachers joined with parents to oppose the underfunding of education that has occurred since the 2008 recession. Still, Chicago offers potential lessons for Los Angeles teachers.

Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs UC Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy, calls Chicago “the de facto leader of the teachers unions in the country.”

The Chicago teachers union would later reach out to teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, sharing their members’ experiences, he said, adding that, in organizing for a potential strike, the traditional big fear is that the parents are going to turn against the union. That didn’t happen in Chicago because of mindful base-building and teachers’ connections with their students and their parents.

That lesson hasn’t been lost on UTLA.


“The union will emerge stronger from this regardless of what happens. They have done a good job of mobilization among their members and with parents.”


In Los Angeles signs have popped up in the windows of local businesses declaring, “We Stand With LA Teachers,” and local parent groups have banded together to support the educators.

“I think the union will emerge stronger from this regardless of what happens,” Lichtenstein said of a possible UTLA strike. “They have done a good job of mobilization among their members and with parents. Things could turn around–a long strike and parents get upset—but I think UTLA is sophisticated enough to know what’s happening. They’d cut their losses.”

What would constitute “victory” for Los Angeles teachers?

“One definition would be very concrete things [like raises and staffing issues] —the union could win some of that,” Lichtenstein said. “The other definition is bigger—it could be the re-funding of public education in California and the country. This kind of strike is a powerful impulse to tell the [Democratic] supermajorities in Sacramento to modify Proposition 13, to bring new sources of funds so that school districts are not starved.”


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Los Angeles Teacher Contract Talks: The Sounds of Silence

With a January 10 strike deadline looming, little progress has been made in negotiations between teachers and their school district.

Bill Raden

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Photo: Bill Raden

“I think universally there is support,” says ESL instructor Monica Braunstein. “Parents are saying, ‘What can we do to support the teachers?’”


 

Los Angeles’ public school drama resumed Wednesday amid a flurry of finger-pointing over responsibility for stalled contract negotiations between Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) that are now in their 21st month.

The new year began with an LAUSD press release charging that UTLA had refused the district’s offer to resume talks since the December 17 release of the state fact-finding panel’s report. “We are willing to work around the clock to resolve all of the outstanding issues, but we cannot make progress if UTLA will not even meet or engage in any discussions,” LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner said in the statement.

The panel’s report had tried to strike a compromise by urging LAUSD to at least partly agree to union demands for lowering class sizes with a modest set-aside for hiring more social services support staff, and for the union to accept the district’s six percent pay raise offer. But the fact-finders didn’t address such non-salary union issues as investments in community schooling, early and adult education, and putting limits on standardized testing. And it left untouched what has emerged as one of the negotiations’ most contentious issues — the district’s protestations of poverty even as it’s built up a nearly $2 billion surplus.

Later that Wednesday morning, Beutner claimed on KPCC radio that the district had asked the union to come back to the table over the holidays but that “UTLA has refused to engage in any kind of bargaining.” The superintendent again asserted that L.A. Unified did not have the money to meet all of UTLA’s demands and that it was up to the union to decide which of them were more important to their members than others.

That brought a quick rejoinder from UTLA, whose own press statement asserted the union hadn’t received a bargaining proposal from LAUSD since October 30 and that the union’s bargaining representatives were still waiting for a formal proposal outlined in informal emails sent by the district on December 28 and 31.

“Rather than formally communicate with the union that represents all LAUSD teachers,” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl declared, “Beutner once again tries to spin the narrative to make it seem UTLA is unreasonable.”

UTLA followed with a second statement Wednesday night that included a formal rejection of the district’s latest offer, which it described as “basically the same as LAUSD has been putting forward for months, just dressed up slightly differently.” The union added that its bargaining team would be available to meet on Monday, “if the district has a legitimate and clear offer for us to consider.”

In the meantime, both sides continue to brace for the January 10 strike deadline, with the district hiring about 400 non-union substitute teachers and promising that schools will remain open, and teachers at school sites organizing pickets. What remains unclear is how many students will cross those picket lines.

Like many UTLA teachers who are also LAUSD parents, Monica Braunstein, a 15-year adult education ESL teacher at the Abram Friedman Occupational Center, is hoping to avoid a walkout but says that if the mood at her son’s high school is any indication, then parents and students will be squarely behind the strike.

“I think universally there is support,” said Braunstein “The parents are saying, ‘What can we do to support the teachers?’ And there’s been debate. Parents are asking, ‘Are you keeping your kids home? Are you sending them to school?’ My son plans to go picket with the teachers and not cross the picket line.”

Braunstein and other veteran Friedman teachers have already had their hopes dashed by LAUSD’s refusal to negotiate the union’s demand that adult ed teachers be brought up to the same salary schedule as K-12 teachers.

The last time L.A. teachers struck was 1989’s nine-day walkout. According to Jackie Goldberg, who during that dispute was a school board member representing Board District 5 —a seat she is again seeking in the March special election — the relatively minor differences between the district and the union on salaries aren’t the sticking point this time around.

