Standing on the front steps of LA City Hall, Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), shouted into a crowd of teachers and parents, “You just taught the best lesson of your lives.” A sea of hand-painted signs and raised fists roared in affirmation.
Teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) began striking on January 14 after months of failed negotiations with the city over pay, bloated classroom size, lack of support staff, and the increasing privatization of public education. Over 30,000 teachers marched, picketed, and rallied in a powerful show of labor solidarity that garnered national political and media attention. The six-day strike halted activity in the second largest school district in the country, affecting over 600,000 students in more than 1,000 schools. The final agreement between the teachers’ union and the City included a six percent pay increase; smaller class sizes; more funding for nurses, librarians, and guidance counselors; and a moratorium on new charter schools.
Class size was a top priority for the UTLA. According to the LAUSD superintendent's final budget for 2017-2018, class averages exceeded 40 children for middle and high schools, while numbers hovered around 30 for elementary schools. In comparison, national class size averages in urban areas range from 16 to 28 students. The class size explosion in LA poses a direct threat to children’s well-being because, as a growing body of research suggests, there is a causal relationship between class size and academic performance. Smaller classrooms put less strain on teachers and allow for more individualized attention. A study sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers found that primary school children in smaller classrooms scored better on tests and were more likely to go to college than similar children in larger classrooms. After negotiations, the city agreed to reduce class size by four students over the next three years in grades four through twelve, nullifying a previous provision that allowed class sizes to balloon during times of “economic hardship.”
The UTLA reached similar victories with regards to support staff and pay increases. Under pressure to increase standardized test scores, public schools across the country have directed their limited budgets to additional reading and math instruction, instead of hiring other essential school staff. Los Angeles has suffered particularly badly, with more than 500 students per counselor and nearly 2,000 students for every nurse. The deal ensures a full-time nurse in every school, a librarian for every middle and high school, and allocates more school funds to hire counselors.
Salary also played an important, if secondary, role for teachers in a city with skyrocketing real estate prices and growing economic inequality. For schools in wealthy areas, teachers are priced out of the neighborhood, forced to live elsewhere and face long commutes. Before the strike began, the city promised a raise of 6 percent—not far from the union’s demand of 6.5 percent. Largely satisfied by the city’s offer, the union eventually conceded the change.
Beyond the common educational issues of class size, budgets, and salary, the recent proliferation of charter schools in the city greatly affected the trajectory, tone, and goals of the UTLA strike. There are currently 277 charter schools in Los Angeles, serving more than 138,000 students. Charter advocates maintain that charter schools provide parents and children with more choice and the opportunity to escape underperforming local schools. However, critics argue that charter schools, which operate autonomously but receive public funding, lack accountability and sap resources from district schools, further aggravating the LAUSD’s financial troubles.
The controversy is further complicated by the influx of big money. Wealthy philanthropists influence education in Los Angeles by bankrolling and sitting on the boards of individual charter schools, while also financing pro-charter politics at the district level. Prominent donors include the Walton family, founders of Walmart; Doris Fischer, co-founder of Gap; and Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix. These billionaires claim to provide opportunity and choice to children across their city. However, critics—most notably the UTLA—call their intentions and methods into question. Charter schools prevent democratic processes from shaping education policy. Instead, they leave many crucial decisions to philanthropists and corporate executives who have little to no background in education or public policy. In a interview with the Indy, Jordan Henry, assistant principal at Santee Education Complex, a public high school, remarked, “My colleagues and I, we are all firm members of a shrinking middle class, and our clientele are a growing underclass. And it’s apparent that the uber-rich are … buying more of a voice in the [education system.]” Charter advocates spent millions of dollars on the 2017 LA school board election, packing the board with friends and allies. In 2018 the board selected Austin Beutner, a wealthy businessman and board member of Granada Hills Charter High school, as district superintendent. Progressives also fear that privatization could open the floodgates for future profit-making. In a 1999 report for potential investors, Merrill-Lynch claimed, “a new mindset is necessary, one that views families as customers, schools as ‘retail outlets’ where educational services are received, and the school board as a customer service department that hears and addresses parental concerns.” In recent years, this market-driven mindset has become mainstream as business executives, technology CEOs, and corporate-friendly public officials increasingly dominate educational discourse. On Superintendent Beutner’s watch, the proliferation of charter schools has continued: LA is now home to more charter schools than anywhere else in country. In many ways, the teachers’ strike is a reaction against the steady march of privatization.
