The Meaning of the Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike

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 TimesHoward 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….”

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Teachers in Los Angeles Delay Strike Till Next Week; District Faces Long and Catastrophic Fiscal Crisis

After months of failed negotiations, the United Teachers of Los Angeles had scheduled a strike beginning today. They have now postponed the strike until Monday, January 14th. The problems in the district that have driven teachers to strike are complex; their situation is impossibly simple. Their pay has not risen adequately and the conditions in the city’s schools for children and for teachers are deplorable. For the NY Times, Jennifer Medina and Dana Goldstein report: “Some classes have as many as 45 students… and school nurses, art and music teachers must serve thousands of students by traveling to multiple schools.”

We are told that, with its huge economy, California is unlike the other states where teachers walked out last spring. They were Red states for the most part—exemplars of supply-side, tax cutting and promoters of marketplace choice through charter schools. Instead, we are told, California is a Blue state.

A long, long time ago, California had Blue-state education funding, but that was from 1959 to 1967, under Jerry Brown’s father, Governor Pat Brown. For forty years, however, California has, in reality, been the primary exemplar of Red-state school funding and school privatization.  In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, the state law that began the state-by-state, anti-tax slide which has undermined public school funding across the country.  In 2012, with Proposition 30, California Governor Jerry Brown pushed through new taxes for education, but they have not been enough to undo the impact of Proposition 13.

In a profound 1998 book, Paradise Lost, about what happened in California, Peter Schrag, the long-time editorial page director of the Sacramento Bee, defines the principles that have dominated California school funding since 1978: “Proposition 13 and the initiatives that followed in its wake—the tax and spending cuts, the growing constraints on both state and local government and the accompanying shift from a communitarian ethic to a market ethic—have in fact had a profound effect in lowering expectations and in blurring the vision of what good government and a high standard of public services could be like. In recent years, as revenues have grown, the California political debate about the support and quality of its public services has inadvertently confirmed the effects of twenty years of Mississippification:  even in the midst of prosperity, that debate has not been about… any ideal of quality; it has been focused, rather, on the question of how far behind the national average the Golden State still finds itself, and how long it will take to catch up.  It has been a dispute about how to get to mediocrity.” (Paradise Lost, p. xiii)

Proposition. 13 froze local property taxes. Schrag explains: “What the taxpayers gained the tax collector lost. Overnight, property tax revenues for local agencies declined between $6 and $7 billion annually. (They would lose more later.) This amounted to roughly 27 percent of all revenues for cities, 40 percent of all county revenues, nearly half (on average) of what school districts had been getting, and up to 90 percent for some fire districts.”(p. 154) “The cumulative effect of those measures was not only the massive transfer of control from local government to Sacramento… but a massive constriction of the power of all government to manage revenues.” (p. 162)

Medina and Goldstein report that today, in 2019 Los Angeles: “The impending strike highlights the fact that despite California’s reputation as a center of liberal policy, it spends relatively little on public education. School spending levels, about $11,000 per student in 2016, are far below those in other blue bastions; for example, California spends about half as much as New York on the average child… More than a fifth of public school students in California are… learning English, the highest percentage in the country… With many wealthy and white families opting to choose charter or private schools, or move to other surrounding school districts, the Los Angeles school district is disproportionately African-American and Latino. A study from U.C.L.A.’s Civil Rights Project found that Latino students in Los Angeles are more segregated than anywhere else in the country.”

In its 2017 report, Charters and Consequences, the Network for Public Education examines the impact of the expansion of charter schools in a number of states. Here are some facts about California: “California has the most charter schools and charter school students in the nation. In 2000, there were 299 charter schools in the Golden State. By 2016 there were 1230… While most are brick and mortar schools, 20% of California’s charters are either online schools or schools where students drop by to pick up work. Such schools are often fronts for for-profit corporations. In general, their results are dismal.”

In a May 2018 report for In the Public InterestBreaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, political economist Gordon Lafer describes the devastating fiscal impact in California for a local public school district of the expansion of charter schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” Imagine the impact in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district with 900 schools and roughly 600,000 students.

U.C.L.A. education sociologist, Pedro Noguera published a commentary in the Los Angeles Times earlier this week to situate the pending strike in the context of the long and devastating fiscal challenges faced by the Los Angeles Unified Schools District: “In 2015, then-Supt. Ray Cortines assembled a blue-ribbon committee to conduct an objective analysis of the district’s finances and to make recommendations for how projected deficits should be addressed. The report’s conclusions were stark: ‘The expanding gap represents a serious challenge to the LAUSD’s financial stability in the near term, one that insists upon immediate action today.’  It warned that immediate and difficult measures would be required if the district hoped to continue adequately serving its students beyond the 2019-20 school year, noting that ‘failure to do so could lead to the insolvency of the LAUSD….’ ”

Noguera explores the school district’s complex fiscal realities: “The district, as the teachers union has pointed out, does have a reserve fund of close to $2 billion. These funds could definitely help in reaching a settlement with the union. However, the existence of the reserve can’t make up for the fact that LAUSD currently spends about half a billion dollars more each year than it takes in… Without painful corrective action, its financial situation will worsen considerably over the next few years.” “The potential strike by teachers must be understood in this larger context. The teachers and their union have raised important and legitimate concerns, and the fiscal condition of the district does not negate the validity of their demands. The district must invest in its schools and its personnel if it hopes to have a future… In addition to providing education to nearly 600,000 students, the school district is also the city’s largest employer.”

As he wraps up his column, however, Noguera defines a much deeper problem lurking underneath the district’s long term funding crisis and the issues over which teachers plan to strike: “A few months after moving to Los Angeles I was invited to speak to a group of influential Angelenos about the need to invest in high quality after-school programs to support the well-being and development of children.  During my remarks, I asked those present how many had attended a Los Angeles public school themselves. Most of those in the audience raised a hand.  I then asked how many of them had children or grandchildren who were enrolled at district schools. Only a few hands went up. This is a huge problem. When those with power and influence are disconnected from the school system and more concerned with making preparations for the 2028 Olympics than they are with schools that serve most of the city’s children, we are in serious trouble.”