Why the L.A. Teacher Strike Is Different From Last Year's Protests

Educators in the nation's second-largest school district are set to strike on Monday. The dispute could impact education policy across the country.
by | January 11, 2019 AT 2:05 PM
Parents and teachers hold signs while talking to reporters outside Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters on Tuesday. (AP/Jae C. Hong)

SPEED READ:

  • The United Teachers Los Angeles union is set to strike on Monday in the nation's second-largest school district.
  • The strike could influence how an increasingly progressive Democratic Party will handle workforce and education issues across the country.
  • Charter schools, which L.A. has more of than any other school district, are at the heart of the dispute.
 

For the first time in nearly three decades, public school teachers in Los Angeles are set to go on strike Monday, continuing the nationwide trend of teacher uprisings that began in West Virginia last spring.

Similar to those protesting in places like Arizona and Oklahoma, the 35,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) union is demanding a 6.5 percent pay increase and more classroom funding. But the strike in L.A. -- the nation's second-largest school district -- is different in two significant respects.

First, teachers aren't just asking for higher pay and funding. They are outlining changes they want to see in education policy.

“We are demanding lower class sizes for our students, less testing and more teaching, charter school accountability, a full-time nurse and librarian in every school along with more counselors, psychologists, and social workers, and we want [Los Angeles Unified School District] to support the Community Schools Model, which has been proven to work all over the USA,” wrote more than a dozen of the city’s teachers in an open letter published in The Washington Post on Wednesday.

Second, the battle is being fought in a liberal, union-friendly city and state. Most of last year's strikes and walkouts took place in red states with weak labor protection laws.

Considering both of those factors, the strike could influence how an increasingly progressive Democratic Party handles workforce and education issues in states and cities across the country. In the Obama era, many centrist Democrats embraced charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run and typically not unionized. Supporters say these schools allow for creativity and innovation, but a growing chorus of critics -- including the teachers union -- see charters as a force for the privatization of public education, diverting resources away from the traditional school system.

Furthermore, some labor experts believe that -- unlike last year's strikes -- this one could have repercussions for how federal Democrats govern if they regain power following the 2020 elections.

“It's fought among Democrats," says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Part of the sense is that "the tremendous amount of money that has been generated [by the city and the state] has to be redistributed in a social democratic way.”

 

Charter Schools in L.A.

The current conflict centers on L.A.’s embrace of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run and typically not unionized. Supporters say these schools allow for creativity and innovation, but a growing chorus of critics -- including the teachers union -- see charters as a force for the privatization of public education, diverting resources away from the traditional school system.

Los Angeles is now home to 277 charters -- more than any other school district in America -- and the strike’s outcome could determine whether this sector continues to grow. Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of UTLA, said at a recent press conference that district officials “want to starve our schools in order to justify cuts and justify handing more schools over to privately run charter schools, and we will not stand for that.”

Superintendent Austin Beutner -- a former businessman who has ties to pro-charter advocates and has sat on the board of a charter school operator -- agrees that L.A. needs smaller classes and more support staff, but he says acquiescing to the union’s demands would damage the district’s finances. The union claims the district is withholding reserves of $1.8 billion, but the district counters that this money is already allocated, including for pay raises.

“We are working hard to avert a strike,” Beutner says in a statement. “We are building support at the state level to find more resources to help our students and better support all who work in our schools." (Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was sworn in on Monday, proposed a record $80.7 billion investment in education in his first budget, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.)

The strike is already having ripple effects in national politics.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran as a Democratic candidate for president in 2016 and may seek the White House again in 2020, tweeted that he stands in solidarity with the teachers. Journalists in Washington, D.C., and New York are speculating about how the strike might affect L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s own 2020 prospects. The mayor has been working with both sides behind the scenes throughout their negotiations.

The strike is expected to affect 900 schools and more than 600,000 students. The district has secured roughly 400 substitute teachers for next week, but that's just 8 percent of its typical staffing levels.

Graham Vyse | Staff Writer