Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Members of the largest Los Angeles teachers’ union plan to walk out of LAUSD classrooms. Some demands: smaller classes, more resources, better pay.
Under her union contract, Los Angeles special education teacher Lorena Ramo is meant to teach a maximum of 14 special education students per class. But these days, at the Ellen Ochoa Learning Center in the Los Angeles Unified School District where she works, she’s serving more like 20 or 21, with no assistant to support her. For the school’s 1,000 total pupils, there is one school psychologist, and a single school nurse, who splits her time between three buildings.
“It’s not about not doing the work,” Ramo says. “But when we have so many students with so many different learning needs, it’s hard to meet them where they’re at—there’s not enough time in the day, not enough support, and not enough resources.”
Nationwide, public school teachers have reported similar strains. Almost every state had a teacher shortage last year. Classroom sizes are rising, while school staff wages and benefits are stagnating. Some teachers must crowdfund their school supplies, and others have watched as the walls around them crumble under neglect. So, nationwide, teachers are rising up. After a series of strikes and walkouts in red states like West Virginia, Arizona, and Kentucky last year—a movement nicknamed #RedforEd—public educators won pay raises, halted benefit cuts, and opened a national conversation about public education funding.
On Monday, January 14, the 30,000 teachers who form L.A.’s largest teacher union, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), plan to walk out, too—becoming the first union of educators to strike in 2019. It’s the largest school district in California and the second-largest school district in the country, with more than 1,000 schools that together serve more than 700,000 students.
While L.A.’s teachers were galvanized by previous actions, union leaders say their frustration has been stoked by different, more local flames: Large class sizes, partly, but also low wages compounded by high housing prices, the proliferation of charter schools, over-testing of their students, and a funding shortage they say has been exacerbated by state property-tax policy.
The road to Monday’s strike has been turbulent. Contract negotiations between UTLA and LAUSD began in the spring of 2017. After months of talks, the groups came to an impasse this summer, and in August 2018, UTLA announced its intent to strike, with 98 percent of its membership voting in favor of the action. In pursuit of a compromise, a neutral fact-finding panel was commissioned to produce a report on the state of district funding and potential resource reallocation. It confirmed that LAUSD currently has $1.8 billion in reserve money, but, acknowledging that much of that money is earmarked for other needs, supported the district’s counter-offer of a lower wage hike of 6 percent staggered over two years instead of UTLA’s proposed immediate 6.5 percent raise.
The district would be insolvent in two to three years if it met the union’s full demands, says LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner insisting that the reserve is almost fully spoken for. “We’ve told [the union] repeatedly, if you find anything else, we’ll pay it out,” he told CityLab. “We’re not trying to hide it, we’re trying to invest it in our schools. And if the state gives us more, we’ll spend more.”
But the standoff is about more than dividing up the reserve, or even lobbying for state funds, say union leaders. “This fight is about the very fundamental question of whether we’re going to fund our neighborhood public schools, or continue to cut them and move a privatization agenda,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl told CityLab. “[A]t its heart,” he wrote in an op-ed in the LA Times, “the standoff between L.A. Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles is a struggle over the future of public education.”
The union and Beutner agree, at least rhetorically, on what that future should look like: “The goal has to be: Kids in every one of our schools are getting a good education; that our educators are well-supported; that they're getting the recognition and compensation that every one of them deserves,” Beutner told CityLab. What they can’t square is how to structure it, or how to pay for it.
Unlike the conservative states that hosted actions last year, L.A. is a blue city in a bluer state. But while California is the fifth richest state in the country, it ranks 41st out of 50 on per-pupil public education spending, adjusted for the cost of living. It also has been home to the highest average teacher-student ratio in the country, at one to 24.
Even though it’s still high compared to national averages, the district claims that compared to elsewhere in the state, LAUSD class size per teacher averages are some of the lowest, at 25.4 to one—a number that the union disputes. Still, Ramo is not the only one in the district who reports overflowing rooms. Gillian Russom, who teaches world and U.S. history at LAUSD’s Roosevelt High School, says her average class size ranges from 40 to 42 students. “We teach in a community where we’re dealing with poverty; kids are dealing with trauma,” she said. “It’s kind of heartbreaking on a daily basis to feel that with 40 students in a room, you can’t necessarily give every student—especially those with greater needs—the support they need.”
To gain control over the swelling sizes, UTLA is lobbying to remove a restrictive section of their current contract: The change would let teachers file grievances when classes get too big, and force the district to heed them. LAUSD representatives say they are happy to comply: “The district shouldn’t have the unfettered ability to raise class size in any case,” Kelly Gonez, a District 6 LAUSD board of education representative, says. The district has also agreed to add more than 1,000 new staff members across LAUSD schools this year, coming to an average of about one per school.
Part of the point of this investment, Caputo-Pearl says, would be to force the district to lean less on charter schools—something the union can’t directly bargain for, but could get at through strengthening non-charter community schools, he says. Out of LAUSD’s more than 1,000 schools, about 200 are charter; some union-represented, most independently-operated. The district now serves the highest number of charter school students in the country, at more than 125,000, as the number of charter schools in the district has grown by almost 287 percent between 2005 and 2016, according to a report by In The Public Interest. (Beutner says that growth has stabilized in recent years.)
To support the charters, In The Public Interest found, more than $500 million in funds a year are diverted from community schools, which educate almost 500,000 of the county’s other students. California law also allows independent charter schools to “co-locate” in under-used public school space, which Caputo-Pearl calls a “parasitic” dynamic. The district has agreed to consider co-location concerns by convening a Task Force.
