by Jonathan Nemetz
On January 18th, two-thirds of students in the Los Angeles United School District didn’t show up for school. It wasn’t because of a freak snowstorm in the city, or because of Los Angeles’ famously gridlocked traffic, but because of the solidarity that the local community had decided to throw behind the 30,000 teachers and education workers who had been striking that week. Since the 16th, teachers had been striking for reforms to their working conditions and compensation as a part of the first strike of its kind in the city in over thirty years.
Originally, the teachers were protesting for increased wages, smaller classroom sizes, and regulations on charter schools, which were seen as shifting funds out of the public district and into private hands.
Looking at the district that these teachers are striking from, it isn’t hard to see why the educators walked out on the 16th. While the district claims the average class size is about twenty-six students, 35% of the classes can still range from thirty to forty students per teacher. On top of that, another 6% of teachers have to manage over forty students in a single class period. Teachers fear that they aren’t able to adequately teach or control classrooms that are so large, and the personal connections that can make education so compelling are often lost in a large environment.
In addition, Los Angeles school teachers have had problems in the past with securing wages that make sense for the relatively expensive area. While Los Angeles teachers make, on average, $76,000 annually, this usually is not enough to cover local costs of rent and transportation. Cities with similarly expensive costs such as New York compensate for the higher cost of living in the area by offering average wages closer to $88,000. This high cost of living in Los Angeles means that teachers cannot afford to live locally, with many of them having to commute into their work from over an hour away.
However, negotiations for improvements to these conditions were initially stalled.
Even after twenty months of negotiation between the Los Angeles United School District and United Teachers Los Angeles, both sides could not agree to a deal as neither side would budge on particular issues important to the groups that they represented. While small differences could be negotiated, like the difference between a 6% and 6.5% pay raise, other disagreements proved harder to bridge. While the union requested an $800 million allocation at minimum towards more support staff such as nurses, librarians, and counselors, the school district said that they could only come up with about one-eighth of the initial request. On the topic of class sizes, conflicts grew even larger as the school district met the union’s hopes of a thirty-student class cap with a cap of thirty-five students on select subjects, far from what they had hoped.
Above all, though, looms the fear of charter schools for many teachers. Already, the Los Angeles school district has more students enrolled in charter schools than in any other district in the nation, and before the strikes, that trend was only growing. With political backing from wealthy and famous icons of the city, such as Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix, charter schools have received generous amounts of public funding that go towards private use. Despite having ⅕ of LA students, their funding is disproportionately high for that amount of students, funnelling away more equitable funding. School administrators say that charter schools are much more effective ways to create efficient schools, especially those in low-income communities, where the combination of public and private capital is especially useful. Due to the fact that they benefit from both the oversight and reliability of public funds, as well as the autonomy and wealth of private capital, the marriage of these two systems supposedly makes schools more productive at a lower cost. Due to the often more rigid structures, some students, especially minorities, get effects from public schools as if they attended 36 more days of school because of how much more instruction is included in curriculums as an efficiency measure.
However, teachers are afraid that these charter schools are diverting money that could be used for their undersupplied classrooms, into the pockets of wealthy charter school owners. With The rising popularity of charter schools is a source of anxiety for many school teachers, who fear that their already thin budgets will be further stretched with the construction of more and more charter schools. After national charter school enrollees reach 2 million students in 2013, that number has only continued to climb, but the funding allocated has not. That is why the 1,000 charter school educators that are a part of the union report drops in as much as $2,000 annually in salary when switching to charter schools as they try to cut costs. This not only reduces who wants to go into education and their well being in it, but also takes out of things such as a school’s budget for basic school supplies for their students.
During the six day strike though, teachers were clear that the strike wasn’t just about their pay and their funding, but about the educational system in the city as a whole. Steven Bilek, a union representative and science teacher at Paul Revere Middle School said that “the idea that teachers just want a raise is just not true”. Rather, teachers argued they were striking for better educations for their students. In a district where 80% of the families are eligible for food assistance programs, support that students receive at school is everything. Many students in the LA United School District rely on the counselors and nurses of the schools. But as funding for support staff that fill those roles are pulled back, teachers fear that those sources of stability in students’ lives will be gone. Yet this isn’t just a fear for well being, but also in the past, mental health has been proven to be a major indicator of a low income child’s success. A study by the Urban Institute determined that 21% of low income families would see mental health problems that could seriously harm a student’s performance if not properly addressed. Yet with a reduction in funding for school counselors, that much needed attention may not arrive for the low income families most susceptible to it.
However, these fears were addressed on January 22nd, when the school district and teachers’ union both announced that they had reached a labor deal that would end the teachers strike. Alex Caputo-Pearl, the head of Teachers United Los Angeles, called the deal ‘historic’ in the progress it will make towards better equipping local schools for problems that teachers have been facing for years. While the raise was not as generous as teachers had hoped (with no change to the initial offer of a 6% raise), there was still a lot for teachers to be happy about when they returned to classes on Wednesday.
One of the most important parts of the deal was the commitment to health in the schools. Whereas before, most schools were only given funding to have one nurse present, one day a week, the district has now pledged to have at least one full time nurse in all schools next year to help reduce the strain on school’s discretionary budgets that often were drained paying for extra days for the nurse.
Class sizes were also set to be reduced, but it would be a slow process. Now, most schools will reduce their student-per-class limit by one for next year. It will then be reduced by two for the following year, and three for the year after that and so on. At the moment this is going to continue for an indefinite amount of years, hopefully a sign that in a few years, schools will be adjusted to more manageable class sizes.
However, some of the biggest advancements came from outside of the contract. In this school year, Los Angeles has added its name to the list of teachers from Oklahoma, to West Virginia, to Arizona who have all gone on strike for better conditions. As tensions from charter schools grow, and states continue to lower education spending, it seems unlikely that strikes will stop any time soon. But as the Los Angeles strike showed, productive and cooperative change from both sides is still possible and is still happening in our country.