Funding for the union’s demands played a central role in the debates leading up to and during the strike. Teachers criticized the city for withholding funds and practicing a policy of austerity without just cause. To their point, a report by the LA Board of Education found the district has almost two billion dollars in reserves. The coffers have been growing rapidly over the past five years, up from 500 million dollars in 2014. However, Superintendent Beutner maintains that much of that money has already been earmarked for burgeoning pensions and retiree benefits. In an interview with the New York Times, Beutner argues: “The union’s desires are the same as mine. In concept we could agree with everything. But there’s limits on resources. The regulator on behalf of the state has told us we’re in dire financial straits. We cannot spend more than what we have.” For the time being, the district’s bloated piggy bank can accommodate the increase in funding; however, long-term, sustainable budgetary policies remain to be seen.
California’s peculiar tax structure has contributed to the financial strain experienced by public schools in LA and across the state, including in Oakland and Sacramento. In most American school districts, the vast majority of public school funding comes from local property taxes. Since Proposition 13 of 1978 gutted property taxes in California, districts have been forced to supplement their budgets with limited state funding. Some scholars hold Proposition 13 responsible for the tragic decline in the quality of public education. In the 1960s, California public schools ranked nationally among the best in America; now they rank in the bottom decile in terms of educational achievement and per-pupil spending. The teachers’ strike has renewed interest in repealing Proposition 13; however, if previous attempts are any indication, it is near impossible to reimpose the far-reaching tax. The proposition remains immensely popular among large swaths of the electorate, especially the middle class. The future of California schools rests, in part, in innovative and electable tax policy.
In a school district spanning more than 960 square miles, that 98 percent of UTLA teachers voted to strike is a testament to the success of efforts to rebuild solidarity within the union and the broader community. These rebuilding efforts go back eleven years to the 2008 financial crisis, when hundreds of teachers—most between the ages of 27 and 32—were given the pink slip. In the face of these mass layoffs, teachers at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Community Charter School organized a one hour work stoppage and civil disobedience to protest the spending cuts. Among these teachers were longtime UTLA activists Alex Caputo-Pearl and Cecily Myart-Cruz. They started the Union Power caucus after realizing that the union needed drastic internal reform if it was to effectively respond to the various crises facing LA schools. In an interview with the Nation, Emerson Middle School teacher Noriko Nakada noted that “They were already huge union activists, but the union wasn’t doing what they wanted the union to do.”
Campaigning on a platform to work with the broader community for better schools and against privatization, the caucus was elected to UTLA leadership in the summer of 2014, with Caputo-Pearl as president and Myart-Cruz as vice-president. Swiftly after coming to power, they set to work obtaining the funds that would be required to realize their campaign promises. First, they held a vote on a dues increase, and 80 percent of the members voted to increase their own dues by 30 percent. Using these funds, three new departments within the union were created: an organizing department, a political department, and a research department. The creation of these departments pushed back against the inefficient small-room negotiation tactics pursued by previous president Warren Fletcher, whose bargaining approach consisted of signing off on contract issues piece by piece. After being elected in 2010, Fletcher hired professional negotiators to do the bulk of the bargaining, instead of sourcing popular teachers from within the rank-and-file. The union contract remained expired for two years of his tenure and many union members were left deeply unsatisfied with the leadership's failure to articulate its own vision for how schools should run. In contrast, Caputo-Pearl and Myart-Cruz articulated a platform that represented a commitment to long-term political organizing, and sourcing negotiators from within the base of the union. They also established the parent-community department, which committed itself to deepening ties with and giving voice to the parents and the community living in the neighborhoods surrounding each school. The department trained staff and members in reaching out to parents and listening to their concerns. Many union members were also parents embedded in their own communities (70 percent of women members identified themselves as mothers or grandmothers), and were able to leverage their personal connections towards creating deeper ties.
