On August 14, public schools in Los Angeles opened their doors to 700,000 wide-eyed students eager to learn. On August 23, the teachers union began a strike vote, claiming that labor negotiations have reached an impasse. They even have a date for the planned walkout—October 3—just as students and teachers are getting comfortable in their classrooms and parents are starting to relax.
Needless to say, the negotiations aren’t really about improving educational outcomes for the children of Los Angeles, most of whom are far below grade-level. They’re not about creating new and better educational options for children and families or empowering teachers to meet children where they are. They’re not about honoring and strengthening the teaching profession. They’re not about getting an effective teacher in front of every kid.
As always, they’re about money and the plain truth is that there isn’t enough of it. LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) is broke and could face bankruptcy in a few years. While the district has settled three major labor contracts representing over 60 percent of its workforce with non-teachers providing 6 percent raises over three years, the teachers union has rejected a comparable offer.
Instead, the teachers are demanding even bigger raises, smaller classes, more say over how new schools are created and more librarians, school nurses and counselors—all while enjoying one of the most generous benefits packages anywhere in America. With benefits, the average teacher compensation in Los Angeles is around $110,000, well above most of their peer districts. Meeting all of the union’s demands is a certain path to insolvency.
District Turmoil Turning Around
District leadership has been in turmoil for several years. The last two superintendents left the job under pressure or illness. Scandal also led to the resignation of a board member, leaving the board evenly divided. A special election for the unfilled seat is set for March and it will likely be contentious and expensive.
Into the breach last May stepped civic and business leader Austin Beutner, with a mandate to settle the contract, balance the budget and raise student achievement—an ambitious agenda under the best of circumstances.
One bright spot is the district’s 260 magnet schools, that for a third year are outperforming L.A. Unified schools and the state average. There’s also a vibrant charter sector, the largest in the nation and, in a perfect world, the methods of teaching and learning happening in successful magnet and charter schools would be replicated in all of our public schools.
Alas, it won’t happen while the local teachers union is led by Alex Caputo-Pearl, a one-time Teach For America corps member turned militant with national ambitions. Facing term limits as union president, he is said to be spoiling for a strike to burnish his reputation in a bid to become head of the American Federation of Teachers.
Caputo-Pearl recently met with Beutner and they both gave very different readouts of the meeting. Beutner believes they found common ground but Caputo-Pearl said they are miles apart.
One of the sticking points is around magnet schools: The district wants more of them but the union is opposed. Beutner also needs more time to cut the district’s bloated bureaucracy to find money to meet the union’s demands but Caputo-Pearl won’t wait.
In the short term, new money must come from Sacramento. The best strategy would be for the district and the union to lock arms and journey north in search of more help while continuing to negotiate a long list of open items.
Recent statewide teacher strikes in red states with criminally underpaid teachers and underfunded schools struck a sympathetic chord with the public. Those strikes were rightly aimed at state legislatures and governors to demand more resources for public schools.
UTLA’s strike against its very own school district will do nothing to increase money for LA’s public schools, but instead will only cause loss of pay for teachers and lost learning time for students.
Sadly, the families and children of Los Angeles have the most to lose. A strike puts enormous pressure on working families to find child care or give up precious sick days from work. Kids lose needed learning time. And the fragile partnership among parents, teachers and students is shredded and difficult to repair.
If Beutner and Caputo-Pearl can get beyond the strike threat and return to bargaining, they can do something rare and unusual in the world of public education: They can put kids first. Here’s hoping it happens.