Barring a last-minute deal, Los Angeles teachers will walk out of classrooms within days. The strike has been in the works since August 2016, when United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl, in a speech to local union leaders, said that “the next year-and-a-half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018.” The union boss’s prophecy is about to become reality. On or before January 14, about 30,000 educators in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) won’t show up for work.
The teachers’ demands include higher pay, hiring more counselors, nurses, and other support personnel, and smaller class sizes. Fact-finding, the last part of the long labor-negotiation process—after which the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) can legally strike—ended in mid-December. The fact-finding panel’s report did not present a clear victory for either the union or the district, and beleaguered Los Angeles school chief Austin Beutner wanted to resume negotiations—but the union was done talking. Having won a strike-authorization vote in August from its membership, it was ready for action.
The school district’s hands are tied because the union-influenced school board has been overspending for years. Teachers generous health-care plan has left the district with $15.2 billion in unfunded liabilities for retiree health benefits, up from $13.5 billion in 2016. At the August 27 LAUSD board meeting, Candi Clark, the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Chief Financial Officer, showed up and told the board that they were effectively on probation, and in danger of going into receivership. At the next board meeting, two weeks later, Clark was joined by Nick Schweizer, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction for the California Department of Education. His presence further signaled a possible state takeover of the country’s second-largest school district.
Beutner and the school board appreciate the gravity of the situation. Beutner believes that meeting UTLA’s demands would probably be unlawful from a fiduciary perspective. “They would cost about $900 million and would instantly lead to more than 10,000 layoffs or a state takeover,” he explained. He added that acceding to the union’s conditions would leave the district insolvent and ultimately a ward of the state. The union was unfazed, contending that the district is hoarding money that could be used to give teachers raises and shrink class sizes. In fact, years of profligacy have left the district so strapped for cash that, unless something changes, it will go broke by 2021.
Government finance expert David Crane has suggested a way out. LAUSD spends more than $300 million a year on health-care subsidies for retired employees, including retirees already entitled to Medicare and other subsidies funded by Washington. If the district were to cut the unnecessary insurance, that money could be put back into classrooms. But the union-influenced Health Benefits Committee, which determines employee and retiree health plans, has nixed that idea.
Caputo-Pearl maligns Beutner at every turn, portraying him as an out-of-touch capitalist and stealth privatizer. His intransigence may be motivated by the successful teacher walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona last year, and he may have personal ambitions as well—after the last Los Angeles teachers’ strike, in 1989, UTLA honcho Wayne Johnson became president of the California Teachers Association.
If a strike happens, schools will remain open, with newly hired substitutes pressed into action. Parents appear to have mixed feelings on the looming action. Some have expressed solidarity with the striking teachers, but others are furious at the union—including parents from Speak Up and Parent Revolution, two organizations representing the interests of parents and their children. As Gardena resident and mother of an elementary school student Keisha Khaw states, “Right now so many of our children in our community don’t have the teachers, the school or the education they deserve. We demand that the contract makes sure that the best teachers can reach kids in the highest-needs schools. We demand a contract that makes sure that ineffective teachers don’t remain in the classroom with our children.” But parents’ demands are of little concern to UTLA leadership. As reported by Parent Revolution leader Seth Litt, 52 percent of LAUSD’s schools earned a D or F in English language arts, 50 percent earned a D or F in math, and just 40 percent of all students graduate college or are career-ready.
Parents care most about the quality of their children’s education. By contrast, the main goals for teachers’ unions are getting budget-busting perks for their members, insisting on archaic tenure and seniority laws that make it almost impossible to get rid of even the worst teachers, and spending huge sums of money at the state and national levels to elect politicians who will keep their gravy train running. Both sides are in court, filing last-minute motions about the legality of the January 10 strike date. The district claims that the union can’t legally strike till January 14. In any event, if the last 20 months of failed negotiations are any indication, we should expect a walkout very soon.
Photo: Anna Bryukhanova.iStock