“It’s about the teaching conditions,” she said by phone. “We need more teaching assistants. Every school should have its own plant manager instead of sharing them. It’s ridiculous — [LAUSD is] behaving like we’re still in the Great Recession. Almost every other public agency in California has [restaffed] most if not all the [positions] they either didn’t fill or they laid off since the Great Recession. So we have huge class sizes — amongst the largest in the nation.”

One similarity between 1989 and 2019 that LAUSD’s current surplus dramatically illustrates, Goldberg added, is the district’s credibility problem over its pessimistic, annual three-year budget forecasts.

“In the last 30 years they’ve never been right,” she said. “No one’s saying spend all $1.8 billion. Spend half of it. Spend $800 million. Put $200 million [into] hiring 2,000 classroom teachers, reduce class sizes from the 45 that they are now, or the 40, depending on which school you’re at. There are things they could be doing right now and still put away a billion dollars for reserve.”


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Education

Top Education Stories of 2018

We look back on 10 Capital & Main stories that reported on the changing conflicts within public education.

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Illustration: Define Urban


 

1. California Tries to Close Its College Degree Equity Gap

Bill Raden: It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken, following four decades of disinvestment and tuition hikes.

Hill Street Studios LLC/Getty Images


 

2. Will New York Fund Amazon Subsidies or Student Debt Relief?

David Sirota: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. Now, however, prominent Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly have slammed the idea of offering taxpayer subsidies to the retail giant.

Co-published by Splinter.

 

Long Island City photo by King of Hearts


 

3. California’s Schools Chief: Why a Low-Profile Job Matters — And Is Awash in Election Money

Bill Raden: The state’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction will have a historic opportunity to correct the course of a system in which the public good has increasingly been compromised by the competing demands of private interest.

 

Superintendent-elect Tony Thurmond


 

4. Living Homeless in California: The University of Hunger

Gabriel Thompson: A January study found that 11 percent of students on the California State University’s 23-campuses reported being homeless during the past year. At Humboldt State nearly a fifth said they’d been homeless at one point during 2017.

 

Illustration: Define Urban


 

5. Living Homeless in California: For Many Kids, Home Is Where the School Is

Bill Raden: The Los Angeles Unified School District has more homeless students than many school districts have in total enrollment. In response, the district has created some innovative policies.

 

(FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)


 

6. Actress Speaks Out Against Lunch Shaming in School Cafeterias

Deborah Klugman: When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many school districts take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk.


 

7. The Hard Work of Diversifying Higher Education in California

Bill Raden:  In California, where 76 percent of its K-12 enrollment is students of color, diversifying public colleges and universities is a top priority.

 

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)


 

8. Orange County Parents: Change Name of School That Honors Klan Member

Gustavo Arellano: There are over a dozen streets, parks or monuments in Orange County named after former Klan members — and one elementary school.

 

(Photo: Gustavo Arellano)


 

9. Mentors Under Siege: California’s DACA Teachers

Bill Raden: Of California’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

 

(David McNew/Getty Images)


 

10. Investment Banker Named Los Angeles Schools Superintendent 

Bill Raden: Austin Beutner, who has no background as an educator, was widely seen as the more politically connected of two finalists, as well as being the prospect most sympathetic to charter schools.

 

Austin Beutner, center. (Photo: Isidoro Hoyos)


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California Tries to Close Its College Degree Equity Gap

It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken, following four decades of disinvestment and tuition hikes.

Bill Raden

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Hill Street Studios LLC/Getty Images

Today, with California’s higher education system cartwheeling from one crisis to the next, the state’s vaunted Master Plan for Higher Education, which in 1960 revolutionized matriculation with a modern, multi-segmented system of public colleges and research universities, is being attacked as an obstacle to opportunity. Its outworn ideas of access and excellence have been rendered so thoroughly obsolete by demographical change and austerities that education reformers won’t waste their breath or political capital on a master plan redesign. Instead, change advocates are focused on improving delivery.

“We don’t need another blue ribbon commission or task force to study it,” argues Audrey Dow, senior vice president at the research and advocacy group Campaign for College Opportunity. “What we need is a governor who’s going to take action and say, ‘Okay, I’m setting the goal. I’m going to take these policies and make sure that ones [already] on the books are implemented. And then I’m going to add this, and then with my January budget, this is what I’m going to do.’”

That person would be Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who, on the campaign trail, embraced the idea — if not an actual number — of a state college completion goal. Sacramento has already passed a handful of reforms aimed at streamlining on-time graduations. After inauguration, Newsom will launch “California Promise,” his sweeping education agenda that includes some of the college access, affordability and infrastructure pieces that advocates like Dow insist are needed to close equity gaps.

It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken. Four decades of disinvestment and dizzying tuition hikes, on top of some of the country’s highest costs of living, have put its world-renowned, formerly low-cost degrees disproportionately out of reach for low-income students and students of color. This year, that sustained neglect was formally recognized when the university system that gave the world its fifth-largest economy slipped from its top rankings spot in the annual QS World University Rankings.

