PV Vancouver Bureau, with files from TruthDig reporter Sonali Kolhatkar and The Atlantic's Alia Wong


After working without a contract for more than a year, Los Angeles public school teachers began a historic strike on Jan. 14, their first in 30 years.


Members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) gave their union a 98 percent strike mandate, after contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) dragged on for almost two years.


The UTLA reports that 30,000 of its members signed in on picket lines across the city, at over 900 school sites. More than 10,000 parents, students and community members joined on the picket lines in its first days, and  over 50,000 people march to the district offices demanding action.


The fight by L.A. teachers is symbolic of a bigger struggle in the United States to maintain and expand quality public education and to secure the rights of teachers, support staff, students, and parents within that system.


During 2018, teachers held successful strikes for wage increases in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona and Chicago. In Los Angeles, where the LAUSD has offered a 6 percent raise over two years, teachers are demanding better education for their 600,000 students, who are mainly non-white. They want the District to tap into its $1.86 billion reserve to reduce class sizes, hire more support staff, including counsellors and nurses, improve infrastructure, and halt the expansion of charter schools.


In Los Angeles, 73 percent of students are Latino and about another 15 percent are other racialized minorities. Latino educators account for 43 percent of LAUSD’s teaching force, while their white counterparts make up 34 percent. (Black and Asian teachers each account for about 10 percent, another 3 percent are Filipino, and just under 1 percent are either Native American or Pacific Islander.) These statistics are in sharp contrast to the rest of the USA, where 80 percent of public school educators are white, while nearly half of the 51 million students they teach are children of colour.


The L.A. school district is the second largest in the United States, enrolling nearly 600,000 K–12 students on close to 1,000 campuses that stretch across the metropolis and dozens of surrounding municipalities. The vast majority of LAUSD students are low-income, with more than eight in 10 relying on subsidized meals.


Teachers interviewed by Alia Wong told her how much they relate to their students’ struggles as immigrants who lack documentation, or as impoverished kids who frequently find themselves homeless, or as traumatized children whose lives have been disrupted by gang violence. It’s impossible to say exactly how many LAUSD teachers relate to students’ lived experiences in this way, and how Los Angeles compares with other urban school districts in this regard, because such data don’t exist.


Defying cold, rainy weather, tens of thousands of teachers, counsellors, nurses, union organizers, parents and students, have marched and rallied in downtown Los Angeles and picketed in front of schools across the district, where conditions are often abysmal.


Students needing regular medical attention are attending schools where nurses are on staff for only one or two days a week. School counsellors and psychologists are forced to work at numerous schools at once, handling emergencies whenever they can. Students who want to use the library have to wait for the brief weekly window during which the school librarian is on call.


Meanwhile, charter schools are expanding across the district, drawing from the pool of limited resources that the public system relies on, but without being held to the same level of transparency and accountability. L.A.’s teachers have good reason to be angry about how the district is treating their students.


The district may have lost millions of dollars because a majority of students did not attend school on the first day or two of the strike (the district’s funding depends on attendance rates). But each day educators are on the picket line, they lose pay. Union members turned down the modest pay raise they were offered, holding out instead for concessions centered on student welfare.


First-grade teacher Louise McLorn told TruthDig, “It’s absolutely not about teacher salaries. That is the last thing that we are looking at.”

Listing her concerns, McLorn said, “There is a hole in the roof of my classroom, so that needs to get fixed. We have students that need much more counselling than they’re getting, but psychologists have to go from school to school to school.” She added, “It’s less expensive to educate than incarcerate.”


Los Angeles School Superintendent Austin Beutner is described by media outlets as “a former investment banker with no history working as an educator.” There are widespread fears that Beutner's real agenda is to dismember and privatize the school district.


The LAUSD insists on keeping more than 25 percent of its budget as surplus, instead of the required 1 percent, raising considerable suspicion. Mike Fahy, a special education teacher at Le Conte Middle School, explained to TruthDig that the broken computers he needs to teach dyslexic students to read need to be replaced. But the district won’t fund the needed upgrade. “There’s simply no money for supplies for my school, so I end up buying the supplies myself, because I don’t want to run a ‘poverty program,’ ” he said.


Fahy's theory? “We’re being set up to fail by the decisions of the district and the school board,” he points out, noting that Le Conte shares its campus with a public-funded charter elementary school, where 90% of the students are white. In the long run, he fears that unregulated charter school growth will result in LAUSD becoming “a special-ed district for the ‘problem kids.’ ” In cities like New Orleans, public school systems embraced charter schools only to end up with an even more segregated system that fails students and teachers.


Corporate-minded elites across the U.S. view education as a profitable business sector, and seek to hold down pay rates for teachers. On the first day of the L.A. strike, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial, claiming that higher teacher salaries and pensions would require new tax programs every few years. The editorial made no reference to the third-world conditions faced by L.A. schools situated in the world’s fifth largest economy and within the world’s richest nation.


Not only have LAUSD’s teachers been without a contract for more than a year, they have also struggled with a decade of budget cuts that have chipped away relentlessly at school resources. Some classes now have as many as 46 students, surpassing the 39-student limit the teachers’ previous contract stipulated. Many LAUSD schools lack full-time librarians and nurses.


“You’re working in these conditions committed to the students because you get satisfaction knowing you’re making a difference,” said Martha Infante Thorpe, a 48-year-old social-studies teacher who taught at a high school in South Central L.A. for more than two decades. She recently moved and now teaches at a school in a middle-class community, a transition that exposed her to just how uneven public-school resources can be.


During the walkout, many vulnerable kids have no reliable place to go during the day. Schools remain open, serving meals to eligible children and offering before- and after-school programs, and relying on volunteers, substitute teachers, and non-district education employees to offer some instruction and extracurricular support to students.


But despite these important goodwill actions, the strike means more stress for hundreds of thousands of low-income families, as they look for child-care options in a sprawling city where traffic congestion is rampant and public transportation can be unreliable. While the district sits on its massive surplus, students are missing out on valuable learning opportunities.


Some teachers told reporters that they are striking to set an example for their students, so students can recognize their own agency to change things. Roxana Dueñas told Alia Wong that she’s modeling for her students the values that she’d wished she’d learned in school.


“I think even our young people have learned to accept and normalize your condition,” she says. Her mission is to inspire her students to question the status quo, to ask: “‘Why is this happening? Why should we accept it?’”


(The above article is from the February 1-14, 2019, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading socialist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)