LAUSD Teachers’ Strike Prompts Change for Public Education

Mayan Alvarado-Goldberg and her family prepare to walk with 30,000 other LAUSD teachers.
Mayan Alvarado-Goldberg
Caroline L. & McKenna B.
February 26, 2019

On January 14th, 2019, over 30,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) went on strike after almost two years of fruitless negotiations between the teacher union and district officials. In these negotiations, teachers proposed versions of a contract, which demanded that the district reduce class sizes; hire more nurses, librarians, and counselors; and raise teacher salaries. The strike concluded on January 22nd after nearly 24 hours of discussion, and the informal agreement declared a six-percent raise in teacher salaries; a decrease in class sizes; and an increase in the number of nurses, librarians, and counselors at schools. The teachers’ reactions ranged from dissatisfied to proud.

This strike impacted the over 600,000 students who are a part of the LAUSD, the second largest school district in the nation. Although LAUSD promised that school and regular classes would continue per usual, a large number of parents kept their children at home, and over 900 schools kept the students occupied with movies or other activities rather than holding class. The strike disrupted schools throughout the city which are responsible for the education of the approximately 600,000 students; the strike forced families to make severe accommodations. The conclusion of the strike marked a shift in the Los Angeles Unified School District. "This is a historic agreement, It's time for a new day in public education in Los Angeles," said Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles.

Issues with pay, support resources, and working conditions were among some of the many reasons that teachers in LAUSD were prompted to demand change in their school district through negotiations with LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner. The aforementioned teachers’ union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), played a key role in the negotiations. The president of the union, Alex Caputo-Pearl, met with Beutner and Mayor Eric Garcetti to discuss logistics of the strike and possible resolutions.

A fundamental goal of UTLA was to drive down class sizes by hiring more teachers, but the financial burdens of that idea seemed too heavy. According to the Los Angeles Times, “The union put the price of a new teacher at $86,000 per person including benefits, pension contributions and other expenses. The district team said the figure was $114,000. Garcetti insisted that they settle on $100,000 and just move on.”

A Teacher’s Union is a collective of educational professionals who work to protect their rights and interests. In the case of the LAUSD strike, UTLA overall outlined the demands of the teachers and ensured those demands were heard. In our own community, the Westridge Federation of Teachers (WFT) is of a similar capacity. The WFT works closely with Westridge’s Director of Human Resources in the context of contract negotiations and other items of a similar nature.

Katie Safford, a Westridge alumni and second-grade teacher at Ivanhoe Elementary School in Silverlake, has seen both the private and public sides of education. “My purpose of the strike was to let the public know some of the problems of the public schools. Having gone to private school myself, I have seen both sides. As I was growing up in private schools, we never needed anything in school. As part of LAUSD from the teacher side, I see clearly what money and support can buy.  Although these things were not at all addressed in the strike, the strike was done to raise public awareness of the shortcomings and it accomplished its mission.”

Living on any salary in Los Angeles is hard, but for teachers, the financial struggles that come with having a family are even more pronounced. The average rent of a one-bedroom apartment in LA is $1,949. That is almost twice the national average rent for a one-bedroom, which is a mere $977. If you need a two-bedroom apartment in LA, you can expect to pay 137% more than the national average. The $4.29 average price of gasoline in LA is about 55% higher than the national average at $2.77. According to the California Budget and Policy Center, this is what a basic monthly budget would look like for a family where two parents work:

These monthly expenditures total $75,948. The average two-working-parent family makes $75,952 a year.

This is what a basic monthly budget would look like for a family where one of the two parents work:

These monthly expenditures total $59,340.

The average public school teacher salary in Los Angeles, CA is $63,662 as of December 01, 2018. The wiggle room for other necessary or extra expenditures is $4,282. For a single-working-parent family, this amount simply isn’t enough to sustain a healthy, adequate lifestyle. “See, traditionally teachers were women who were just doing a nurturing job while their husbands brought in the living wage.  Times have changed, but we cannot raise a family on our salary,” Safford said.

Explaining to students why their teachers would be gone for an unknown amount of time also posed a challenge for teachers on strike. Safford said, “For many [students], it was a learning experience. We talked about it in class before it happened and again after. We read Click, Clack, Moo and talked about how the teachers were the cows and the district was the farmer. We talked about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the bus boycott and how you have to stand up for yourself when things are blatantly wrong. They actually got a lot out of it.”

Another LAUSD second-grade teacher at Ivanhoe, Mary-Frances Smith Reynolds, agrees that telling the students was an important thing to do because after all, the strike was geared around the students and their needs. “For the students, during the strike, I think that while it was a struggle for their families to rearrange childcare and work schedules and to fill the kids' time meaningfully, it was also a great lesson in democracy, labor, and free speech,” she said.

The students enrolled in LAUSD schools were left in limbo during the strike. With no idea of when school would be back in session, many students elected not to go to school at all. “I actually gave my cell number to my whole class and told them to send me pictures and updates of what they were doing as I wanted to make sure they were reading or doing anything slightly academic,” Safford said when asked if she felt any guilt. “I sent them ideas of ways to keep learning happening at home. Although the guilt was there, I did know that I was standing in the rain for them and what they and all future classes need.”

Mayán Alvarado-Goldberg, a student at John Marshall High School in Los Feliz and a former Westridge student, participated in the strike with her family. Both of her parents are LAUSD employees, and Goldberg and her family walked the picket lines during the strike. “I think that there is a certain beauty in being a part of a community struggle like the teachers’ strike, which was working for much more than just a pay raise,” Goldberg said. “The fact that educators across the board were putting all of their energy on the line to support their students showed me that when people unite for the benefit of others around them, it’s an emotional experience that can only be understood by those who experience it first hand. Coming from three generations of public educators and walking the line with my mom, dad, brother, two grandmas, grandpa, and great aunt proved to me that movements for the greater good transcend age and touch everyone on a deeper level.”

 

As the LAUSD teacher strike concluded, teachers in Virginia, Denver, and Oakland went on strike with teachers in Sacramento soon to follow. Educators in Virginia and Oakland made similar demands as those in Los Angeles, such as an increase in education funding, a rise in teacher salaries, and an improvement on working conditions for both teachers and students. Educators in Denver proposed not only higher salaries but also reduced incentives for “hard-to-fill” positions (i.e. teaching at schools in high poverty areas or requiring professional development courses). Educators in Sacramento are focused on reducing class sizes. Pedro Noguera, A UCLA professor, told NBC News that the apparent victory in Los Angeles will “inspire teachers around the country to focus beyond salary and benefits and think about the conditions they work under."