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A Struggle Against Charters: This Is Why Teachers in Los Angeles Are on Strike

8:03 AM PST on January 15, 2019

Los Angeles-Downtown, CA – Jan. 14: A protester shows a sign regarding LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner LAUSD Headquarters during the LAUSD Teacher Strike on January 14, 2019. (Brian Feinzimer)

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he L.A. teachers strike is at its a core a struggle between the future of public education in Los Angeles, a future that is murkier than ever.

Ingrid Villeda is a fifth grade teacher at 93rd Street Elementary, and a 20 year veteran of LAUSD. When I talk to her on Sunday night, she’s focused, but noticeably exhausted. It’s the night before the first teachers strike in L.A. in 30 years, and Villeda is one of tens of thousands of teachers that walked the line in front of her school.

I meet Villeda at a community forum put on by UTLA last week in South Central for parents of kids at LAUSD schools. She’s kind, confident, and forthright when she speaks, like a lot of good teachers.

“UTLA has been trying to negotiate a contract for teachers with the district for 20 months,” Villeda says. “That’s almost two years. That’s just ridiculous.”

After multiple last-minute dramatic meetings, press conferences, and threats of court orders, what’s seemed inevitable for months finally became a reality this morning when more than 30,000 teachers picketed in the pouring rain in front of more than 1,000 schools, leaving some 500,000 students and their parents in the middle, wondering if this strike will be like a mini-version of the federal government shutdown – a total impasse.

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]n looking at the two previous strikes in UTLA history – a strike in 1970 and another strike in 1989 – the issues usually up for negotiations are largely over salary. The teachers strike is about much more. It’s about the future of whether or not we continue to abandon the idea of a quality public education for all kids in the city, and whether or not we demand our public institutions and our public figures work to make life better for all Angelenos.

The picket lines are the symptom of a logjam over mounting problems that have sat unresolved in the district for decades. The district has control over some of these problems – like the rapid growth of charter schools in the city and the public funds they suck up, and paltry teacher and staff pay, and overcrowded classrooms, and schools without nurses, librarians or psychiatrists.

Other issues are beyond the district’s control but have affected the schools -- like the effects of rising rents across the city that force families out of Los Angeles and out of L.A. schools, or the long tail of the effects of Prop 13’s destruction of the tax base for public school funding. As a result, enrollment in LAUSD schools is dropping by about 12,000 kids per year, whether because of charter schools or rising rents.

As of Monday, the union is asking for a salary increase of 6.5 percent for teachers, a reduction of class sizes, an increase in the hiring of nurses and librarians, psychiatrist for every 500 students, and a moratorium on the building of new charter schools in the district.

As of now, L.A. Schools Superintendent Austin Beutner – the former investment banker turned deputy mayor under Antonio Villaraigosa, and son of a school teacher himself – has offered up a 6 percent salary increase and a slight reduction of class sizes.

“All the district has offered is an increase for one year,” Villeda says, “If you push entities to negotiate for one year contracts, that doesn’t work. Short of a three-year deal, there won’t be a deal, and they have the money to do it.”

An ongoing questions seems to be just how much LAUSD is willing to part with its reserve funding. The district says that although it does have a reserve of an estimated 2 billion dollars, it’s saving the money for a projected deficit in the next few years. While UTLA has charged that Beautner is simply hording the money and intent on breaking the union by forcing the strike.

“We’re not willing to just take a salary increase,” says Villeda. “We’re asking for a moratorium on building more charter schools, too.”

RELATED: My Children's Schools Are Facing a Labor Strike ~ This is How We Are Handling It

Students rally outside LAUSD Headquarters during the LAUSD teachers strike on January 14, 2019. Photo by Brian Feinzimer.

While the issue of salaries for teachers and class sizes often takes center stage in contract negotiations, the issue of charters is a big one. One in five students in L.A. goes to a charter school – some fully privately owned, others partially public. That’s more charter schools than anywhere in the country.

As a compromise during their initial negotiations with LAUSD, UTLA didn’t push a motion for a charter moratorium, but now that the strike is happening, things have changed.

Draped in a red rain poncho and surrounded by teachers and labor organizers under the pouring rain this morning, Alex Caputo-Pearl, the head of UTLA, kicked off the strike by announcing, “Here we are in a fight for the soul of public education.”

After reiterating UTLA’s demand for smaller class sizes, an increase in teacher salaries, and an increase in school nurses and librarian staff, Caputo-Pearl accused Austin Beutner of masterminding a scheme to privatize public schools in the district and said, “600 million dollars drained from neighborhood public schools by the unregulated charter school industry. We need a charter cap right now!” to cheers from the assembled teachers.    

A report from research and policy group In the Public Interest from 2017 found that in fact there are too many charters being built in L.A. and that because of it, public funds that would have otherwise gone to public schools in the district which are being sucked up by charters to the tune of $2.5 billion in taxpayer subsidized education funds. The growth is propped up by many wealthy and influential people in the city, including the Broads and former Mayor Villaraigosa, that are huge philosophical and monetary supporters of charter schools.   

Prop 39, which passed in 2000, furthered hampered public schools by mandating that they “should be shared fairly among all public school pupils, including those in charter schools,” effectively making public schools share buildings and more resources with charter schools that the district has no control over, except for the ability to deny them a license to operate every five years. Charters are usually explicitly staffed by non-union teachers.

At that same community meeting in South Central put on by UTLA to explain the strike to parents of kids at local LAUSD schools, a parent got up to express her sympathy with the striking teachers in Spanish. She went on to say that when her daughter said she wanted to be a teacher, she dissuaded her, and with tears in her eyes said that she’d rather her daughter work at McDonald's, where she thought she would be treated better than as a teacher at a public school.

“Striking is the only leverage we have to move the district,” says Tomas Flores, a 30-year veteran LAUSD teacher at West Vernon Elementary, whose first year on the job was during the ’89 strike. He’s now a negotiator on UTLA’s contract negotiating team.

“I have been committed to educating Latino students for 30 years. I am from a similar background as my students. I came from a home with food instability, and I totally understand the needs of the parents, and if we are going to improve the lives of our people, we are going to have to improve the conditions of education in this city,” Flores says.

“We want parents to know that our struggle isn’t just for ourselves as teachers,” Villeda says. “Our struggle is for our kids.”

At the end of Monday's rally through downtown and to the doorstep of the LAUSD office, another rally was announced for Tuesday morning at the California Charter School Association Office, one of the biggest local advocates of charter schools.

RELATED: Where’s Eric Garcetti? ~ L.A. Mayor Ignored by Teachers Union After Offering to Mediate

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