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Blue In Name Only: On the Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike

by André Naffis-Sahely
February 1st, 2019

Typically gray, when heavy rains wash into our so-called rivers, in January my corner of Los Angeles in Highland Park was a bright, militant red. The neighborhood was strewn with signs that read: “ESTAMOS CON LOS MAESTROS DE LOS ANGELES”, “OUR STUDENTS DESERVE A NURSE EVERYDAY” and “EDUCATORS DESERVE A FAIR PAY RAISE”, while local businesses chalked “SUPPORT OUR TEACHERS” in big, bold letters on their curbside displays. In fact, during the third week of the month, when the UTLA’s thirty-three thousand teachers walked off the job, the sight of scarlet t-shirts emblazoned with “RED FOR ED” never left my field of vision.

Indeed, in a show of strength unseen since LA’s teachers last went on strike in 1989, tens of thousands of people sporting red plastic ponchos filled the city’s streets to support the staff of the nation’s second-largest school district in their bid for a new contract. Following nearly two years of failed negotiations, the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) was finally making its demands heard: more support staff, smaller class sizes, fewer standardized tests, a cap on charter schools, and higher wages. California therefore became the latest state to take part in a wave of teachers’ strikes that began in early 2018, joining West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and Illinois to protest privatization efforts and cuts to public school budgets.

For years, teachers across the US have endured a two-pronged assault: a push toward charter schools led by corporate interests and a refusal by politicians to address underfunding. Today, public school districts across the country receive around 7% less than they did a decade ago, and with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the Department of Education, more of that federal funding is being directed to ‘voucher initiatives’, in other words programs that pay for students to attend private schools, although these schemes have been generally found to produce no major results. In Los Angeles, where middle and high school classes can have upwards of 40 students, one of the teachers’ main concerns revolved around lowering class sizes.

Contending that its teachers were under intense financial hardship, often forced to buy their own school supplies, the UTLA insisted that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) be made to spend its $1.8 million surplus on much-needed improvements. However, the LAUSD’s recently appointed Superintendent, Austin Beutner, instead spent several weeks making media appearances claiming that much of the aforementioned surplus had already been earmarked to counter deficits in the budget and that the district was furthermore facing insolvency by 2021. The problem, of course, comes down to funding. California public schools receive only 9% of their funding from the federal government and the lion’s share is provided by state and local authorities. As a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report noted in 2017, however, a recent shift from state to local funding, which is drawn from property taxes, “exacerbated iniquities” in public education since school districts in “neighborhoods with high property values find it much easier to raise adequate revenue than districts where property values are low.”

Further complicating the situation, as Dolores Huerta and James Lawson Jr. pointed out in a piece supporting the strike, the passing of California Proposition 13 in 1978, which capped real estate tax rates, “resulted in a corporate tax windfall that has siphoned billions of dollars to the state’s largest corporate property owners, while starving our schools and public services.” Consequently, California has consistently lagged behind the national average in per-pupil spending, which has usually hovered around $10,000 a year, or roughly half the recommended sum, meaning that the LAUSD does not have all the money it needs to actively reduce class sizes to manageable levels.

Few might be better acquainted with the dire situation faced by LA’s public education professionals than Mariana Nuñez, a special education social worker for the LAUSD. Nuñez works for the district’s central area, which covers Downtown and parts of South and North-East LA, assisting students suffering from major depression and severe behavioral or psychological issues. A true product of the LAUSD, Nuñez came to the US from Mexico aged five and began attending LAUSD schools in the San Fernando Valley aged seven. These days, she is one of only fifty four social workers assisting over fifteen hundred students across nearly five hundred schools.

During her first week for the LAUSD four years ago, Nuñez was assigned twenty-five students across seventeen schools—all of which required intense commuting in the world’s most gridlocked city—and her job’s itinerant aspect has left a bleak impression:

I’ve seen how the district has failed and how so many teachers are overwhelmed because they’re not getting the support they need, especially in high-need areas, like South LA. […] We’re seriously understaffed and there isn’t enough money to ensure our administrators can keep us as long as they need. I’m often unable to give kids individual care and instead I have to hold group sessions that don’t provide the students all the assistance they need… sometimes, I’ve been to schools where there aren’t enough chairs for everyone.

These were sentiments echoed by other LAUSD employees I met at various rallies, including Tom, a social studies teacher from Leimert Park, whom I bumped into at a rally on Tuesday in Little Tokyo. “Forget about chairs,” he said after I told him Nuñez’s story, “try teaching without textbooks and lightbulbs, which are also in short supply.” This state of affairs, of course, isn’t unique to Los Angeles. Drastic funding cuts to public education across the US since the Great Recession have made it difficult to “improve teacher quality, reduce class sizes, extend learning time, and enact other reforms that, research indicates, improve student outcomes” as another CBPP study noted in 2017.

Beyond funding cuts, a movement toward charter schools has bled funds intended for traditional public schools. For years, Republican and Democratic pressure groups alike, financed by magnates like the Kochs, the Waltons, Eli Broad and Sheldon Adelson, have successfully championed the rotten idea that allowing certain schools to become independent of democratically elected boards would raise educational standards as well as encourage an atmosphere of healthy competition among schools, creating a rising tide to lift all boats. Research has shown, however, that charter schools can perpetuate racial segregation and economic disparities by allowing wealthy white-majority communities to fence the best resources within their own neighborhoods, leaving African-American and Latinx students in lower income neighborhoods to fend for themselves.

