Hey @arneduncan, why is it that when it came to guns in schools you were all for kids striking, but when their teachers want guidance counselors instead of arm[ed] guards, you blast them?
That’s the text of a tweet that Randi Weingarten, the Democratic president of the American Federation of Teachers, directed at Arne Duncan, the Democratic former secretary of education, on the same day a massive teachers strike began in Los Angeles, which has the second-largest school system in the country.
Weingarten was referring to an op-ed that Duncan, who worked under President Barack Obama for seven years, wrote in the Hill. Duncan opposes the strike called by the 33,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, saying it is students who will get hurt by the labor action.
Not surprisingly, Los Angeles teachers were furious, union President Alex Caputo-Pearl said in an interview Wednesday. “Our members were enraged to see Arne Duncan and [former Democratic Los Angeles Mayor] Antonio Villaraigosa shaking their finger at them telling them not to go on strike when you could count on your hands and toes how many days these guys have spent in a classroom with the conditions that our folks deal with,” he said.
It wasn’t the first time Democratic-led unions have clashed with Duncan and his school reform camp. In her one-sentence tweet Monday, Weingarten underscored the very real divisions among Democrats about public education today — how schools should operate and what kind of schools the public should pay for.
The strike in Los Angeles is about money: The teachers want more funding for pay raises and for schools strapped for resources. But there’s an underlying theme: Does a genuine public commitment exist to support traditional public school districts against privatization efforts? And it’s not just Republicans vs. Democrats. Democrats have been fighting one another over the future of public education for years.
The strike entered its third day Wednesday, with thousands of teachers and their supporters walking picket lines and marching. Caputo-Pearl said union protests were concentrated in six areas of Los Angeles, causing traffic to be shut down in pouring rain because so many people were involved. He said the union was attempting to reopen talks with the district.
The administration of the Los Angeles Unified School District — it’s run by Superintendent Austin Beutner, who was hired by a Democratic-major school board — worked to keep schools open so those students who wanted to attend could. And by remaining open, the school system ensured the state kept per-pupil payments coming to the district; those payments are based on attendance. On each of the first three days of the strike, most of the 640,000 students in Los Angeles stayed home. The school reported that total gross revenue lost for the first three days of the strike was $69.1 million, based on available student attendance numbers.
More teachers were said to be protesting in Los Angeles than went on strike a year ago in West Virginia, a labor action that shut down all of the public schools in the state and started a wave of strikes in Republican-led states. How long the Los Angeles strike will continue is unclear; a 1970 walkout by Los Angeles teachers lasted nearly five weeks. The last teachers strike in the city, in 1989, lasted nine days.
The “Red For Ed” movement was led by teachers — not unions — in a handful of red states who got sick and tired of salaries so low that many had to take second jobs. And they had grown weary of schools being starved of resources because of insufficient state and local funding. They went on strike in places where it is illegal for public servants to walk off their jobs.
The Los Angeles strike is different. Teachers there are represented by their union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and the state permits strikes by public employees. California is controlled by Democrats in the governor’s office and the legislature, and is sometimes called the country’s most progressive state — at least when it comes to social issues. When it comes to education, not so much.
Caputo-Pearl said Wednesday: “California is about as blue as you can get and it’s about as rich as you can get, and yet teachers have to go on strike to get the basics for kids and for themselves. I think there’s something profound about that.”
California once had some of the most highly rated public school districts in the country. After the 1978 Proposition 13 property tax reduction law passed, spending per student plummeted, and things got worse in the recession a decade ago. Though spending vastly increased in recent years, California still spends less per pupil than the national average. In its June 2018 ranking of K-12 education spending, Education Week gave California an F for school financing. It was worse than the national average, which was a D-minus.
Los Angeles teachers are striking for higher pay, a reduction in class sizes and more resources for schools, many of which need counselors, nurses and librarians. There was a small section in the union’s demands involving charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated. The union wants a cap on the number of charters, but that is not an issue it can settle with the school system; the state would have to agree.
The union has used the charter issue as a rallying cry: The support of charters and the failure to properly fund the district, striking teachers say, is nothing more than a move toward the privatization of public education.
Democrats were long regarded as big supporters of public education, including powerful teachers unions. Democrats viewed public education as a way to provide equal opportunity to marginalized communities and to produce well-rounded young people who could become active members of America’s civil society. Many Republicans saw public schools as a way to train students for the workforce.
That changed in recent decades. As Democrats saw labor’s traditionally strong support weaken with changes in the economy, the party increasingly embraced market solutions to public problems. That was evident in its approach to overhauling public education: Among Democrats, support grew for operating schools as though they were businesses rather than civic institutions.
Duncan, who became education secretary in 2009, used federal power to coerce states to embrace education policies that had previously been attached to Republicans, including the expansion of charter schools and the use of big data as key assessment tools for teachers, students and schools.
Duncan and Democratic supporters, including the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, got behind charters and the people who wanted to expand them. Democratic hedge fund operators and Democratic philanthropists, including Bill Gates, collectively donated billions of dollars to the cause. Billionaire Eli Broad, who has long held allegiance to the Democratic Party, was the prime mover behind a 2015 plan that would have transformed the Los Angeles school district and would have led to nearly half of its students being enrolled in charters.
Some Democrats — though not Duncan or Obama — even supported using public money for private and religious school tuition, in line with the philosophy of President Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
The two major teachers unions, Weingarten’s American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, opposed Duncan’s agenda. The NEA even called for Duncan to resign, and the AFT came close. Labor unions calling for the resignation of a Democratic education secretary was quite a departure.
In California, the very Democratic Jerry Brown opened two charter schools when he was mayor of Oakland and, as governor, opposed serious efforts to strengthen oversight. Two Democrats ran last year for superintendent of public instruction. One was backed by charter school supporters. The other wasn’t. The one who wasn’t, Tony Thurmond, won, although his opponent, Marshall Tuck, raised a lot more money.
Most charter school teachers are not unionized. But on Tuesday, teachers at the Accelerated Schools, a network of charters in Los Angeles, went out on strike, too. It was only the second strike by charter teachers in the country’s history.
There was not unanimous public support by Democrats for the strike, and some who backed the job action did not mention United Teachers Los Angeles’s concern over charters. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was the first federal lawmaker to reference the teachers' view that expanding charter schools is tantamount to privatizing public education.
On Tuesday, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) did the same thing:
Other Democrats said they supported the strike but didn’t mention charters, including Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.) did too, and he was supported by Luke Skywalker, a.k.a. actor Mark Hamill:
Teachers received new support Tuesday, including from musician Steven Van Zandt, who is part of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. He also had a recurring role on “The Sopranos” and staged a tour with his own band in the fall to support public school teachers.
The head of the Democratic National Committee, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, put out a statement in support of the teachers and their push for more pay and more resources for teachers. He didn’t mention charters.
(Correction: A previous version said the L.A. superintendent was hired by a Democratic mayor. He was hired by a Democratic-majority school board.)