Wave of teacher strikes could hit LA this week in the nation's second-largest district
A student was banned from the morning announcements at her high school in Los Angeles after she proclaimed her support for striking teachers. USA TODAY
As she watched teachers across the country walk out of classrooms and go on strike over the past year, Buffy Lee empathized.
A 19-year veteran of Los Angeles Unified School District, Lee knows what it often means to be a public school teacher in America: low salaries, dwindling resources and overcrowded classrooms. Teachers all over the USA buy school supplies with their own money, and many work second jobs to scrape by. In the past year, they've essentially rebelled, striking in several states.
That crisis has come to Lee's backyard, the second-largest school district in the country.
Unless the two sides can agree, United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents 31,000 educators in Southern California, is set to strike as early as Thursday. Home to more than 640,000 students, LA schools will be thrown into turmoil.
“When I watched other teachers strike (in other states), I never thought it would get this far in LA,” said Lee, who teaches the fourth grade at Parthenia Academy of Arts and Technology. “But we’re tired of asking for the same things.”
The teachers and the school district agreed late last week to meet Monday for another bargaining session. The sides have been negotiating for almost two years but reached a stalemate in mid-December. Schools went on winter break Dec. 20, and classes resumed Monday.
Teacher walkouts and strikes have become a defining characteristic of American education in the past year. Since last February, there have been demonstrations in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky and Colorado. In September, about a dozen Washington state districts missed the beginning of school as teachers demanded better salaries.
The wave of teacher activism extended outside the classroom: In November, more than 1,400 educators ran for elected office in hopes of fixing the problems plaguing public schools.
Los Angeles teachers are fighting for more money in their paychecks and more money for student services. Specifically, they want more counselors, nurses and librarians, plus promises for smaller classes and a reduction in standardized testing. They demand “common-sense regulations on charter school growth,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said. UTLA views charters as competitors to traditional public schools.
Regardless of what happened in walkouts in other states, “we have our own crisis in LA that needs to be dealt with," Caputo-Pearl said.
Still, he sees the bigger picture.
“We are at an existential moment for public schools,” he said. “We’re either gonna invest, or we’re going to keep cutting and privatizing.”
If it’s option two, there’s likely to be more teacher rebellion.
Checks and charters
For some, the unrest brewing in public schools across America reached a boiling point in February 2017, when Betsy DeVos was named secretary of education. A school-choice advocate who favors some privatization efforts, DeVos’ nomination was protested across the country – including by public school teachers.
“The false narrative that the Secretary is anti-teacher is nothing more than a political union ploy,” a spokesperson for DeVos said in an email to USA TODAY. “Secretary DeVos is fighting every day to give all students, no matter what neighborhood or zip code they live in, access to the education that best meets their individual needs – be it public, charter or private. For anyone to actively work to limit the number of education options available to students is a slap in the face to the millions of students who are trapped in schools that aren’t helping them learn or stuck on charter school waiting lists hoping for a brighter future.”
In California, charter school growth has exploded, and teachers worry the charters siphon taxpayer money away from traditional public schools. It's little wonder, UTLA said, that teachers made charters a contract issue.
Competition for students has intensified to the point that some public schools – including the one where Lee teaches – have changed their names in an effort to attract families. Previously, Parthenia Academy of Arts and Technology was known simply as Parthenia Street School.
Charters are only part of the fight. Like most unions, LA teachers want more money.
The district offered a 6 percent salary increase over the first two years of a three-year contract. The union wants an immediate 6.5 percent raise, plus a year retroactive. UTLA wants more say over how money is spent at its schools, a demand that could get traction in union-friendly California.
Caputo-Pearl said UTLA refuses to be “bought off” with LAUSD’s offer. The district has almost $2 billion in reserves, and UTLA says that money can go toward fixing problems right now.
The district counters that most of that money is pledged to other causes, such as raises for cafeteria workers and bus drivers. The district says that if it met every UTLA demand, it would immediately make the district insolvent, which the district says is illegal. UTLA doesn’t buy that.
LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, former deputy mayor of LA, said he understands teachers’ anger with a broken system.
“I share the frustration," Beutner said. “Public education does not receive the respect, attention or funding that it should, across the country. Teachers need more support. Everyone who works in schools – from cafeteria workers to teachers – should be paid better.”
But funding decisions, he pointed out, are made by state legislators, not school boards.
As for whether LAUSD will be able to avoid a strike, Beutner said, “I’m an optimist.”
District plans to keep schools open
LAUSD is working on the logistics of sending 640,000 students to school while teachers picket. The district hired subs. The Los Angeles Daily News reported the subs would receive $400-$500 a day to cross the picket line; LAUSD would not confirm that figure but said school will continue as scheduled.
Families are stressed at the prospect of a strike.
“This is complicated for most parents,” said Evelyn Aleman, whose 14-year-old daughter, Lucy, is a freshman at Grover Cleveland Charter High, a magnet school. “We all support our teachers, and we want a lot of things our teachers are asking for – better pay, smaller classes, more resources for kids.
“But we don’t want to be in the middle of this. … This is a conversation that needs to be had between adults.”
Aleman and her husband were college students and teacher assistants in 1989, the last time LA teachers went on strike. That walkout lasted nine days. She said they both volunteered at a neighborhood school that struggled with “high crime and lots of gang and gun violence. … It was a turning point for us, because we saw so much instability in the community with the strike, we saw how quickly it became really combative. It created a lot of distrust, especially with teachers and parents who crossed the picket line.”
Hostility is already brewing. Lee, the fourth-grade teacher, said she’s heard of teachers who want to photograph any subs who cross the picket line, then circulate pictures on social media to ensure that when a new contract is finally in hand, those subs aren’t hired again. She doesn’t plan to involve herself in that.
Lee’s mom was a lifelong LA teacher who transitioned into an administrative role in 1989. She crossed the picket line, Lee remembered, “and lost a lot of friends.”
About the strike, Lee said, “I have a lot of heartburn about it. But I have to stand with my colleagues.”
Mayor says strike ‘all but inevitable’
Strikes, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten stressed, are always a last resort. Teachers have been asked to do more with less for years – specifically in the past decade after the financial crisis of 2008 decimated state budgets.
“Teachers are exploited beyond any other professional because they’ve always made it work,” she said, “but this is a turning point. … California is the world’s fifth-largest economy, and yet it’s 43 out of 50 (states) in terms of per-pupil funding.”
It’s a problem, Weingarten said, when there are “schools with fully funded and fully armed police officers but no counselors or librarians.”
“Find a librarian in school districts these days,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, “and it’s like you’ve found a unicorn.” (UTLA is one of a handful of teacher unions that pays dues to both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.)
Many schools in LAUSD have a nurse on campus just one day a week, which means office staffers must play doctor the other days. Counselors are in scarce supply, too. Lee said she worries about students who suffer from depression and anxiety and don’t have anyone to talk to.
"I don’t want to see one of my kids on the evening news in the future and think, 'That’s the kid I would have referred for counseling – if it had only been available,' " Lee said.
Daniel Jocz, who teaches AP history in LAUSD, has his own concerns.
A 2016 California teacher of the year, Jocz has lost count of the number of colleagues who left for jobs in other professions. He fears that his field is so underpaid, he’ll continue to see talented teachers flood the exits.
Their passion for teaching and children may be the only thing keeping them invested in the profession. Spent a day with teachers across America. USA TODAY
Jocz, 39, loves his job and can’t imagine doing anything else, but he admits that every couple of months, he looks for other employment. Overcrowded classrooms, paltry paychecks and scrolling the wanted ads, he said, are part of being a teacher in America.
Asked whether he’ll be able to stay in his classroom next week, Jocz sighed. He referred to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who admitted last Thursday that a strike seemed “all but inevitable.”
“Hopefully, it’s short-lived, at least,” Jocz said.
Contributing: Gregory Korte