“We need to stop having a two-tiered system,” says Russom. “This is part of a bigger corporate project to underfund the public sector, claim the public sector is failing, and replace it with unaccountable, privately-run entities.” It’s a dynamic that she, Caputo-Pearl, and others say has gotten worse as the schools serve a population that has a higher percentage of students of color: For the 2018-19 school year, 73.4 percent of LAUSD kids enrolled are Latino. (In 2000, it was approximately 58 percent). “It’s notable that our drop in funding has taken place as the number of students of color has increased,” she said. “There’s a systematic disrespect of students of color that’s happening.”
Beutner rejects this characterization. “What we’re trying to do is have less bureaucracy and more schools,” he said. “I don’t believe charters are the answer, nor do I believe the problem resides entirely with charters.” For low-income Hispanic students, especially, a 2014 report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that attending LAUSD charter schools does result in “more learning” per year.
Caputo-Pearl also fears that Beutner, a former hedge-fund manager, is taking steps to convert the district’s operations under the “portfolio model,” a school reform method used in cities like Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans, which hands control of charter schools to contracted outside groups. It is said that, by more closely managing and assessing existing schools, the portfolio model expands school choice and improves student performance—but it’s also been linked to the expansion of non-union charter schools at the expense of neighborhood schools serving lower-income populations, writes Matt Barnum in Chalkbeat. It’s also “deepened segregation,” UTLA said in a statement.
Beutner told CityLab that the claim that he supports the portfolio model is little more than “reckless jargon.”
Like the demands of teachers who participated in strikes across the country last year, many of UTLA’s most contentious demands appear to focus more on school conditions than teacher compensation. But the two are closely linked, teachers told CityLab. “My school has lost teachers almost every year because of lost enrollment to charter schools,” said Russom. “And also, frankly, because the neighborhood is getting more expensive to live in.”
Teachers in California earn an average of 14 percent less than other college graduates in the state—making the wage gap between them and other college-educated peers one of the smallest in the country, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But in California, the cost of living is high. In some pricey areas like San Jose and San Mateo, districts are developing programs to house teachers in affordable units close to schools (and meeting resistance along the way). In L.A., rents have risen 27 percent since 2008: Without ample affordable options, LAUSD teachers say they have difficulty paying for housing within city limits.
After working in the district for 18 years as a teacher, Russom tried to buy a house in the city last year. A few months into looking, she said, she “just gave up.”
There is one thing on which union advocates and school district employees agree: It’s the state that is responsible for much of the local public education funding crisis.
“The district does have some funds, and there’s a legitimate negotiation going on as to how to spend the funds we do have,” allowed Gonez of the District 6 LAUSD board of education. “But the root cause of why the schools don’t have the resources our schools deserve, that’s an issue across the state of California—there’s been a systematic disinvestment in California schools for several decades.”
Partly to blame for that disinvestment, both parties say, is Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot initiative that capped property tax hikes across the state. Property taxes fund public services, like schools and libraries. When they’re kept artificially low, those services suffer. The latest bid for reform, a ballot initiative called Schools and Communities First—which would have returned an estimated $4.5 to $5 billion back to public schools—failed in November’s election, but advocates are hoping voters will change their minds in 2020.
“There needs to be partnership between the district and the union in appealing to our state government in terms of [increasing] funding for our schools,” said Ramo. Beutner agrees, though he has not commented on whether he supports Prop 13 reform specifically. “We should be in Sacramento [the seat of California’s state government], having this conversation,” he said. “We’re willing and prepared to be part of any campaign to convince our communities to better support education.”
But, Caputo-Pearl added, that crucial step shouldn’t distract the district from pursuing other solutions. “Beutner is talking about going to the state as a decoy,” he said. “We think we need to do both: reinvest money in LAUSD and go to to the state. And we certainly think we can work together to do it.”
Another route, UTLA suggests, would be to close the carried interest loophole, which Caputo-Pearl says could “bring hundreds of millions to schools annually” by stopping hedge fund managers from classifying income as capital gains. The district, meanwhile, supports levying a parcel tax, and the fact-finder suggested looking into school bonds.
“Both sides need to come to the table and compromise, and the agreement has to be within our financial means,” said Gonez. “We can’t just think about our schools thriving this year, but [ensuring] that they’re sustainable.”
Though L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has called the walk-out “inevitable”—and at this point, it seems to be—the district has made several attempts to avert it this month. In the hopes of blocking special education workers from striking, LAUSD filed a court injunction, citing damage to 60,000 special education students. That motion was denied by a federal court last week, but another one filed to postpone the strike from Thursday was approved, buying the district an extra few days to prepare.
As the walk-out date looms, the district has secured contingency plans. In October, the Los Angeles Board of Education freed up $3 million to hire non-union substitute teachers, according to the Los Angeles Times. The schools will reshuffle other administrators to serve in teachers’ roles, Gonez told CityLab, and the district will provide online education resources to train them. Yet, taken together, the Times writes, the efforts are on track to put the schools at only about 8 percent of regular staffing if a full union walk-out is staged. “We know that nothing can substitute for a classroom teacher in every room with a student,” said Gonez.
Just as Los Angeles teachers watched the ripples of strikes across West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma, on Monday, other California school districts will be watching them. In solidarity with UTLA, teachers from Richmond, Oakland, and Berkeley are holding a rally on Saturday. And most Tuesdays, says Marissa Glidden, the Vice President of the United Teachers of Richmond, the union wears red: “For what’s going on in L.A., and for teachers across the country.”