Overcrowded classrooms, privatization schemes force LA teachers to strike
Joe Brusky, neaToday

LOS ANGELES—Overcrowded classrooms and the schools’ superintendent’s push for charters and privatization were among the top reasons at least 31,000 unionized teachers and staffers in the nation’s second largest school district, Los Angeles, had to strike on Jan. 14.

The L.A. strike is the first there since 1989 and affects a district with 660,000 students. A similar situation may push teachers and staff in another notable California district, in Oakland, to walk, too, adds that city’s union, the National Education Association (NEA).

And the 80 teachers in Los Angeles charter schools – a pride and joy of the pro-privatization superintendent – plan to walk out on Jan. 15. They’re subject to 1-year contracts and the charters suffer a 40 percent yearly teacher turnover rate.

Waving signs declaring “On strike for our students,” thousands of red-T-shirt clad teachers, members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, marched through downtown L.A. to the school district headquarters on the morning their strike began. Picket lines went up at schools around the city, too.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia and Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten marched with the teachers downtown, as did thousands of community activists and supporters. UTLA is a joint NEA-AFT affiliate.

The “RedforEd” t-shirts are identical to those which teachers donned in a wave of forced teacher strikes last year in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma and Colorado. All but Colorado are “red states” – GOP-run jurisdictions – whose governors and legislatures shorted students in favor of tax cuts for the rich and businesses. The results were crumbling classrooms, 25-year-old textbooks and teachers fleeing in droves to higher-paying districts.

The most-notable of those forced strikes was in West Virginia, where every school in the state shut down. And Oklahoma’s 2017 Teacher of the Year was paid so little that he moved to Dallas to teach.

L.A. is deep blue, but its school superintendent, Austin Beutner, a business mogul with no education experience, has acted the same way as the red states in more than a year of fruitless talks, UTLA says.

“This is a standoff over the future of public education,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl told NEA.

“We will not agree on salary only or salary and a few other things. What we are fighting for is a program of investment in our neighborhood public schools that will create a thriving school district and the education our students deserve.”

The tens of thousands of non-teachers who joined the march through downtown LA agreed. So did Weingarten and Eskelsen-Garcia.

“Last year,” Weingarten said, “public school educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, and charter school educators in Illinois, walked out for their kids. Now, in L.A., a big, wealthy city, educators are doing the same, and for the same reasons: They’re tired of the pattern of starving our schools and our students of the resources they need for their success. Teachers want to teach, but they need help, not school leaders who just want to take a district apart piece by piece. This is not a business driven by a profit motive; this is public schooling, driven by the motivation that we care about all kids.”

“L.A.’s teachers are working two and three jobs to afford rent, and they’re teaching in classrooms with 40 or 50 students, in schools without counselors, librarians or nurses,” Weingarten said

She continued, “The district is crying poverty, but this is about choices: Do we deny public schools the resources they need, then push a privatization and charter agenda to solve it? Or do we strive to make every public school a place where teachers want to teach, students want to learn and parents want to send their kids?”

A key UTLA demand is to force the school district to spend part of its $1.8 billion reserve fund – an amount equal to 26.7 percent of its budget – to hire more teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians and to cut class size.

The L.A. teachers also want to cut the number and impact of standardized testing. Like other teachers nationwide, they contend such exams not only force them to “teach to the test,” but do not measure student progress well and force concentration on basic subjects – math and English – while imposing neglect of others.

“So proud to be here with all the @UTLAnow educators, parents, students and allies braving the pouring rain and fighting for the funding students deserve and need. #RedforEd #WeAreLA #UTLAStrong,” Eskelsen-Garcia tweeted.

Other hashtags included #StrikeReady, #Wearepublicschools, #StopStarvingOurPublicSchools and #allin4respect. Beutner, the school superindent, responded by lawsuits and threats to suspend students who support their teachers.

Meanwhile, Oakland’s teachers have been working without a contract since the end of the 2016-17 school year. They’re about ready to walk, too, their local president says. NEA and AFT asked their members nationwide to wear red on Jan. 15. in solidarity with both the L.A. and Oakland teachers.

“Teachers are fed up with the poor working conditions and salaries, and with the learning conditions that our students are having to endure,” Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown said. “We are fighting to end Oakland’s teacher turnover crisis and to bring stability for our students.” They marched on Jan. 12.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.