Tens of thousands of Los Angeles teachers are planning to take to the picket lines on Monday in a major clash with the nation’s second-largest school district.
The lead up to the strike has been messy, with last-minute postponements, a series of legal battles, and tensions between the teachers’ union and the district at an all-time high. A final bargaining session Friday did not yield results, and union leaders have declared an impasse.
The strike would be the first major teacher labor action of 2019, following a remarkable. While this strike is directed at the city’s school board and superintendent, rather than a state legislature, the impact is no less significant—there are more than a half-million students and 30,000 teachers in the district. In comparison, in all of West Virginia, the state that launched the wave of teacher actions last spring, there are about 250,000 students and 20,000 teachers.
There hasn’t been a teachers’ strike in Los Angeles since 1989. That walkout lasted nine days.
United Teachers Los Angeles is asking for a 6.5 percent salary increase, class-size reductions, and more nurses, librarians, and counselors in schools, among other demands. The Los Angeles Unified school district has countered with a 6 percent salary increase and funding to add nearly 1,200 teachers, counselors, nurses, and librarians to the district’s more than 900 schools.
The district had upped its offer after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s inaugural budget proposal was announced to include a boost to school funding.
The union and the district have been in contract negotiations for almost two years. Both sides have remained at odds at the bargaining table: The union has said the district’s offer is not enough to make a difference for students, while the cash-strapped school system has accused the union of not facing the financial reality.
The district and the union have also sparred in court several times. The district, saying their absence would make it impossible to meet a 1996 consent decree to adequately educate students with disabilities. But a federal judge prevented the district from moving forward with that complaint.
And the union and the district argued whether the union provided the legally required notice of its intent to strike. Ultimately, the union pre-emptively postponed the strike date by four days, and a judge later confirmed the strike could go ahead then.
“I think the inevitability of the strike has come about ... because the two parties see the facts of the fiscal reality differently, and there’s a lack of trust that leads them to not believe in each other’s interpretations of the facts,” said John Rogers, a professor in the University of California, Los Angeles, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. “And I think the two parties have very different visions for what should happen.”
‘A Line in the Sand’
While California has the fifth-largest economy in the world, the state spends relatively little on public education. California spends $9,417 per student annually,that’s adjusted for regional cost differences—well below the national average and among the bottom tier of states.
Both union and district officials agree that’s not enough. “What they want and what we want is actually not that different,” said Superintendent Austin Beutner. “But we don’t have the resources to pay for it. ... We’ve done everything we can with the dollars we have.”
Just this week, the county regulators who oversee the school system appointed a team of financial experts to develop a “fiscal stabilization plan” for the district.
Even so, UTLA leaders have pointed to the district’s nearly $2 billion reserve fund: “There’s more than enough money to begin a strategic set of investments,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl.
Beutner said the money is already set aside, including for employee raises and to cover an operating deficit. The union has disputed the district’s budget projections.
Meanwhile, Beutner, a former investment banker who took the helm of the school district last year, said he’s willing to “hop on our yellow buses” with UTLA leaders to go to Sacramento, the state capital, because “that’s where the answers lie.”
But Caputo-Pearl said he doubts Beutner’s sincerity to “throw down and fight” for more state funding.
“He talks about Sacramento as a decoy, and we talk about it as a real target for pressure,” he said.
All of this has led to a volatile situation: “Neither party is going to have its vision fully realized in whatever sort of resolution comes to play,” UCLA’s Rogers said.
But many educators in Los Angeles have had enough.
“I’ve seen a steady erosion in morale and teacher retention,” said Daniel Jocz, a high school history teacher and the 2016 California teacher of the year, who has been teaching in Los Angeles Unified for about 15 years. “[A strike] is definitely something I don’t think anybody wants, in terms of going out and missing instruction time with the students and missing a paycheck. ... [But] a line in the sand is being drawn.”
Several teachers said that if the contract dispute were just about salary, an agreement would likely be reached without going on strike. But they spoke of having class sizes that neared 40 students and a lack of funding to hire the number of school nurses and counselors that their students need.
“Every teacher I know, we feel like we have to put our foot down because we just can’t keep starving our schools,” said Michele Levin, a middle school science and health teacher.
Schools are prepared to remain open during the strike, with substitutes and administrators taking over instruction. Otherwise, if students stayed home, the district would lose millions of dollars from the state.
Teachers are skeptical and a little anxious about how their students would learn in their absence. Still, Kurt Lowry, the principal of Vine Street Elementary, said school is the safest place for students to be.
He plans to divide students into three groups based on grade level, and rotate them during the day—from English in the auditorium to math in the library and physical education in the school yard.
A former teacher, Lowry will oversee instruction in English/language arts, and district staffers will handle the other subjects, helped by teaching assistants and aides.
“It will be whole-group instruction, but it’s doable,” he said.
Will the Momentum Continue?
While Caputo-Pearl acknowledged that UTLA members were “inspired” by the massive labor actions last spring, he said the strike would likely have happened even without those.
Still, Rogers, the UCLA professor, said the statewide strikes showed UTLA leadership thaton strike—and the outcome in Los Angeles could inspire others.
“I think what happens in L.A. will be watched closely across California, and probably across other blue states as well,” Rogers said.
Already, teachers in Oakland, Calif., are weighing a potential strike, frustrated with low base salaries compared with other educators in the region. No date has been set, but teachers there have been meeting with parents and community members to inform them of the reasons for a strike, and they are planning a rally for Jan. 12.
While the level of enthusiasm for a strike differs from school to school, many Oakland teachers feel a sense of solidarity with their Los Angeles brethren and are inspired by the larger teacher-protest movement.
“I think this is part of the bigger ... fight for public education in California,” said Joey Notaro, a math teacher at Fremont High School in the district. “People see an opportunity to change the tide.”
Over a dozen local teachers’ unions in the state are planning to hold walk-ins today (in which they’ll gather outside the school before the first bell) to show support for teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland.
In Berkeley, teachers will walk in to show support for their peers across the state but also to take a stance about working and learning conditions in their own district, said Cathy Campbell, the president of the local teachers’ union. Contract negotiations there start in March.
“There are a lot of parallels between these fights,” Campbell said. “In Berkeley, we have fewer struggles because of local funding, but we see the same issues—our students need more, and our employees need more.”
Berkeley teachers were inspired by the 2018 strikes, she said. Now, “that struggle is arriving on the big screen in California.”
Associate Editor Stephen Sawchuk reported from Oakland, Calif., and Senior Contributing Writer Catherine Gewertz reported from Los Angeles.
A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as L.A. Teachers Prepare to Strike In Nation’s Second-Largest District