The nation’s second largest school district is about to ring in 2019 with a teacher strike that is already reverberating in public schools across California, and could be felt by taxpayers and communities throughout the state.
United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents more than 30,000 teachers and employees in the Los Angeles Unified School District, says it will strike Jan. 10—the first Thursday after students return from the holiday break—unless the district agrees to a wide-ranging list of demands on pay, support resources and working conditions. Negotiations have largely gone nowhere, with both the district and union accusing each other of not negotiating in good faith.
L.A. Unified, a behemoth of a school system, ranges across more than 710 square miles of California’s largest city, employing 60,000 people and educating more than 620,000 students—more than the entire public school enrollment of nearly half the states in the nation. But the strike, if it happens, will not be easily confined to LAUSD.
Many of the issues that have boiled over in California’s largest school district—rising pension costs, declining enrollment, crowded classrooms, polarizing debates over charter schools—are simmering in districts all over the state. Teachers in Oakland Unified School District are also nearing a potential strike, and rank-and-file faculty in other local unions are similarly frustrated with longstanding shortages in funding and resources.
Though the 2019 legislative session has scarcely begun and the new governor won’t be sworn in until January 7, education advocacy groups already are lobbying Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom and the Democrat-controlled Legislature for significantly higher spending on public education. Meanwhile, a reform of Proposition 13 designed to pull more property tax revenue from commercial and industrial taxpayers has qualified for the 2020 ballot. It’s being pushed by, among others, teachers’ unions.
All this could intensify an already complex state budget picture. Analysts warn of increasingly tight school finances, and while legislators and Newsom envision ambitious goals and programs for K-12 and early childhood education, economists have cautioned fiscal restraint as another potential economic downturn looms.
Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner says the district and the union want the same goals: Improving education for the district’s 621,000 kids. Beutner said he is determined “to go to Sacramento to make sure our legislators understand that we’re doing the best we can with the resources that we have and that we need more resources.”
That focus on state funding is being echoed, not just by L.A. labor leaders, but by local teacher unions in other California cities.
“We’re going to send a message, not just to the people who don’t want to pass Prop. 13 [reforms] in two years, but the people in Sacramento and the people who we helped get elected, like Gov. Gavin Newsom, to say we need to invest more in K-12 education,” said Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond in the West Contra Costa Unified School District.
Demetrio’s comments came at a Dec. 15 gathering in Oakland of teachers from unions in San Francisco, San Jose, Berkeley, Alameda, Santa Cruz, Oakland and Elk Grove. West Contra Costa Unified is also the home district of incoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who campaigned, with union backing, on a promise to push for increased state funding for public schools.
The LAUSD dispute isn’t based solely on complaints over pay and working conditions. Also at issue are dueling efforts by the union and wealthy school reformers for control of the district and a bitter, years-long battle over the growth of charter schools.
Teachers want a 6.5 percent raise retroactive to 2016, but the union is also demanding the district reduce class sizes, scale back standardized testing, implement “common-sense regulation on charter schools,” and bolster early, adult and bilingual education programs. Though it isn’t an item in contract negotiations, UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl also has called for a cap on charter schools in the district.
L.A. Unified officials say that despite a $1.8 billion surplus, meeting the union’s demands would bankrupt the district and could force cuts and a state takeover. LAUSD is already spending at a deficit in part due to declining enrollment and increased fixed costs such as growing pension obligations, officials note. They say their most recent proposal, which the union rejected, is fair: teacher pay raises totaling 6 percent and about $30 million to hire more counselors, nurses and librarians.
UTLA says the district is overstating its gloomy financial projections, pointing out that past predictions of financial crises never fully materialized. Caputo-Pearl has accused the district of “hoarding” its reserves and crying wolf while teachers and students deal with ballooning class sizes and poor learning environments.
The likelihood of averting a teacher strike in Los Angeles appears to be slim, at best. A fact-finding report released last week did little to bridge tensions and noted that both sides still disagree on most issues surrounding the contract negotiations. The report suggests that both sides agree to the district’s 6 percent raises. It also suggested the district spend an additional 1 to 3 percent “in order to recruit additional teachers and staff to reduce class size and increase access to other professional services.”
Beutner says a strike, which would be L.A. Unified’s first since 1989, will hurt the most disadvantaged students in the district, many of whom rely on their schools for basic services such as meals and, in some neighborhoods, physical safety.
Caputo-Pearl said the threatened strike and the union’s overall demands keep students at the forefront and are “an attempt to save public education in Los Angeles.” UTLA, he said, is “not going to go back into a bargaining process that has failed and that the district has not taken seriously for the last 20 months.”
Beutner said a strike “will not increase our funding a nickel—not a nickel.” He said the union should instead focus its desire for more resources on the Legislature, which appropriates most funding for school districts, LAUSD included.
“A strike in Los Angeles would hurt more students and families,” Beutner said. “I’m not able to draw a connection to how that helps at the state Legislature with legislators coming up with more funding for public education.”
Thousands of teachers and their supporters marched the streets of downtown Los Angeles on Dec. 15, the Saturday leading up to the union’s strike date announcement. Marchers wore red shirts in an apparent callback to the wave of “Red for Ed” teacher revolts that swept other states in 2018.
That same day, more than 200 teachers from a dozen different local unions gathered in north Oakland to support Los Angeles teachers as well as strategize activism for more state funding and resources. They, too, wore red shirts and spoke of how the teacher demonstrations in L.A. and across the country inspired them.
“I am tired of being told that there isn’t enough money to pay teachers more or buy books for my colleague’s classrooms,” Deirdre Snyder, treasurer of the Oakland Education Association, told the crowd of educators at their Oakland gathering. “I am tired of being told that there isn’t enough money by Democrats who say that they support labor and human rights. We have work to do in California.”
Teachers in California districts where strikes are on the horizon share many of the same frustrations with pay, classroom resources and, in some cases, charter school proliferation that spurred walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.
The political landscapes between California and those other states, however, are different. The high-profile teachers walkouts that happened this year occurred in red states with traditionally weak teachers’ unions and Republican-led Legislatures and governors that had yet to recover from steep cuts to public schools following the recession. Most school boards and superintendents in the those states preemptively closed down schools and supported teachers’ walkout efforts.
While California ranks in the bottom 10 states in per-pupil funding when adjusted for the cost of living, schools have received significant increases in funding over the past few years that have brought K-12 spending back to pre-recession levels.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has been far more supportive of teachers’ unions than governors in red states. Newsom, also a Democrat, was elected with explicit support from teachers’ unions. In the Legislature, meanwhile, teachers unions arguably are among the most influential interest groups.
At the gathering in Oakland, teachers stressed the need to frame disputes beyond their local districts.
Gonzalez, the Richmond teachers union president, said that looming teachers’ strikes in L.A. and Oakland are “not just to fight for what’s right in Oakland (and Los Angeles), but about public education in California.”