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Looming Teachers’ Strike: Life-and-Death Struggle Over Public Education in LA

EDUCATION POLITICS-What’s being contested in the current contract struggle between LAUSD and UTLA is far more important to all of education’s constituencies and the city itself than salaries and benefits or even a budget deficit. 

If this were a traditional face-off, Schools Superintendent Beutner’s statement “We all want the same set of things,” and “The challenge is how do we do it with the resources we have,” would be accurate. For many years, teachers’ unions and school boards were allied in wanting to maintain the status quo, tweaked to allow for modest improvements in wages. However, that is not what UTLA’s leadership or membership or LAUSD want this time around. They face one another in a life-and-death struggle over the future of public education in Los Angeles. 

Public education and teachers’ work have been transformed in the past four decades because of policy changes on the state, national, and local level that have been advanced as increasing educational opportunity for students who have been poorly served. The main proponents of these reforms have been powerful financial interests who believe public education should be a business, privatized and commercialized. 

The “monopoly” of public education should be broken up by creating an educational market in which for-profit corporations provide all the services previously provided by a single employer – LAUSD. In the “portfolio model,” which LAUSD has announced it will implement, local schools overseen by elected school boards are replaced by privately-run networks of charter schools. 

Though the explicit rationale for the portfolio model is enhancing “choice,” providing more and better educational options for low-income children of color, much independent evidence indicates privatization has increased school segregation and racial disparities in educational outcomes. In cities in which states have imposed the portfolio model, the policy has indeed given a small number of students’ options they wouldn’t have had in their neighborhood schools while removing the centralized controls that limit graft and protect students who are most vulnerable, especially those with special needs. In New Orleans, charter schools have led to enormous variation in school quality, with schools serving working and low-income students struggling to retain teachers and do more than teach a watered-down curriculum that is primarily test-preparation. A few elite, relatively well-funded public schools are maintained in the richest and whitest parts of the city, and a few lucky working-class students of color find spots in these schools. 

Though attacked as being too powerful, teacher union influence has actually waned among politicians in both parties, who have adopted the pro-privatization views of their largest donors. Teachers who have collective bargaining agreements and pay union dues are frustrated at their unions’ inability to stem deteriorating conditions in schools, and activists have created a dynamic reform current in both national teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT). These reformers see the union’s strength in mobilizing members and making alliances with community, not relying on “friends of labor” who will reward the union’s loyalty with economic improvements for members. The current UTLA leadership campaigned and won office with ideas that put it solidly within the reform movement, where it is allied with the Chicago Teachers Union.  

Though the “red state” teacher walkout movement last Spring was cast by media as a peculiarity of states that had exceptionally poor state funding of schools and low teacher salaries, #RedforEd was actually a response to conditions that are national and have been festering for years. The conditions were felt first and most intensely in urban schools and sparked formation of a reform caucus that won office in the Chicago Teachers Union, transformed it, and organized an electrifying strike.  

Acting on principles that haven’t been seen in teachers’ unions – or U.S. labor generally – for decades, UTLA and other locals in the reform camp reach out to members to deepen their involvement in the union. Further, the union commits itself to develop mutually respectful alliances that acknowledge racial and class inequality in the city’s schools and the city. Hence UTLA’s current contract demands include reducing student-counselor ratios and lowering class size, as well as ending punitive disciplinary procedures that feed the “school to prison pipeline” and do nothing to improve school climate, essential for safe schools. 

This is no ordinary contract dispute because two completely opposed visions of public education and the role of teachers in it fuel the two sides. LAUSD wants a privatized “public” system funded by tax dollars that its supporters say will simultaneously boost profits and identify “the best” to succeed in a competitive, individualistic school system and society. UTLA this time around has committed its resources, which include member power and community alliances, to develop public schools controlled democratically, with parents, students, and teachers empowered to create “choices” that serve all elements of the city’s diverse population equally well. 

Despite the narrative of shared aims and differences over the budget, Superintendent Beutner and UTLA are not at all committed to the same ends, and this contract dispute highlights the differences. This confrontation is a struggle over the kind of school system and city Angelenos want for themselves and their children.

 

(Lois Weiner is an independent researcher specializing in teacher union transformation, formerly a career teacher and professor of education known for her scholarship in urban teaching. She is on the editorial board of the journal, New Politics. Lois can be reached here.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.