In California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, per-pupil spending has consistently lagged behind the national average, meaning that the wealthiest state in the union is now singularly failing its most vulnerable citizens, namely young people of color, since California is also home to the nation’s highest rates of child poverty and to the highest proportions of students who speak English as a second language, and this despite California proudly calling itself a ‘sanctuary state’.

All of this might explain the distrust engendered by the appointment of Beutner as Superintendent last year. None of the parents and teachers I spoke to at various rallies this week appeared to like the idea of him as Superintendent. As I navigated the multigenerational, multicultural crowds of picketers and marchers from Venice Beach to North Hollywood, I heard Beutner repeatedly referred to as the “Trump of the LAUSD”, a nod to the large fortune Beutner made during his days as an investment banker. Already wary of his credentials as one of the men who helped carve up the former Soviet Union’s state assets, thereby creating Russia’s unhinged oligarchy, LA’s teachers were further unsettled when privatization plans leaked from Beutner’s office showed that the man picked to lead the LAUSD appeared to have a vested interest in seeing the public education system fail in favour of privatization. As if that wasn’t enough, Beutner’s tenure at the head of the LAUSD appears to be living proof of dark money’s power in the democratic process. The midterms in November 2018 saw $15 million spent on LA’s board of education election and an eye-popping $50 million for the state superintendent race, most of it financed by pro-charter billionaires seeking to elevate puppets to education board seats in order to appoint individuals like Beutner to positions of influence.

In the end, however, the numbers out on the streets spelled out the unpopularity of Beutner’s policies. Over fifty thousand people joined the UTLA’s “March for Public Education” Downtown on December 15, a warm up for the actual strike that began a month later, while similar numbers turned out during that third week in January at various rallies across town. For a brief moment, it seemed as though everyone in LA was fully behind the teachers, including A-listers. On January 15, Latin rock band Ozomatli played a set outside the California Charter Schools Association headquarters, while the following day, Steven Van Zandt—Silvio Dante to Sopranos fans or Little Steven to Springsteen devotees—shared a West LA stage with the UTLA’s leader Alex Caputo-Pearl to speak his mind: “We must get the arts back into public schools. We’re the only country in the world that thinks art is a luxury. Art is an essential part of the quality of life and it helps kids learn!”

Income inequality is on the rise in the Golden State and the LA teachers’ strike may well constitute a turning point for ordinary Californians, who will have to fight their next battles against public funding cuts against the Democratic Party, which now runs California like a one-party state. This perspective shift matters. While teachers in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma were forced to deal with reactionary Republican administrations, there are now no Republicans left in California. Nevertheless, the GOP’s departure from the political map since the elections in November shouldn’t be overestimated. After all, Republicans didn’t just vanish when Orange County switched from red to blue in the midterms, they simply began calling themselves Democrats. Thanks to the teachers, who took on corporate interests in the Democratic party to ensure that future generations won’t be sacrificed on the altar of profit, working class Angelenos—led by Latinx women—may have begun to turn the Red State Revolt of teachers’ strikes Blue and this presages a showdown pitting true-blue working progressives against corporate-aligned Democrats who are blue-in-name-only.

On January 22, seven days after the strike began, the LAUSD and UTLA reached a tentative agreement following many hours of closed-door negotiations, that eventually led to a concrete deal a week later. Dubbed a “historic agreement” by LA’s Mayor Eric Garcetti, this deal will see some of the teachers’ demands addressed, although not all. In fact, while the LAUSD School Board passed an eight to ten month moratorium on new charter schools in Los Angeles, the battle between public schools and undemocratic charters may well recommence before too long. As for the agreement itself, many of the teachers I spoke to were dissatisfied with it, with some blaming the UTLA and its President, Alex Caputo-Pearl, for steamrolling over a still-grumbling membership.

Democratic party officials in California may wish to take heed. Following a solidarity sickout on Friday 18, Oakland’s teachers are currently voting on whether to press ahead with their own strike, with results expected in early February. This is a clear confirmation that the recent deal struck between the LAUSD and UTLA does not represent a satisfactory agreement for California’s long-suffering teachers, many of whom are evidently unhappy with their inadequate pay increases, which are barely in keeping with the present rate of inflation.

Unfortunately, the assault on public education nationwide will likely continue so long as political elites belonging to both major parties continue to be beholden to the anti-taxation and privatization agendas of corporate interests, which are emptying public coffers while gutting the government’s ability to sustain all forms of social services, educational or otherwise. After all, Beutner—a Democrat—and Trump—a former Democrat himself—aren’t aberrations, they are genuine products of a corrupt political environment that is intent on acting against the public interest. As for Superintendent Beutner, who is the definition of blue-in-name-only, his claim that striking teachers leave “children out in the rain” is simply fatuous given that those children are already being harmed by the public school system’s failings. Indeed, I saw many of those children around my neighborhood during that week in mid-to-late January. Despite the relentlessly gloomy weather, quite a few were smiling broadly through their ponchos while holding homemade signs that read: “SMALLER CLASSROOM SIZES.”

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