[Marxism] At Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike, a Rallying Cry: More Funding, Fewer Charters
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Fri Jan 18 07:07:31 MST 2019
NY Times, Jan. 18, 2019
At Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike, a Rallying Cry: More Funding, Fewer
By Jennifer Medina
LOS ANGELES — Maria Lopez had to rush off for her job at a nearby
laundromat. Carmen Vasquez did not want her son to ruin his perfect
attendance and needed to get to the home across town where she cleans a
couple of times a week. Aurelia Aguilar needed to get to the restaurant
where she cooks and serves.
Their children were a few of the hundreds who poured into Virgil Middle
School on Thursday morning, the fourth day of an enormous teachers’
strike in the nation’s second-largest school district. Their families
could not pay for child care and were too worried to leave students at
home alone. Just a few miles away, in a well-off Silver Lake elementary
school, there were fewer than a dozen students in attendance; most
parents could afford to keep their children out of school.
“What choice do I have? This is the best place for her to be,” Ms.
Aguilar said. “I hope, I pray, the teachers get what they want and come
After more than a year of protracted negotiations, the district’s 30,000
public schoolteachers walked out demanding higher pay, smaller class
sizes and more support staff for students. But the union is also using
the strike as a way to draw attention to what it sees as the growing
problem of charter schools, saying that they siphon off students and
money from traditional public schools.
Part of the issue here is school finances: Though California is one of
the richest states in the country, it also has the highest poverty rate
in the nation, when cost of living is factored in. And though it is a
bastion of liberal policies, its urban public school systems are the
most hurt by the state’s limits on how much money can be raised in
As in many urban school districts, the overwhelming majority of students
in Los Angeles public schools are poor — more than 80 percent qualify
for free or reduced price lunch. Los Angeles’s sizable wealthy
population has for decades largely chosen to send its children to
private schools or to nearby cities, like Beverly Hills or Culver City,
with higher performing schools.
For generations, California has spent less on public schools than many
other states, despite Democratic control and an influential state
teachers’ union. The state spent about half as much as New York did on
the average student in 2016, the last year for which federal comparisons
were available. Even now, with a $209 billion state budget with
record-high reserves, that appears unlikely to drastically change. After
decades of funding shortages, educators say that Los Angeles and other
urban schools need far more than what they currently have to educate
some of the neediest students in the country.
About one-fifth of students in the Los Angeles district are learning
English and roughly 15 percent need special education services. The
district is also highly segregated: Latinos account for roughly 75
percent of all students; about 7 percent are white and about 8 percent
are African-American. Class sizes in the district often top 40 students,
well above the national average for urban schools, which ranges between
16 and 28. Teachers say large classes are particularly challenging in
schools with high-needs students.
This week, just a small fraction of the district’s half a million
students have shown up to schools; on Thursday, roughly 84,000 students
were in attendance. But district officials say that schools with a
larger proportion of the neediest students have had higher attendance rates.
The chronic funding shortage for California’s large urban school systems
is primarily because of the state’s property tax law. Voters passed
Proposition 13 in 1978, capping property taxes and drastically limiting
the amount of money the state could collect for public schools. The law
has led to smaller, more affluent communities raising money with local
bonds or parcel taxes, something that is virtually impossible in poorer
urban districts like Los Angeles.
But despite widespread agreement from education experts that the law
harms low-income schools, it is widely seen as a third rail of state
politics and changing it would require statewide voter approval. There
is now an effort, supported by both district and union leaders in Los
Angeles, for a 2020 ballot measure that would change the law to increase
commercial property taxes, but not change the law for homeowners.
Still, Democratic leaders are facing pressure to find significantly more
money for public schools. The scrutiny is now turning to Mayor Eric
Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom. Austin Beutner, the superintendent of
the Los Angeles Unified School District, has suggested that the mayor
use some of the city’s budget to help pay for student services. And many
observers say that an agreement between the union and the district will
ultimately require more money from Mr. Newsom’s budget.
Although the union and Mr. Beutner agreed that the state should spend
more on public schools, they are locked in a bitter fight over how the
district should use the money it already has — and cannot agree on how
much that is.
The union has pointed to a nearly $2 billion reserve, which it says
could be used to pay for more educators so that class sizes are
significantly smaller and that all schools have full-time nurses,
counselors and mental health professionals. But Mr. Beutner has said the
district is already spending far more than it brings in. A
state-appointed fact-finder supported both claims, and both sides have
pointed to the report to bolster their arguments.
Mr. Beutner has been steadfast in his support for charters, saying they
give parents more choices and are an essential option in Los Angeles.
But Mr. Beutner has pushed back at the union’s claim that he wants to
shut down traditional public schools.
Mr. Garcetti has said he supports the teachers; on the first day of the
strike, he said he was “immensely proud of Los Angeles’s teachers today
for standing up for what I believe is a righteous cause.” But the mayor
has also embraced his role as mediator between the union and district.
On Thursday, Mr. Beutner and Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of the
union, met face-to-face for the first time in nearly 10 days, but
negotiations appeared to remain at an impasse.
Edwin Citalan, center, a sixth grader, stood on the picket line with his
mother, Lorena Mazariegos.CreditAndrew Cullen for The New York Times
In contrast, the Los Angeles strike has been organized by a strong union
against its bosses: the superintendent and the Board of Education. At
the city and state level, union allies sit in many of the key political
seats that make decisions on education. In Sacramento, Democrats hold a
new supermajority in the State Legislature.
In many ways, this is a moment of strength for the California teachers’
unions, which have won a series of electoral victories against
Democratic critics who support the expansion of charter schools, which
are generally not unionized. (One of the small charter school groups
with a union also went on strike this week.)
Virgil began sharing its campus with a charter school two years ago, a
decision that came from the district despite protests from parents and
teachers. Though there were fears that Citizens of the World Charter
School Silver Lake would siphon off enrollment from Virgil, that has not
happened. Instead, Virgil’s principal, William Gurr, said the school is
“bursting at the seams.”
The populations of the two schools are markedly different. While nearly
all students at Virgil qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the same
is true for 45 percent of students at Citizens of the World.
Though he supports charter schools, Mr. Gurr says he is still frustrated
when he sees that the charter he shares a campus with has far more space.
He has gone to great lengths to find ways to pay for many of the things
the union is demanding for all schools: a nurse, a social worker and
academic counselors. “These are things that enable the students to learn
on a normal school day,” he said.
This week, more than 220 of Virgil’s seventh graders gathered in the
auditorium for geometry with Linda Lee, one of the assistant principals.
Though Dr. Lee was prepared, with a movie-theater-size screen to display
the lesson and a booming microphone, it was impossible to keep the
students quiet for the nearly 90-minute period.
“Miss, Miss, Miss,” one student shouted, as he struggled to hear Dr. Lee.
As she sat near the back of the auditorium, Angie Hernandez, 13, found
it hard to focus over the din of chattering students. But in some ways,
it did not feel all that different than her usual classes, which have
often swelled to 40 and are sometimes so crowded that there are not
enough desks for students.
“It’s challenging for sure,” she said.
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