Originally published in The American Prospect on January 7, 2019.
The first major teachers’ strike of 2019 could start this Thursday if the nation’s second largest school district and the 35,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles fail to reach a contract agreement. It would be the first teacher strike for the Los Angeles Unified School District since 1989, and the first large-scale teacher strike in a blue city since the national #RedforEd movement took off last February. Educators in Oakland, six hours north, are also currently engaged in fraught contract negotiations, and have signaled they too could strike later this month.
To understand the state of LA school politics right now, think of a pot that is nearer and nearer to boiling over. On top of its threat to strike, the union recently called for an “immediate halt” on all new charter schools; both the district and the teachers union have filed complaints with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board, each alleging the other is negotiating in bad faith. Moreover, a special election for the swing seat on the school board—which will tip its balance to the advocates or opponents of charters—is scheduled for March. Ten candidates are competing for the coveted spot, which was vacated last summer after a board member pled guilty to a charge of conspiracy. As if this weren’t enough, the superintendent is currently drafting a plan to restructure the LAUSD, fueling teachers’ suspicion that more dramatic privatization is just around the corner.
The union and school district started negotiations in April 2017, and remain at odds over how much money is available to spend. The union brought three buckets of demands to the bargaining table: first, such traditional economic ones as higher pay, reduced class sizes, and the hiring of more nurses, librarians, counselors, social workers, and special education teachers. Second are such non-economic demands as cutting back on the amount of standardized testing and increasing parent and teacher voice in local school decision-making. The third bucket consists of “common good” demands, in which the union, having surveyed members, parents, students and community groups, crafted proposals for more green space at schools and for using district property to build affordable housing. The union points to LAUSD’s $1.8 billion surplus, and says claims that the district can’t afford to spend more are lies. The district had a $500-million surplus five years ago, and also insisted back then that its belt needed to be tightened.
But the district, in turn, says the union is exaggerating the financial picture, and that “simple math” shows their reserves would be depleted if they agreed to the union’s demands. Plus, it contends, some of that $1.8 billion has already been allocated in negotiating sessions to finance teacher raises. California law requires that one percent of the district’s budget be placed in reserve, and LAUSD leadership anticipates that a significant chunk of its surplus will shrink in the next few years due to increased spending and decreased enrollment.
“You have a district that feels it’s in more economic peril than it is, and the board wants to say, sure, they have money now but they won’t in two to three years out,” says Jackie Goldberg, the union-endorsed candidate for the open school board seat, who served two terms on the board from 1983to 1991, followed by six years in the state assembly. “I can clearly show them using their own figures that they’ve been saying this stuff since I served on the board since the 1980s. The doomsday never seems to come, unless there is a recession, and that comes whether you saved money or you didn’t save money.”
Nick Melvoin, the vice president of the school board, says board members don’t want a rainy-day fund for the sake of having a rainy-day fund, and notes that a new recession is not an unrealistic possibility. “Could we dip into our reserves a little more?” he asks. “Yes. We’re very willing to compromise, and I’d love to have that conversation with UTLA.”
So what would happen if the union went on strike, affecting about half a million students, of which 85 percent come from low-income households?
LAUSD says all students are still expected to attend school in the event of a strike, and that school hours, morning and afterschool programs, and regularly scheduled meal service “will NOT change.” The district’s FAQ website emphasizes that classroom instruction will continue, led by staff, substitute teachers, and administrators. Approximately 400 substitute teachers have already been hired, a move UTLA blasted as illegal.
Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of UTLA, says that if the union is compelled to strike, a few days of disruption would be justified by the things they’re fighting for. “If we’ve got to have some temporary days of disruption to correct something that’s been a problem for 25 years, then we’ll do that,” he told the Prospect. The strike date was announced weeks in advance, he adds, so that families would have time to prepare. For parents who keep their kids home from school as a statement of solidarity with the teachers, Caputo-Pearl says his union is working to set up meal programs.
Melvoin, who was elected in 2017 with the backing of the charter school movement, understands that distrust between the union and the district has been growing for years, but believes the union leadership has a vendetta. “Striking a school district that gets [almost all of its] money from the state [which is how California’s schools have been funded since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13] is really counterintuitive and doesn’t address other issues—like that only 40 percent of our kids can read on grade level,” he says. “To me it’s disingenuous.”
Undergirding some of the distrust is news that Austin Beutner, the superintendent, is working on a confidential plan to dramatically reorganize the school district he assumed leadership of in May. The Los Angeles Times reported in November that Beutner, a former investment banker with no background in education, was working to divide the district up into 32 smaller “networks”—shrinking the central office and devolving power to neighborhoods. The Times reported that Beutner was working with consultants paid for by outside philanthropy, consultants with prior experience working on education reform efforts in other cities.