In an interview with 94.1 KPFA, Caputo-Pearl referred to these efforts as part of a broader strategy well known in union circles as “bargaining for the common good”—bringing to the bargaining table issues that affect not just the school but the community as a whole. The five years spent by the union leadership building these grassroots structures and relationships proved instrumental, as both rank-and-file teachers and community members felt directly invested in the daily governance of the schools. This marked shift in strategy meant that, when the possibility of a strike was floated after negotiations with the administration stalled, the prevailing atmosphere amongst members was not one of surprise and vulnerability, but of coherence and resolve. In the same interview with the Indy, assistant principal Henry commented, “Without circling a date on the calendar, the union [under Caputo-Pearl] was always upfront that they need to remain cognizant of and build towards the possibility of a strike.” When the strike commenced, picket-lines and mass rallies filled with demonstrating teachers took over the city like a well-oiled machine and effectively shut down the public education system for six days. Additionally, thousands of parents in the community lent not only nominal support to the effort, but took multiple days off from work to stand with their children’s educators in the pouring rain.
If long-term political organizing allowed the union to build reliable teams and tactics, then the momentum of other teacher strikes in the nation inspired it to confront, rather than simply negotiate with, the school board. In early 2018, a wave of teachers’ movements, revolts, and strikes roiled the nation in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky. Years of stagnant wages and cuts to essential student services such as librarians, counselors, and nurses were justified by local politicians as unfortunate externalities of the tax decreases that would ultimately serve the general good by creating jobs. The animating force of these movements to resist the status quo was a growing realization that the architecture of their respective states’ fiscal systems had been engineered to starve public services while fattening the paychecks of school-board superintendents. According to the monthly magazine Labor Notes, the number of striking teachers collectively represented 5 percent of the total K-12 education workforce in the country. This was the biggest spike in teacher strikes in more than half a century, breathing life back into a long-dormant activist tradition. Harkening to this spirit, the UTLA convinced their members to strike when the LAUSD presented a woefully unsatisfactory last-ditch deal on January 11.
The success of the LA strike has only intensified a nationwide wave of teacher protests. There are now stirrings of teacher union activity and unease in Virginia and Colorado; 95 percent of Oakland teachers recently voted to strike; and West Virginia teachers may walk out again, due to efforts by Republican legislators to renege on previous agreements. While last year’s teacher revolts took place prominently in red states, the movement has now taken root in purple and even solidly blue states. In fact, that teachers in the second largest school district in ostensibly the most progressive state in the nation had to strike to remedy the direness of their situation demonstrated the extent to which pro-charter interests—represented by figures like Austin Beutner and Eric Garcetti, Mayor of LA— are deeply entrenched in the Democratic Party. An issue like this may very well threaten to deepen the growing gulf between the establishment and progressive wings of the party, and could be a contentious point of debate amongst Democratic presidential nominees for the 2020 election.
Regardless of electoral outcomes, the teachers’ movements across the country aren’t showing any signs of slowing. Amidst all of their differences, these movements have a unifying mission: resist efforts by corporate executives to redirect funds away from teacher’s salaries and crucial student services and towards charter schools. The LA teachers’ strike is the most powerful current in this recent wave of teacher strikes. By regaining ownership over the terms of their work, these teachers have empowered not only themselves but the community of students and parents surrounding their schools. Arlene Inouye, UTLA’s chief negotiator, sums it up perfectly, “Of course, it’s hard to go on strike —but once you get there, it’s exhilarating. I honestly had no idea how much power it would give our members. It changed the whole face of everything in this city.”
BILAL MEMON B‘22 & KANHA PRASAD B‘21 peaked in high school.