For the first time in 30 years, teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District — the second-largest school system in the country, with more than 600,000 students — went on strike Monday, demanding more money for resource-strapped schools, higher pay and smaller class sizes.
The labor action was the first of 2019 and the largest in a series of teachers strikes that began a year ago in West Virginia and spread to a handful of other Republican-led states. Educators in states including Oklahoma and Arizona demanded higher pay and more funding for their schools after years of working with salaries so low that many had to take second jobs. They also called for more money for schools with so few resources that teachers spend hundreds of their own dollars to buy basic supplies.
Thousands of teachers in the 33,000-member union, United Teachers Los Angeles, went on strike even while district Superintendent Austin Beutner’s administration kept schools open with some 400 hired substitutes and 2,000 district personnel temporarily assigned to schools to work as teachers, counselors and librarians. Obviously, 2,400 people can’t replace more than 30,000, and classes were being held in gymnasiums and other large spaces in schools.
The union and the school system began contract negotiations nearly two years ago. United Teachers Los Angeles has demanded a 6.5 percent pay raise; more money for schools; a boost in the number of counselors, nurses, social workers and librarians; a reduction in standardized testing; and an expansion of community schools. It is also seeking smaller class sizes; there are more than 40 students in some middle and high school classes.
And though the proliferation of publicly funded but privately operated charter schools in the district was not directly addressed in the bargaining points, teachers say they are fighting to keep neighborhood schools alive in an era of school privatization.
Beutner’s administration, which wants to decentralize the district, says the union is unrealistic about the school system’s troubled finances and that it can’t afford all of the demands.
On Monday, Beutner said in a news conference that only 3,500 people were protesting at schools. The UTLA said that with 90 percent of their chapters reporting, more than 27,000 teachers went out and protests were much bigger.
The union said some 60,000 people participated in a march on Monday. Teachers walking picket lines got some (perhaps) unexpected support:
Several Democratic politicians tweeted in support of the teachers — and the Democratic National Committee released a statement in support — but the strike is uncomfortable for many Democrats who have been backers of charter schools. While regulation of charter schools was not part of negotiations, charters remain an important subtext to the strike.
California has more charter schools and more charter students than any state, and in Los Angeles, 20 percent of schoolchildren attend them. Teachers and union activists say their strike is about more than money. They say they want to keep neighborhood public schools alive amid continued pressure from Republicans and Democrats to expand charter schools. Among those Democrats who expressed support:
And Los Angeles is not the only place where teachers are expected to strike this year, with similar issues affecting teachers across the country.
(Correction: Beutner said 3,500 people were protesting at schools. An earlier version said he reported 3,500 teachers had gone on strike.)