This wouldn’t be the first time a superintendent has tried to revamp LAUSD’s structure. In 1993, the school district even announced it would be dividing itself up, also into 32 smaller clusters, though that plan and its successors all failed, partly because they lacked clear execution plans, and partly because local leaders weren’t prepared to assume new responsibilities.
Caputo-Pearl says he believes the current plan is more about setting the stage for privatization. District leaders deny this, and say they just want to reduce bureaucracy and give more flexibility and funds to schools.
While Beutner has declined to comment on the plan publicly, saying to do so would be premature, Melvoin dismissed the idea that their plan is being developed in secret, and said the board would be criticized no matter how they moved forward. “If we had put out a plan and then sought input, we would have been criticized for doing it secretly in the beginning,” he says. “Instead we’ve been out there holding listening sessions and the superintendent has been meeting with teachers, parents, principals and community members and there’s no plan to share right now because we’re in the process of developing it.”
Then there’s the high-stakes upcoming school board election. In 2015, charter advocates spent more than $2 million to elect Ref Rodriguez, a former charter school operator, to the school board. Two years later, charter proponents won three more seats, giving the seven-member board a one-seat pro-charter majority for the first time. The 2017 contests were the most expensive school board races in U.S history, with the charter movement spending $9.7 million, and the union spending $5.2 million.
But then several months later, the LA County District Attorney filed criminal charges against Rodriguez, who by this time was serving as board president. Rodriguez was accused of laundering money into his 2015 political campaign. He pled guilty to conspiracy and resigned this past summer.
Following his resignation, Goldberg, who is 74 years old and a well-known figure in local and progressive politics, offered to serve in an interim capacity until Rodriguez’s term officially ended. She had previously represented his district on the school board and in the state legislature.
“I spent about a month talking to each of the board members, and assured them I would come in just for the short-term, and would publicly renounce any chance of running in 2020,” Goldberg explained. “I felt the fact that I had served on the board before and in other public offices including on the state assembly education committee, would be helpful to prevent a strike with UTLA and save the district millions of dollars for an expensive special election.”
But the board couldn’t agree to this, so the special election for District 5 was set. If none of the ten candidates receives at least 50 percent of the vote in March, a runoff between the top two finishers will be held in May.
Goldberg told the Prospect she decided to run because she feels passionate about stopping privatization and wants to ensure there’s balance on the board with the pro-charter wing. She says she’s not anti-charter, but does have friendly relations with labor, and opposes the competition for dollars between public and charter schools that was established by the state’s charter law.
“I represented 80 percent of the voters of [District 5] for 22 years, so people actually know who I am and what I’ve done,” she says. “They don’t have to wonder what I’ve been like.” She commissioned a private poll that, she says, “showed a very large percentage of people knew who I was, and that I had a high approval rating.”
Students in District 5 are predominately Latino, and there are seven Latino candidates also vying for the school board spot. At least five Latino candidates voiced concerns in mid-December that the most powerful endorsements, from the teachers union, SEIU, and the California Charter Schools Association, might all go to white candidates. UTLA ended up endorsing Goldberg, who is white, SEIU endorsed Heather Repenning, a longtime mayoral aide, who is also white, and the CCSA eventually announced it would be making no endorsement for the March contest.
Observers have noted that the California Charter Schools Association could still endorse a candidate for the May runoff, and many suspect that given the stakes, the lobby won’t be sitting on the sidelines before then either. California charter advocates suffered two major political losses in 2018, after spending $23 million backing Antonio Villaraigosa in a failed gubernatorial primary bid, and more than $36 million on another candidate’s failed bid for state superintendent of public instruction.
The CCSA declined to answer whether it will be running any independent expenditure campaigns or financially supporting any pro-charter school board contenders.
IN LATE DECEMBER, UTLA called for a moratorium on new charter schools. Los Angeles currently has 224 charters, more so than any other city. California’s new state superintendent for public instruction, Tony Thurmond, has also called for a pause on charter school growth throughout the state.
Melvoin says he’s not surprised the union is taking the opportunity to talk about halting new charters, which are mostly non-union schools. “I would love it if we never had a new charter again but the way I want to get there is by improving our schools so much that parents don’t feel the need to create new options,” he says.
One thing the union and the district agree on is a measure that will appear on California’s 2020 ballot that would end a tax loophole on commercial property owners, raising between $6 and $10 billion for local governments and public schools. (In essence, the measure would repeal Proposition 13 for commercial properties, but not for residential units.) The LA school board passed a resolution in September supporting the ballot measure.
If the district goes on strike this week, Goldberg says she’ll be marching alongside the teachers who are calling for smaller class sizes, less testing, and more nurses and staff.
“I’ve been on strike twice as a teacher myself, and once we did well and once we got creamed,” she said. “But there are times when they’re refusing to hear you, and you just can’t not do something.”