My pregnant wife coughed and wheezed on Saturday as she fed strike signs into the laminator while fighting off a cold. I punched holes in our signs, handed them to her and trimmed each one as they came out of the machine. Behind us, a line of teachers from all over the city waited to do the same; The teaching supply store was providing free lamination for Los Angeles teachers in preparation for the Los Angeles Unified School District teacher strike, which began this morning.
I’m a 2018-19 Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year, and I love my job. I love it so much I spent my rainy Saturday laminating 40 signs and making a dozen strike-related phone calls. I love it so much I spent my Sunday sending out more than a dozen college recommendation letters for my graduating seniors. I’m also the United Teachers Los Angeles chapter chair for my school. This means I’ve been in charge of preparing and motivating our school’s teachers and health and human service workers to strike.
When people talk about the LAUSD strike, they should consider the fact that 98 percent of us voted to give our union permission to call the strike. This isn’t a battle between one union leader and a school superintendent. It’s a battle between 33,000 UTLA members, the vast majority of LA teachers and other school staff, who spend every day teaching and caring for our students, and the district leaders who are unwilling to work with us to meet their needs. We’re walking out because we feel like we’re part of a rigged game set up to undermine public education. And we’ve decided enough is enough.
“We’re walking out because we feel like we’re part of a rigged game set up to undermine public education.”
When the media discusses this strike, most reports focus on salary-related issues. But that’s not our sticking point. We are striking first and foremost for our students. One of my English classes has 38 students in it (I know many teachers with classes in the 40s). That means if I wanted to give my students a 15-minute read-and-response to the essay they spent two weeks on (a common practice for an English teacher), it would take me 9.5 hours. To grade one set of essays. I spent 11 hours over winter break overseeing optional writer’s conferences with my AP English Literature seniors, another full day facilitating a practice test, and yet I still don’t have time to give my students the attention they deserve.
Class size matters, both so our students can get the education they deserve, and also the care and attention they need. I spent a decade teaching in South Central Los Angeles, where so many of my students suffered from trauma. I’ve had students experiencing homelessness, students who struggled with suicidality, students who’ve survived molestation and physical and emotional abuse, and students with friends or relatives who have experienced gun violence or been incarcerated. I asked my school at the time to fund additional social workers for our kids. It took teachers and administrators three years to get funding for the additional support.
In LAUSD, the district allows schools to choose how to spend their allocation of money, but schools don’t have enough to buy everything students need. Does a school pay for a librarian to teach students to love reading, or for a full-time nurse in case our students get sick or injured? Does a school hire social workers for students who suffer trauma every day? In my district, schools can afford a few of those things, but not all of them. Seventy-six percent of our students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, but we have to choose which vital supports they get and which they don’t. How are nurses, librarians, counselors, psychologists and social workers considered luxury items in the richest state in the nation and the fifth-largest economy in the world?
This is what we’re fighting for, along with many other important demands to improve the lives of students.
LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, an investment banker with no experience whatsoever in education, says the district cannot afford to meet our demands, yet the neutral fact-finder in our dispute confirmed that there is a $1.8 billion budget reserve. Still, the district claims it is in danger of becoming insolvent.
Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at UCLA, wrote a balanced op-ed last weekend in which he said that our demands were “important and legitimate,” that the district must invest in its schools, and that there was indeed a $1.8-billion reserve. He also said that without new money, the district would eventually face insolvency and suggested the district investigate a parcel tax, along with additional state funding.
Apparently, Noguera didn’t realize that both UTLA and two members of the school board already tried to do this. Scott Schmerelson and George McKenna introduced a motion to put a parcel tax on the 2018 ballot last June. Polling suggested it would’ve passed, and similar ballot measures statewide did indeed pass. But the motion was voted down by the very same school board members who voted to hire Austin Beutner. Why didn’t the school board vote to pursue new money from the voters if their financial situation was so dire?
It feels like district leaders want to use this “crisis” to implement austerity measures, which would allow them to break our union and privatize our district. It feels like disaster capitalism.
“We’re risking our livelihoods to save public education while our district’s leaders pretend there’s no money to be had.”
The Schools and Communities First Act, a ballot measure for 2020, would bring $5 billion in new money to California public schools every year. UTLA, almost every other major state union, the California Parent Teacher Association, and even LAUSD have endorsed this proposal. With a massive state budget surplus of nearly $30 billion, a willingness of newly elected state leaders to invest in public education, this promising ballot measure to bring even more funding, and a current budget reserve of more than $1.8 billion, it’s clear the LAUSD leaders could end this strike now if they really wanted to. Yet our students languish at the bottom of our nation in class size and per-pupil funding. Why doesn’t the LAUSD meet our demands and work together with us to get more funding for our schools?
Until this question is answered, more than 30,000 teachers will spend our days on the picket line instead of in the classroom, where we want to be. We’re risking our livelihoods to save public education while our district’s leaders pretend there’s no money to be had.
The results of the LAUSD teachers’ strike will affect public education in California and the U.S. for years to come. Will we fund it adequately, or will classrooms continue to be overcrowded? Will schools continue to be forced to choose between a nurse and a librarian, or a social worker and a counselor? I shudder at the thought of my son entering kindergarten in 2024 if we don’t stop the abuse and neglect of public education in the LAUSD and the United States before it’s too late.
Joseph Zeccola is a national board certified English teacher, a 2018-19 Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year, and soon-to-be father. He teaches at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, where he is also the UTLA chapter chair.