“The big story here is, we’ve had tremendous historical success,” notes John Douglass, a senior research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, who has written on the crisis. “But this system is starting to break down, and it’s just not clear where we’re going, and nobody’s offered a vision on how we can maintain access for Californians to our higher public ed system and the robust relationship of the universities with economic development.”

It’s little wonder that an election eve poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that a majority of likely voters said the level of state funding for public higher education was insufficient, and 61 percent thought there is not enough government funding for scholarships and grants for students who need financial help. That’s almost exactly the same percentage that cast their ballots for Newsom, who promised to make affordability and degree completion a top priority.

Better late than never. For the past decade PPIC has issued warnings that California risks crippling its economy if it doesn’t close what the nonpartisan research group says by 2030 will otherwise be a workforce skills gap of 1.1 million baccalaureate degrees. For a state that increasingly relies on — and rewards — highly educated workers to grow its knowledge economy, a degree deficit will translate into lower wages, reduced tax revenues and a widening chasm of income inequality.

Similar concerns in 2009 led the new Obama administration to set a national goal to have 60 percent of all 25-to-34-year-olds complete at least an associate degree by 2020. By 2017, 45 states had adopted or were considering their own college attainment targets. California, however, conspicuously failed to follow suit.

“There’s really been at the state level no real leadership to say, ‘Hey, this is the gap, this is how we’re going to close it, and we’re going to align policy and budget to that, to ensure we set an attainment goal, and hit that attainment goal,” explains Dow.

The irony, she adds, is that more Californians are going to college — and graduating — than ever before. This includes Latinos, who now account for half of the state’s K-12 students. But those numbers are too few and rising too slowly to meet the projected demand. Which is why the College Opportunity campaign has been lobbying Newsom to adopt a statewide college credential attainment goal of 60 percent of adults — or 1.7 million additional degrees — by 2030.

“Within that goal we have to be closing racial equity gaps,” she emphasizes. “There’s just no way that it’s mathematically possible for California to hit 60 percent without closing racial and ethnic gaps in attainment.”

What is possible is for Newsom to combine political leadership with an arsenal of research-proven strategies developed to mitigate the worst completion rates in the state. The 70 percent share of all California’s public college students who attend the 114-campus community college system is an artifact of the Master Plan, which designed the two-year colleges to take all the mostly underserved students whose grades left them ineligible for the elite four-year University of California, and who couldn’t get into the California State University system. Unfortunately, the 2.1 million community college students have only a 47 percent chance of graduating, transferring to a four-year school, or earning some sort of certificate after six years.

One of the more divisive methods being proposed to boost completions is a Jerry Brown pay-for-performance funding scheme from the Gates Foundation that would withhold part of the schools’ $6.7 billion in general funding until specific transfer targets are met. Newsom has remained noncommittal. An early success at clearing a transfer path to the CSUs was the Associate Degrees for Transfer program, in which any student with the certificate is guaranteed admission. Its effectiveness persuaded UC to sign onto a similar program last spring. There’s also Assembly Bill 705, which requires community colleges to consider high school grades rather than placement tests in order to reduce non-credit remedial coursework. Which was also the point last year of CSU’s controversial decision to simply do away with remedial classes altogether as it tries to double its 19 percent four-year graduation rate to 40 percent by 2025.

It is to eliminate such frictions that Newsom has vowed to revive a version of the defunct California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) to coordinate student-centered reforms across the UC, CSU and community colleges. Jerry Brown had eliminated CPEC in a 2011 line-item budget veto, claiming it had become “ineffective,” then vetoed a subsequent effort to revive it. The new commission will also oversee what could be Newsom’s most impactful proposal — an integrated data system to both track student progress and act as early-intervention radar by anticipating problems on the degree track. But as promising as that might sound on paper, university veterans of past budgetary battles may require convincing.

“At the moment, I don’t really know how high higher education is in Newsom’s agenda,” Douglass says warily. “I think it could be like Jerry Brown’s, which was not very high. The only issues he really cared about was the politically popular issue of freezing tuition, not looking at, well, what is the financial model? How can the system grow with the state’s population and needs?”

But Newsom’s campaign trail commitments to degree equity and to expanding affordability have already persuaded Dow and other college education advocates. The real proof will come in how much he’ll include for higher education in his first, January budget, and in how soon he’ll honor his campaign pledge to double the state’s current year of free community college or to expand Cal Grant B Access awards for low-income students as a pathway to a debt-free degree.

“Those are the costs that really put students into debt or keep students from going full time,” Dow argues. “We have to be thinking about time-to-degree as an affordability issue. When students at a community college take six years to complete, that’s four additional years that they’re paying for tuition when it should have been two years.”

The truth is, Dow would have good reason to be optimistic about any young governor entering office at the head of a mandate-like blue wave of legislative Democratic supermajorities, and with a projected $14 billion surplus to turn his promises into policies.

“We will see what happens,” she says.


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