My turn: Why I joined the picket line at Manual Arts High in L.A.

Joshua Pechthalt, Special to CALmatters

I joined the 31,000 striking teachers of the United Teachers Los Angeles to walk the picket line at Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles, where I taught social studies for more than 20 years.

Like educators and school workers everywhere, I support these dedicated teachers who are taking a stand to save public education in the second largest school district in the country.

For many people outside Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Unified School District strike might seem far away, with little relevance to their daily lives. But the strike hits closer to home than you might think.

Every year I taught at Manual Arts would begin the same. Like thousands of other teachers, I would stop at an office supplies store to buy pens, pencils, folders and other basics my students didn’t have and the school didn’t provide.

I would also get cleaning supplies. Not because the custodians didn’t do a good job. They did. But cutbacks limited their number at my school and the time they could spend in my classroom.

While most people unfortunately accept this to be the norm in public schools, conditions in Los Angeles and throughout California have only deteriorated.

In Los Angeles, years of cuts have led to increases in class sizes, and chronic understaffing of nurses, counselors, social workers and librarians.

With some classes reaching 45 students, and a steadfast refusal to address these issues at the bargaining table by Superintendent Austin Beutner, it is no wonder a Loyola Marymount survey of Los Angeles County residents conducted this week found that over 82 percent of parents support the teachers’ strike.

The conditions in L.A. Unified have been compounded by the growth of charter schools. Currently, the Los Angeles Unified School District has the highest concentration of charter schools of any urban district in the state. One out of every five students attend charter schools in over 200 schools.

Over the years, the growth of charter schools has syphoned money and resources away from L.A. Unified, hurting the majority of students who attend in-district schools.

Los Angeles Unified School District leaders say they would like to lower class sizes and restore programs but they just don’t have the money.

But the district has an unspent reserve of nearly $1.9 billion. It is unconscionable that the district would sit on such a massive reserve while class sizes skyrocket and schools go without nurses, counselors, social workers, and librarians.

Instead of continuing to cut schools to the bone, and denying our students the essential services and resources they deserve, the district should immediately settle a contract with United Teachers Los Angeles that invests in students and fully supports educators.

The state must act. California is the 5th largest economy in the world, but we are a dismal 43rd in the nation in per-pupil spending. Without fully funded schools, California students will continue to be denied the education they deserve. And without dramatic action in Sacramento, teachers and school workers will likely be out on the picket line very soon in school districts throughout the state.

A good place to start addressing the underfunding is the Schools and Communities First initiative.

Along with community and parent allies from throughout the state, the California Federation of Teachers was instrumental in qualifying the initiative for the November 2020 ballot.

The initiative would would close a loophole in current tax law that allows wealthy commercial property owners to evade paying property taxes and would restore more than $11 billion per year to California schools, community colleges, health clinics, and other vital local services.

We shouldn’t stop there. In Sacramento, all options to bring critical resources back to our schools and colleges must be considered, including taking a strong look at the carried interest loophole and other corporate tax breaks that funnel money out of our schools in order to pad corporate profits.

The Legislature must carefully examine the impact the growth of charter schools has on our schools, and ensure that they are transparent and accountable to their local communities.

The bottom line is that the Los Angeles Unified School District and the state can’t continue to plead poverty while young people continue to receive an education where counseling ratios are in the hundreds to one, classes are overcrowded, and art and music are only for the privileged. Young people get one shot at a quality education. Someone has got to stand up and say there is no tomorrow. That’s why I was honored to join the picket line at Manual Arts High.


Joshua Pechthalt is president of California Federation of Teachers; United Teachers Los Angeles is a CFT affiliate, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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