Charter School Teachers in Los Angeles Are Now Striking as Well

Teachers from across the city gathered outside of the California Charter Schools Association on Jan. 15.
Teachers from across the city gathered outside of the California Charter Schools Association on Jan. 15.
—Catherine Gewertz/Education Week
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On day two of the massive Los Angeles’ teacher strike, a new crop of educators has joined the picket lines—79 teachers from three of the city’s public charter schools.

Teachers at the Accelerated Schools charter network are members of the United Teachers Los Angeles, although they have a separate contract from the one that covers all regular district schools. After nearly two years of contract negotiations, the dozens of charter teachers went on strike Tuesday, joining tens of thousands of regular public school teachers who are striking for pay raises, smaller class sizes, and more support staff in schools.

Accelerated Schools teachers are asking for more job protections and better health benefits. (The charter network has said teachers received a 17 percent pay raise last March.)

Hordes of teachers clad in red T-shirts, jackets, and rain ponchos converged on the California Charter Schools Association, a statewide advocacy group in downtown Los Angeles, from all different directions on Tuesday.

Many district teachers there said that although they appreciate the support and solidarity from the charter educators who are now on strike, too, they still have concerns about charter schools more broadly. The rapid growth of charter schools in the district has been an underlying factor in the district strike.

Matt Snyder, a 4th grade teacher at Lanai Road Elementary School, said if regular district schools had all the resources they needed, teachers wouldn’t feel threatened by the per-pupil funding that follows students to charters.

But “it’s a fantasy” to think the district would ever fully fund its schools, so that less-tension scenario isn’t even a possibility, he said.

This is the second-ever charter school strike in the country. The first, in Chicago, ended last month with teachers receiving a pay raise and smaller class sizes. Nationally, just 11 percent of charter schools are unionized, but teachers’ unions have been making inroads there in recent years.

Los Angeles is home to 277 charter schools, more than anywhere else in the country. Nearly 1 in 5 students in the Los Angeles Unified school district, which is the second-largest in the nation, attend a charter school.

About 50 of those charter schools are district-affiliated, meaning they’re operated and governed by the district but have a little more autonomy than other schools in the system. The district-affiliated charters are part of the current contract negotiations with UTLA, so teachers there have been on strike.

The remaining 224 are independent charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. They have separate contracts and are not part of the strike. Most of those charter schools are non-unionized. The Accelerated Schools network is one of the few that is organized by UTLA.

One of the rally signs used at the Los Angeles strike on the first day of the teacher walkout.
One of the rally signs used at the Los Angeles strike on the first day of the teacher walkout.
—Morgan Lieberman/Education Week

These two strikes—between the union and the school district, and the union and Accelerated’s management—have several things in common, said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl in a news conference Tuesday.

For one, he said, both the district and the charter management are exhibiting a lack of respect for teachers. And both parties have “money to take care of the issues on the table,” Caputo-Pearl said.

In response to the strike against the district, which involves more than 30,000 teachers, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner has repeatedly said that the school system cannot afford the union’s demands. The district’s latest offer was for a 6 percent pay raise, with back pay for the 2017-18 school year, and funding to add nearly 1,200 teachers, counselors, nurses, and librarians to schools.

The union is asking for a 6.5 percent pay raise, going as far back as July 2016, and has rebuked the offer for additional staffing, since many of the positions would only be funded for one year.

Charter Schools Fueling the Fire

Charter schools have been a major source of tension between the teachers’ union and the school district. As charter school enrollment in the city has grown, overall student enrollment in the district has declined. (Experts point to the city’s declining birthrate as another factor.)

UTLA leaders have accused Beutner of trying to “starve and privatize” schools, and have called for a cap on charter school growth.

Fueling the fire was a contentious school board election in May 2017, in which a charter school supporter defeated the union-backed candidate. And last year, the board elected Beutner, a former investment banker, to helm the school system.

As teachers rallied on Tuesday, carrying picket signs and chanting, Dipti Baranwal, an English teacher at Los Angeles High School, said she fears that continued low levels of funding for regular public schools will fuel the expansion of the charter sector.

“Underfunding [schools] encourages parents to say that their kids can’t get the education they need” in regular district schools, Baranwal said. “But charters are a false solution.”

While a moratorium on charter school growth is not part of formal contract negotiations, UTLA has proposed that it should be included in discussions involving co-located charter schools, which are on the same grounds or in the same building as a traditional public school.

The district countered with offering to set up a task force on co-locations. But UTLA leaders dismissed that, saying they’ve “been there and done that” and are ready for action.

“The union perspective is they’re protecting the public good,” said Julie Marsh, a professor of education policy at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. But “there’s more going on here than just charter school growth.”

She pointed to California’s spending on public education, which is among the bottom tier of states. (According to an Education Week Research Center analysis that’s adjusted for regional cost differences, California spends $9,417 per student, well below the national average of about $12,500.)

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified district has huge financial obligations, including rising pension costs. Indeed, county regulators who oversee the school system appointed a team of financial experts to develop a “fiscal stabilization plan” for the district.

“The growth of charter schools becomes more of a threat when you are under [fiscal] constraints,” Marsh said.

And while most charter policy is set by the state, Marsh said the union is “seizing the opportunity” of the strike to voice their concerns to a larger audience, including California’s new governor.

“Often, change is instigated by a crisis,” she said. “A strike is certainly one of those tools.”

Making a Difference for Students

Schools are remaining open during the strike, with administrators and substitutes handling instruction. The district reported Monday that just about a third of students came to class, according to preliminary data.

Teachers, who are not paid during the strike, have said they were compelled to walk off the job in order to make a difference for students.

Paula Tew, who teaches 5th grade at Lanai Road Elementary, said her class size just keeps creeping up. The day teachers went on strike, Monday, she was assigned yet another new student: her 39th.

“Our school was built in 1950. It just can’t hold all these kids,” Tew said.

She and her Lanai Road colleagues described how they’ve had to replace classroom chairs with stools so children can manage getting up from their desks. Too many chairs were banging into one another before, they said.

Vol. 38, Issue 19, Page 7

Published in Print: January 23, 2019, as In Los Angeles, Charter School Teachers Now on Strike as Well
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