[Marxism] At Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike, a Rallying Cry: More Funding, Fewer Charters

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
back soon.”

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 
property tax.

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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