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Teachers’ union in Los Angeles endorses a presidential candidate — and it’s Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders announces the introduction of public-housing legislation as part of the Green New Deal in Washington on Thursday. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

The leadership of the 34,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles voted late Thursday to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to be president, throwing its support to him more than two months before the first Democratic votes are counted in the nomination contest.

UTLA, the second-largest teachers’ local in the country, said it was the first teachers union to endorse a candidate and that it chose Sanders because of his progressive views on how to improve the public education system. K-12 teachers have donated more money to Sanders than to any of the other Democratic presidential candidates, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

“Sanders is the first viable major candidate in 25 years in the Democratic Party to stand up against privatization, the charter billionaires, and high-stakes testing and to stand up for a massive redistribution of wealth to schools and social services,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said in a statement. “Critically, like UTLA, Sen. Sanders believes in building a national movement for real, lasting change.”

The union said that its House of Representatives — the elected leadership body of the union — voted 80 percent in favor of endorsing Sanders. The representatives passed over Kamala D. Harris, one of California’s U.S. senators who is also running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and who, in March, became the first of the candidates to call for a major federal investment to boost teachers’ pay.

In May, Sanders released his comprehensive 10-point public school improvement plan, titled “A Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education,” which was welcomed by public education advocates. Those include Diane Ravitch, an education historian and research professor who became the titular head of the movement to fight overhauls that seek to operate schools as if they are businesses and privatize the education system. In fact, Sanders’s aides called Ravitch for advice in April before releasing his plan.

In that plan, Sanders promised to:

  • Combat racial discrimination and school separation.
  • Triple Title 1 money that is intended to help students who live in poverty, and ensure that the federal government provides at least 50 percent of the cost of funding for special education (which is 10 percent more than Congress promised in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and well more than half of the roughly 18 percent that the federal government does pay).
  • Rethink inequitable formula that funds public schools and relies in part on local property taxes, rewarding schools in well-to-do neighborhoods.
  • Ban for-profit charter schools and call for a moratorium on public funds for charter school expansion until it can be determined how these schools affect traditional school districts.
  • “Significantly increase teacher pay” and protect their unions’ collective bargaining rights.
  • Expand after-school and summer education programs for students.
  • Provide $5 billion annually for community schools, which provide not only academics to students but also wraparound services that provide a holistic, full-service approach to learning and the well-being of our young people.
  • Protect the rights of LGBTQ and other marginalized students in schools.
  • Pay the cost that states and districts can’t cover to renovate, modernize and make green public schools.

Sanders appears to have taken some of Ravitch’s advice, which she wrote about on her blog. She said that she urged his campaign’s education adviser and chief of staff in a phone conversation to repeal the federal mandate for annual testing of students for “accountability” reasons, raise teachers’ salaries and recognize that charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately managed — are not really public schools.

She said she “recounted for them the sources of financial support for charters: Wall Street, hedge fund managers, billionaires, the DeVos family, the Waltons, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, ALEC, and of course, the federal government, which gave $440 million to charters this year, one-third of which will never open or close soon after opening.”

This is how the Sanders plan addresses those points:

Recognizing the problems in a one-size-fits-all model of education, teachers’ unions and parent activists established alternative, experimental “charter” schools to better serve kids struggling within the traditional system. But few charter schools have lived up to their promise. Instead, billionaires like DeVos and the Waltons, together with private equity and hedge fund executives, have bankrolled their expansion and poured tens of millions into school board and other local elections with the hope of privatizing public schools. Charter schools are led by unaccountable, private bodies, and their growth has drained funding from the public school system.

The Los Angeles union went on strike last January for the first time in 30 years. They demanded more money for resource-strapped schools, higher pay and smaller class sizes for the more than 600,000 students in the district, the country’s second-largest — and won concessions on those issues.

The union also sought — and won — a concession from Superintendent Austin Beutner: a commitment to call for a districtwide cap on new charters until their effect on district schools can be assessed. Sanders’s plan calls for a national audit to do the same thing.