LA teachers strike for ‘practically same reasons’ as 29 years ago

Los Angeles, California – This isn’t the first time Los Angeles teacher Yvette Olivares Estrada walked out of the classroom for better conditions and pay.

Twenty-nine years ago, about a year after she became a teacher, she went on strike for “practically the same reasons”, the English and History teacher at Hollenbeck Middle School told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.

“Here we are again, fighting for the same things,” she said on day two of a strike that has brought more than 30,000 teachers in the second-largest school system in the United States out of their classrooms. 

Estrada joined thousands of teachers who rallied and marched in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday, demanding a 6.5 percent pay increase, smaller class sizes, less testing, new hires of librarians, counsellors and nurses and a moratorium on new charters.

The strike came after United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the union representing the educators, and the district reached an impasse over the demands. On Wednesday, the strike continued without an end in sight. 

Daniel Barnhart, UTLA secondary vice president, told Al Jazeera a day earlier that the union and school district have yet to resume negotiations.

“We’re still waiting for them to reach out. I’m checking my email, we’re looking for a phone call, it’s not happening,” he said.

The union has been in negotiations with the school district since April 2017. The union rejected an offer last week of $130m in funding that included providing a full-time nurse in elementary schools and cut class sizes by two students in middle schools.

“Last Wednesday’s offer was to spend less than five percent of their [nearly] $2bn reserve for one year and ignore every other demand that we have on the table about the future of our schools,” Barnhart said.

The offer and stalled negotiations prompted teachers in 900 schools throughout the city to strike, while many classes, staffed with substitute teachers, continued in some capacity.

‘Teachers deserve a pay rise’

This week’s strike is the first work stoppage in the city since May 1989 when 20,000 teachers walked out of the classroom for nine days. They returned to the classroom after winning a pay rise.

Estrada said that today school budgets fail to meet the needs of students.

“We have a nurse that works once a week, three hours a day,” she said. “That’s what 1,200 kids get in this school. We have classroom sizes of 38 to 42 kids. It’s unconscionable.”

Parent Julie Ortega, who joined Estrada and other teachers on the picket line at Hollenbeck Middle School, said that although she’s wary of the possibility of a drawn-out strike, she’s ready to support the teachers.

“I don’t want my child stuck in a class of more than 30 students,” said Ortega referring to growing classroom sizes that have come to characterise her 12-year-old daughter’s school. “The teacher’s deserve a pay rise. [Students] are our future, and I know we need to invest in them. I’m here to support.”

Some parents have continued to drop their kids off at schools, presenting a challenge to the striking teachers’ aim of pressuring district officials to the negotiation table in light of a sharp decline in student attendance.

Teachers walked out of their classrooms on Monday, demanding better pay and conditions [Martha Guerrero/Al Jazeera]

Superintendent Austin Beutner said the district lost $15m on the first day of the strike due to the loss of state funding based on enrollment.

The Los Angeles School District overwhelmingly serves low-income communities, where 400 campuses are considered “high poverty” and students qualify for subsidised lunches. More than 70 percent of students are Latino.

Some parents find it difficult to skip work or look after children in light of school shutdowns.

“If I was working and I didn’t have anyone to take care of my child, I would have to bring her to school,” said Ortega. “That’s what I feel a lot of parents do. They have to stay home with them and [many] don’t have the resources to pay for somebody to watch them, so they have to drop them off at school.”

‘Organising for a long time’

At the neighbouring Theodore Roosevelt High School, with an enrollment of 1,400 students, History teacher and union board member Gillian Russom said more funding would slash class sizes and the fill the need for socioemotional and health-related support for a low-income student of colour.

“We’ve been organising for a very long time because of the really unjust conditions of learning in our public schools. We are the richest state in the country and the fifth largest economy in the world and we’re 43rd in the nation in per pupil funding,” said Russom.

Russom also pointed to a clause within the current contract that allows the district to violate previously agreed-upon contractual caps.  

“Our district has a clause that says even when we set numbers on class sizes they can violate them if they feel there is a fiscal emergency. So that’s one piece we’re finally trying to get rid of in this contract fight,” she said.

The district’s latest offer proposed a new clause that would ignore agreed-upon caps on class size contingent on changes in pension costs and student enrollment.

Every year, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) allocates funding based on school enrollment estimates and some schools like Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School, opened in 2009, have been able to meet those projections and secure the funding. But many schools in the district have lost students to charter schools. The union estimates a 287 percent increase in the overall presence of charter schools in Los Angeles.

Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School teacher Peter Olson said a drop in school enrollment displaces teachers and presents a series of issues.

“A lot of schools have been losing students to charters and there have been a number of schools even in this community that have lost teachers. Teachers have been displaced and when teachers are displaced, class sizes increase because there are fewer teachers to go around.”

Peter Olson said a drop in school enrollment displaces teachers and presents a series of issues [Martha Guerrero/Al Jazeera] 

Teachers rallied on Tuesday in front of the California Charter School Association, an organisation leading legislative lobbying on behalf of charter schools in the state. Los Angeles now has 224 charter schools and leads nationally in both charter schools and students.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Superintendent Austin Beutner noted the strike’s enormous effect on Los Angeles but said funding restrictions prevent the district from meeting the union’s demands.

“Today as yesterday all 1,240 schools in Los Angeles Unified remained open, and our buses remained on a regular schedule. But it’s by no means a normal day at LAUSD.” he said. 

“Yesterday about 144,000 students attended school, on a normal rainy day we would have had closer to 450,000,” he added. “But this isn’t about the numbers, it’s about the students. To state the obvious, we need our educators back in our classrooms helping inspire our students.”

Beutner said his office has “costed out” the union’s demands to a total of about $800m in funding a year. The district previously proposed $130m in funding but Beutner has since said the district can’t meet those numbers. He said the solution would be to end the strike and join the union in pushing for more revenue from the state government.

Estrada, a seasoned teacher that joined the city’s previous landmark strike on the outset of her career, said it’s on the district to find solutions to mounting problems in schools. “Beutner needs to understand that we need to come together, work this out, and improve the quality of education for our kids.”

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