Michael Sainato, The Guardian:
At the start of the 2018-19 school year, members of the Los Angeles teachers’ union overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike, granting the union board the authority to approve a walkout as the union and school district continue to negotiate a new contract. The strike authorization provides the union with a possible tactic to leverage a variety of demands over the second largest school district in the nation.
This year, teachers have gone on strike in Arizona, West Virginia and Oklahoma with varying degrees of success. Arizona teachers received a 19% pay raise after a five-day walkout in May. West Virginia teachers ended their nine-day strike after receiving a 5% pay raise in March. Oklahoma teachers’ nine-day strike pushed their state legislature to pass an annual $6,100 pay increase and devote $500m to education funding.
The United Teachers of Los Angeles, the union of the city’s public school teachers, are demanding the school district increase education investment, hold charter schools accountable, take efforts to reduce class sizes, improve school safety and reduce the quantity of mandated standardized tests in addition to increasing wages by 6.5% for teachers.
The large class sizes undermine the ability for teachers to properly do their jobs, provide individual attention to students with a wide range of needs and pose a fire safety risk, the teachers argue. “When you’re doing labs, that’s 40 kids doing labs in a class without a sink. Imagine doing that five or six times a day. A lot of science teachers don’t really do hands-on stuff because there are too many kids,” said Julie Van Winkle, a math and science teacher at Logan Span school.
Los Angeles teachers also face an overabundance of mandated standardized tests, undermining the quality of education they can provide students.
“Testing is in the front seat and it doesn’t belong there. The problem with testing is we’re doing too much of it, a lot of it unnecessary and a lot of the tests are one-on-one,” said Victoria Casas, a teacher at Beachy Avenue elementary school.
“Testing is wasting money. It costs the district a lot of money and when you’re testing, you’re not teaching,” said Matthew Kogan, a teacher at Evans community adult school. “If you cared about the results you’re testing, how can you explain a district with $2bn in unassigned spending and they can’t even arrange to have paper in a classroom?”
Though the school district spends a significant amount of money on a variety of standardized tests, teachers are financially burdened with paying for necessary materials out of their own pocket.
“My wife and I both teach and we’ll do $6,000 to $7,000 dollars a year between the two of us, not including the donors choose program on top of the money we spend,” noted Elgin Scott.
The materials include things like paper and pencils and materials for in-class visuals, projects and experiments. “We spend a lot of money because if we didn’t, the children wouldn’t have a lot of things we need them to have or the room environment would be so unappealing,” added Victoria Casas. “You have to spend your money, because if you don’t, you can’t do your job right.”
One of the reasons for the lack of funding for the Los Angeles unified school district is the growth of charter schools in the area. An estimated $600m annually is lost to charter schools within the district, as per pupil spending is lost when a child leaves a public school for a charter school. In California, charter schools are also allowed to inhabit any unused public school space, meaning charters and public schools sometimes share campuses, which drains resources from public school students and divides students, parents and teachers at both schools on the property.
“There’s been hemorrhaging in funding and resources to the privatization of the system, therefore taking resources away from my kids, their classmates and teachers,” said Josh, a parent of students in the Los Angeles unified school district. “I don’t feel pitting schools against each other is how you create a system that treats everyone equally.”
The district’s leadership includes superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker with no education background whose appointment in May 2018 was opposed by the teachers union. The union has rejected several of Beutner’s bargaining proposals since a strike was authorized, characterizing his agenda as favoring privatization and charter schools.
“These are the things the district doesn’t want to talk about,” added Julie Van Winkle. “We aren’t asking for crazy things for our school, we’re just asking that our kids have enough space to learn in the classroom where we can give them individual attention, that they have a nurse, a librarian, counselors and social workers for kids who come in with trauma, and they have a facility that doesn’t look like a prison and has some green space in it.”