Yesterday 30,000 Los Angeles school teachers went on strike. The Los Angeles Unified School District is the nation’s second largest, with 600,000 students enrolled in 900 schools.
The school district has been merely inching up its offers to more fully staff the meager institutions teachers have been describing—huge classes, inadequate student support, and a lack of enrichment staff. But the District’s offer remains paltry. California’s schools have been underfunded since 1978, when Proposition 13 froze property taxes, and the situation has reached a level parents and teachers in most middle class communities would not tolerate. The Los Angeles Times‘ Howard Blume reported on Friday: “The latest offer would provide a full-time nurse at every elementary school and lower class sizes by about two students at middle schools. It builds on a proposal from Monday, in which the district also offered a small decrease in class sizes. In that first proposal, maximum class sizes in grades four to six would drop from 36 to 35, and in high school from 42 to 39… Also, every secondary school would get a librarian, which some middle schools lack now. And high schools would get an extra academic counselor.”
Although the Los Angeles Unified School District has claimed an average class size of 26 students, the executive director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson challenges the district’s numbers: “There is conflicting data on this, but suffice it to say that information on the LAUSD website supports the union’s position that average class sizes are probably far larger than 26 in every grade but K-3, with averages of more than 30 students per class in grades 4 through 8 and more than 40 in high school classes. In addition a separate fact sheet prepared by the district says, ‘Nearly 60 percent of all Los Angeles Unified schools and 92 percent of the elementary schools have 29 or fewer students in each classroom.’ This means that 40 percent of Los Angeles public schools have 30 or more students per class on average.”
Haimson quotes a high school teacher, Glenn Sacks: “At my high school, for example, we have over 30 academic classes with 41 or more students, including nine English/writing classes with as many as 49 students, and three AP classes with 46 or more students. One English teacher has well over 206 students—41+ per class. A U.S. Government teacher has 52 students in his AP government class. Writing is a key component of both classes—the sizes make it impossible for these teachers to properly review and help students with their essays.”
The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published an open letter from fifteen award winning Los Angeles teachers explaining why they are striking. They list enormous class size; schools lacking a full-time nurse, a librarian, or adequate social-emotional support services for students; an over-emphasis on testing and test prep; career technical education teachers who lack a conference period; and “unregulated charter school growth, without requiring reasonable accountability and guidelines for charter school co-locations…”
While for 40 years California’s schools have suffered from the state’s stringent property tax freeze, in recent years the Los Angeles Unified School District has built up a reserve surplus of $2 billion, which the teachers say should be spent to improve conditions in the city’s public schools. And, Howard Blume reports, the newly elected governor, Gavin Newsom has proposed a budget that would free up money by relieving school districts of some required pension payments.
A primary issue underneath the current impasse is lack of trust. Eli Broad, the corporate school reformer who founded the Broad Academy to train non-educators from the corporate world as school superintendents, has been investing for years in the political candidacy of charter school proponents to take over the Los Angeles school board. In a piece published late yesterday by the NY Times, Miriam Pawel describes Eli Broad’s influence in Los Angeles school politics: “(T)he billionaire and charter school supporter Eli Broad and a group of allies spent almost $10 million in 2017 to win a majority on the school board. The board rammed through the appointment of a superintendent, Austin Beutner, with no educational background.” Beutner was an investment banker and the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times. His only public administration experience was as deputy mayor of Los Angeles. Today one in five students in Los Angeles attends a charter school. Pawel adds that students going to charter schools “take their state aid with them, siphoning off $600 million a year from the district.”
In a stunning article for California’s Capital & Main, and published jointly in The American Prospect, Danny Feingold explores the implications of what is happening in Los Angeles: “Sometimes strikes are exactly what they seem to be—over wages and working conditions…. 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… On one side… 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 LA Unified School District in its current incarnation is worth investing in—or even preserving.”
Feingold adds that Superintendent Austin Beutner has already hired Cami Anderson, the notorious state-appointed overseer superintendent in Newark, New Jersey. Fired in 2015, Anderson had botched her attempt radically to restructure the school district by expanding charter schools. Feingold explains the implications for Los Angeles: “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’…. 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.”
While teachers who walked out last spring in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and other states and the teachers striking this week in Los Angeles are protesting huge classes and too-few counselors and nurses, in a commentary published in Forbes Magazine, teacher-writer Peter Greene observes something different this year: “In… virtually all strikes of the past, we could make one assumption safely—that… everyone wanted in their own way, to see the public school district remain healthy and whole… Increasingly the agenda of many people taking positions of authority over public education is to dismantle public education and replace it with a network of private charter schools, a process often accelerated by starving public schools for funding in order to manufacture a crisis… Teachers in many school districts and many states across the country find themselves in the unusual position of working in an institution led by people who want to see that institution fail. Back in the day, teacher strikes were about how best to keep a school district healthy… UTLA’s demands for smaller classes, more support staff, safer schools, community schools, and charter school oversight are not about making their working conditions a little better, but about keeping public education alive and healthy…. (M)any teachers will see it not simply as a local battle, but as a skirmish in a larger national fight.”
Last May, after the spring’s wave of walkouts by schoolteachers, Henry Giroux considered the meaning of the teachers’ actions: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy… Rejecting the idea that education is a commodity to be bought and sold, teachers and students across the country are reclaiming education as a public good and a human right….”