The 34,000 educators of United Teachers Los Angeles are preparing for a strike in the nation’s second-largest school district. If it goes forward as planned on January 10, the strike will extend the teacher rebellion started in “red” states and Puerto Rico in 2018 into one of the most solidly “blue” states in the nation. Despite being the richest state and led overwhelmingly by Democrats, California languishes at forty-fourth out of fifty states and the District of Columbia in per-pupil education funding.
The strikes of 2018’s “red state revolt” drew attention and sympathy to the dramatic underfunding of education. But so far in Los Angeles, the media narrative has suggested that a strike will inconvenience parents and turn the community against the union.
“The optics of such a strike, in an era when family budgets are stretched to snapping, are not good,” Gustavo Arellano wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “If UTLA goes out on a protracted strike . . . good luck in presenting your case to frazzled parents and frustrated Angelenos, teachers, because you’re going to need it.”
While a teachers strike will certainly create challenges for parents, this argument condescendingly assumes that parents are only able to think about short-term needs for a place to send their kids during the week.
While a teachers strike will certainly create challenges for parents, this argument condescendingly assumes that parents are only able to think about their short-term need for a place to send their kids during the week. In fact, parents are perfectly capable of examining the big picture and assessing whether they support the teachers’ struggle.
If polling is any indication, they do overwhelmingly—even when the only goal of the strike is higher teacher pay. According to a 2018 Phi Delta Kappan poll, 78 percent of public school parents (and 73 percent of the public) say they would support teachers in their own communities if they went on strike for higher pay. And more than two-thirds of Americans believe teacher salaries are too low.
In Los Angeles, a teacher pay raise, while important, is not the key focus of the coming strike. In fact, the union’s demand for a 6.5 percent retroactive pay raise is the only demand that the Los Angeles Unified School District has moved toward addressing.
Teachers are also asking for smaller class sizes, increased support staff (counselors, full-time nurses, psychologists, and librarians), better conditions for Special Education, regulation of charter schools, reduction of standardized testing, and funding for community schools. The district has made virtually no movement on these issues, despite sitting on a record-breaking $1.9 billion reserve fund (approximately 27 percent of the district’s budget).
It’s not only about pay. Teachers are also asking for smaller class sizes, increased support staff, better conditions for Special Education, regulation of charter schools, reduction of standardized testing, and funding for community schools.
In addition, the district has refused to address a set of demands made by the union specifically to support communities: green space at every school site; an end to the racist “random searches” in which students are criminalized by being pulled out of class to be searched for weapons; and the creation of an “Immigrant Family Legal Defense Fund” to help families fighting deportation.
These issues are all of critical importance to parents.
Alicia Baltazar’s son attends Fries Elementary School in the harbor area of Los Angeles. “Counselors, nurses, and social workers are badly needed,” she said in an interview. When I found out we only have a nurse for two days a week I couldn’t believe it. What do you do on the day your kid gets seriously hurt and she’s not there? There’s a huge strain on the teachers. They’re playing nurse, janitor, counselor—all these other roles that are missing.”
Jasmine Garcia is the mom of a kindergarten student at City Terrace Elementary School on the East side. “My ‘big three’ issues are class size, charter schools, and overtesting,” she said. “I’m not going to let my child get overtested. I don’t think that a test really correlates to what kind of adult she can become. How many people will inspire and uplift her? That’s what really matters. She should be in class learning not spending so many days testing and then feeling a certain way about herself because of her scores.”
The union has made parent and community outreach a big priority. Teachers have passed out leaflets to parents at every school, held meetings with parents, and developed contact lists of supportive parents who they’ll invite to the picket lines. They’ve organized neighborhood walks around their schools, and “We Stand with LA Teachers” posters can be seen in the windows of homes and small businesses across the city.
In the fall, the union held eight regional parent forums, each of which drew hundreds of parents eager to find out how they could help win more school funding. Dozens of the most active parents have become leaders in community organizations allied with the union, like Reclaim Our Schools-LA and Eastside Padres Contra la Privatización. These groups have held direct actions to confront some of the powerful interests in the city that are undermining public education.
The district, in response, has made efforts to stifle teacher-parent communication, issuing a memo telling principals to stop teachers from talking with parents about the contract campaign on campus (even as the district itself sent personal emails to parents attacking United Teachers Los Angeles). Yet union members have asserted their legal right to speak with parents about issues of public concern—and the organizing has continued.
The expansion of charter schools has had a dramatic impact in L.A., home to the most charters of any district in the country. While charter schools tend to draw a more high-achieving layer of students out of the public schools, their growth drains $591 million from Los Angeles Unified School District every year.
The L.A. School Board’s new Superintendent, Austin Beutner, is a millionaire investment banker and former CEO with no experience in education. Beutner’s background is in downsizing companies, and the report he issued right after taking office argues that Los Angeles teachers are 17 percent overpaid with health benefits that are 44 percent too expensive; that special education class sizes should be increased; and that the District is investing too much in social-emotional supports for students.
In a school district that serves 85 percent black and brown students and 80 percent low-income students, it’s not difficult to view the current struggle in terms of class and race.
In a school district that serves 85 percent black and brown students and 80 percent low-income students, it’s not difficult to view the current struggle in class terms. Writers like Arellano assume that parents will see teachers as the ones who are privileged and greedy. But what about when they learn that the District is run by a millionaire banker who is hoarding a $1.9 billion reserve?
Ilse Escobar, a parent-community organizer for the union explained, “once we educate parents about the reserve, they’re like, ‘what the heck? They’ve been telling us for years that there’s no money!’ Anything the District says after that is so hard for them to believe.”
There is plenty of evidence that the union’s efforts to raise awareness is bearing fruit.
On December 15th, the union held a “March for Public Education” that drew over 50,000 people, including a large contingent of high school activists with Students Deserve, which is fighting for community schools and against the random searches. Even union organizers were blown away by a turnout that went so far beyond their own membership.
“It’s sad that a strike has to happen, but it’s time,” said parent Alicia Baltazar. “If we don’t do it now, it’s gonna get worse and worse, and I’m afraid for the education my child is not going to have. My son and I will be on the picket line, along with all the parent volunteers from our school.”