On Monday, teachers in the nation’s second-largest school system went on strike, pledging to man the picket lines “for as long as it takes." Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, has insisted that 20 months of failed negotiations and the likely strike are not just about salary, but a larger fight for the soul of public education and the greater good.
Austin Beutner, superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District, has mounted his response in similar terms.
As Caputo-Pearl and Beutner speak past each other, unable to find common ground, they find themselves in excellent company, the latest example of an ongoing conflict responsible for thwarting educational change.
Like those who came before them, they are afflicted by local myopia. They’ve imagined school battles as municipal ones, and that’s the real mistake here.
Public schooling is a local affair, but the state of urban education is a direct byproduct of the suburbs. Following World War II, white families across the country left cities for newly planned suburban communities, pulled by dreams of homeownership and pushed by racialized fears of violence and integration.
From 1960 to 1980, white families in Los Angeles with school-age children left the city just as the school district rolled out desegregation plans. According to historian Jack Schneider, “Los Angeles became a city for those without children, for those who could afford private schools and for those who could not afford to leave.”
This didn’t only happen in Los Angeles in the era of desegregation. Education theater of the kind unfolding right now also is part of the same comforting narrative that has been told across the country in the decades since: We white suburbanites look on concerned and grateful our children aren’t in those schools. Public education is a public good, but definitions of the public have grown increasingly narrow. From California to Maine, calls for school district secession — “splintering off whiter, wealthier districts from larger, more diverse ones” — have mounted over the past two decades. As one Alabama mayor explained, seceding is the only way to keep “our tax dollars here with our children, rather than sharing them with children all over.”
This “not my fault, not my problem” mentality that underpins education reform has a legal basis. Detroit, like urban centers on the nation, struggled to desegregate its schools during the 1960s and ’70s. Local leaders there turned to surrounding suburban communities as partners to improve city schools. Suburbanites recoiled, posting “This Family Will Not Be Bused” signs in their front windows.
In the 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Detroit’s busing plan was unconstitutional because the outlying districts were not responsible for Detroit’s problems.
Since then, though, historians have documented exactly the opposite. Struggling big city public schools cannot be understood in isolation from their neighboring successful suburban school counterparts and the regional and state policies that create separate school systems. Education reform without consideration of federal policies, state funding equations, tax laws and zoning policies will remain ineffective.
These policies beyond the reach of big city public school districts are especially important, because education and housing policy have intermingled from the start.
In 1960, school leaders in Avon, Conn., advertised new programs in foreign-language and gifted education meant to attract privileged families from surrounding areas. When “shopping for schools,” as historian Jack Dougherty has termed it, families not only looked to the suburbs for advantages but also for exclusivity. Explaining her decision to move from the city to the Philadelphia suburbs, one young mother noted, “We liked the advantages that Levittown seemed to offer in comparison to other cities and we understood that it was going to be all white.” The benefits suburban communities touted had immediate and far-reaching consequences for urban schools and communities. In Nashville, for instance, historian Ansley Erickson has shown that the same planning practices and market forces that led to the growth of suburban public schools in the 1960s led to the decay and increased segregation of urban public schools.
Given this history, what will happen in Los Angeles? Historians are squeamish about making predictions, but this is how things will probably play out: Once the political appetite for discord has been exhausted, both parties will return to the bargaining table, where they will find a temporary solution focused almost entirely on municipal problems.
We’ve already seen that over the past year and a half of negotiations. Though Caputo-Pearl and Beutner agree state funding is an important part of the puzzle, they identify testing, standards, evaluations, charters and other municipally based issues as the root cause of — or solution to — the school district’s woes. But this infighting only obscures and distracts. The larger problems of segregation, overcrowding and inequitable resources and opportunities that students and educators in cities like Los Angeles grapple with on a daily basis can be traced back beyond the zoned limits of the city.
When we lambaste the charter schools that urban parents may choose as undermining public education, but say nothing of the urban private schools and exclusive suburban public schools that enable affluent parents to exit struggling districts, we not only apply a dangerous double-standard, but we also place the blame for low-performing schools on those who must attend them.
The UTLA strike will draw the nation’s attention and possibly offer an opportunity for labor leaders to flex their muscles. But if Caputo-Pearl and organized teachers are serious when they say they’re fighting for more than salary, they would do well to rethink their next steps and break free from the local myopia that has stalled urban education reform for decades. If not, it will be L.A.’s communities of color and those in poverty who pay the price.
This piece has been updated.