L.A. Teachers’ Strike Is Ending, but Economic and Racial Inequity Remain Along with State Funding Problems

Los Angeles teachers reached a tentative deal to end their strike yesterday morning. Teachers began voting on the agreement later in the day, and it was expected that teachers would return to their classrooms today. At noon yesterday, the Los Angeles TimesHoward Blume reported that the agreement includes a 6 percent raise, smaller classes, and a promise to create 30 Community Schools with wraparound medical and social services for students and their families. Even as the teachers won some of the protections they demanded for their students, however, years of serious school funding inequity, compounded by racial and economic segregation of students across the district’s schools will continue as major challenges for the school district.

Addressing the Los Angeles teachers’ strike for The Guardian, last week Andrew Gumbel untangled the impact on the state’s public schools of California’s taxing constraints wound together with racial segregation and explosive inequality: “California once had one of the best funded, most envied public education systems in the United States. Now schoolteachers in Los Angeles, who went on strike… to vent years of frustration, say they struggle with overcrowded classrooms and children whose need for academic support, psychological services and English-language coaching outstrips anything they can provide.  Many schools do not have a full-time nurse or counselor.  In many of the poorer neighborhoods—in south L.A., or the north-eastern San Fernando Valley—the library opens rarely. Janitorial service has become so spotty that some teachers have resorted to buying their own cleaning supplies and going over their own classrooms with rags and a mop at the end of a long day. It’s a grim picture.”

Gumbel described the power of money in a state and a public school district with explosive economic inequality: “California has a greater concentration of billionaires and holders of university doctorates than any place on earth. Yet it is also a state of vast inequalities and pervasive poverty, particularly in rural areas and in the blighted neighborhoods of its biggest cities… And the gulf between rich and poor has grown only wider as a result of bitter ideological warfare over schools, taxes and property values.”

First there was Proposition 13, passed in 1978.  An economist tells Gumbel, “People always come back to Prop. 13 because a lot of the other changes since are a result, either direct or indirect, of that vote.”  Gumbel adds: “(M)uch like the Brexit vote, Prop. 13 was deemed untouchable, a ‘third rail’ of California politics that elected representatives approached at their peril.”

Gumbel explains: “Proposition 13 drastically cut and capped property taxes and hobbled the ability of California counties—and indirectly, the state—to raise money for schools and other key social programs. The initiative, which passed with close to 65% support, was billed as a grassroots tax revolt against a backdrop of high inflation, rising interest rates and a perception of out-of-control public spending.  Overnight, the tax revenue available to pay for public schooling was slashed by one-third…”

But Prop. 13 is only part of the reason teachers have been striking today in Los Angeles: “There is… a second explanation, one that knocks some of the shine off California’s golden reputation as a beacon of educational progressivism in the 1950s and early 1960s: that the school system, like the state itself, has always been beset by racial and economic inequalities and what has changed over time has merely been the severity of the same obstinate underlying problem.  Back in the days when property taxes accounted for more than 50% of school funding, counties and neighborhoods with higher property values were able to direct much more money to the local education system. That meant cities had vastly better schools than rural areas, and affluent white suburbs were far ahead of black and Latino neighborhoods, many of which, at the same time, were still subject to curfew laws and other forms of… racial segregation.”

After Prop. 13 in 1978, writes Gumbel, “In San Francisco…  a crucial number of richer families lost faith and sent their children to private school instead. Many other affluent communities, though, found workarounds to maintain quality, whether that was cities funding local schools directly, or persuading voters to approve a schools-directed ‘parcel tax’—in essence, a voluntary property tax of a few hundred dollars per home.  In Beverly Hills, infamously, the high school played host for years to an oil rig next to its baseball diamond and used the royalties to fund the entire district.”

Last October, The Stanford Daily described new research by the university’s center for Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE): “Among the findings were evidence of an achievement gap prior to kindergarten and an estimate that an additional $25.6 billion, marking a 38 percent increase in (school) spending, would be required to meet state education goals.”  PACE conducted a similar study in 2007; the new research is a ten-year update.

Commenting on the study which incorporated contributions from 50 scholars at Stanford, Vanderbilt, Harvard, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and other universities, one of the lead researchers, Stanford’s Sean Reardon summarizes its primary conclusion: “We’re not failing our rich kids… We’re not, as a state, providing as much educational opportunity for our low-and middle-income communities and kids.”

The Stanford Daily‘s report continues: “The report indicated that there is a persistent economic and racial achievement gap in California that well surpasses the national average.  While students in affluent areas in California match the average performance of affluent areas nationwide, students in low-income California districts are scoring an average of a full grade level behind low-income students in other states… The racial achievement gap between black and white students, and between Latino and white students, is also more significant in California than in most other states… Some of these inequities may tie back to concerns over funding…. Public schools are allotted (state) government funding, which can then be supplemented with local funding sources such as property taxes and local bonds—funds that are in much greater supply in high-income areas… According to the California Budget and Policy Center, the state paid $10,291 per pupil in 2016, lower than 40 other states that year…   (T)he per-pupil funding amount is often doubled by local resources in areas that can afford them….”

The PACE researchers advocate for expanding early childhood education to address the serious economic achievement gap that already exists when California’s children enter Kindergarten. They also commend the state for recent reforms, including a new, 2013, Local Control Funding Formula: “The new policy is more targeted to high-need students, providing districts and schools that serve more at-risk students with more funding and permitting more local control over funding allocation.”  In the past the state addressed special needs funding through categorical grants which didn’t provide school districts serving high-needs students enough flexibility, according to the PACE report.

But the bottom line in California, according to the PACE report, is the urgent need for a 38 percent increase in California school spending—an additional $25.6 billion—with much of the greatest need in the schools serving California’s poorest students—many of them English language learners. Those numbers are essential background for understanding this month’s teachers’ strike in Los Angeles.

This blog previously covered the range of issues underneath the Los Angeles teachers’ strike here, here, and here.