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L.A. teachers’ strike: It’s not too late to avert disaster

Memo to L.A. Unified, the teachers union and all concerned:

Can a strike, which could begin Monday, be averted?

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Absolutely, and about half a million families in greater Los Angeles would be grateful.

But the adults still have some homework to complete.

I know and respect lots of L.A. Unified teachers, and I count many of them among my closest friends. But I don’t see how they or anyone else will benefit from a short strike that does not address large ongoing concerns; I see only losers, deeper foxholes, more contempt. I don’t see how anyone benefits from a protracted strike, either, which could cripple the region and harm hundreds of thousands of Southern California’s poorest families.

There’s an optimistic theory that if a strike were to endure, the public would rise up in defense of the children and justice would prevail. But nobody will rise up to rescue a long-dysfunctional district in which warring parties have sharp philosophical divides and too little appetite for exploiting shared interests. In a long strike, families will opt out, might not return, and the district may never recover.

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 20 of the last 21 years, and I’ve visited dozens of schools. I’ve been inspired by the service of teachers and principals, aghast at the decline in resources and facilities, irritated by the politicization of public schools.

In that tumultuous time, the number of students has shrunk and administrative turnover has been constant. Over the last two decades, here’s the LAUSD superintendent roster: Zacarias, Cortines, Romer, Brewer, Cortines, Deasy, Cortines, King, Ekchian, Beutner.

Different strategies and leadership styles have produced intractable disputes over testing, new teaching methods, teacher evaluations, charters. We’ve endured the iPad debacle, the student tracking system fiasco, the student molestation scandals.

And how does the report card look in a district where both union and administration officials claim to have the answers, if only the other side would see it their way?

In the last round of standardized tests, only 42% of LAUSD students met or exceeded standards in reading and 32% in math.

If you think teachers are responsible for that, you’re missing the big picture.

If you think district administrators are the culprits, you’re wrong again.

If you think a strike will help, you’re 0 for 3.

The district’s several hundred thousand students, most of whom are children of color, have the same brain capacity and learning potential as students attending private schools and better-funded public schools.

But they start at a big disadvantage, with the majority of them coming from homes at or below the poverty line here in one of the richest places in the world, where middle-income jobs were once plentiful but are now scarce, and where thousands of students live in garages, motels, shelters, vehicles and shared apartments.

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Rather than give these kids the best chance to rise above it all, we stuff more than 40 of them into classrooms at schools short on nurses, schools where teachers buy supplies, schools in a district with literally thousands of maintenance calls that go unanswered for months and sometimes years.

We don’t need a strike. We need a unified front, with teams of union members and district officials demanding to know why it was OK to let California fall in national funding-per-pupil rankings, and why it’s OK for school libraries to be closed in the state’s largest district when Sacramento has a projected $21-billion budget surplus.

Brand-new Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a big boost for schools, but delivering on his promise could be a long and complicated process, and local teachers and administrators should be hand in hand, cheering him on, rather than taking shots at each other.

As for local leadership, we’ve gone from a mayor (Antonio Villaraigosa) who wanted to commandeer the entire district to a mayor (Eric Garcetti) who seems barely aware that it exists.

Will no one speak up for the second largest school district in the nation, with its 90% minority population and 80% of students living in poverty?

USC, one of the wealthier educational institutions in the nation and referred to by some as the University of Spoiled Children, raised billions of dollars it didn’t really need way ahead of schedule.

We’ve got no shortage of wealthy liberals tripping over themselves to shell out for photo ops with big-name Democratic office holders and candidates who swing through L.A. like it’s a drive-through bank. Couldn’t a few of them speak up for local students, or cut checks to school donation funds that help pay for supplies, student gear and after-school programs?

To be fair to those on the sidelines, the district might draw more support if it could demonstrate that it can manage its own affairs and avoid the trench warfare that keeps sabotaging progress.

The district has to acknowledge that the growth of charter schools — some of them good and some of them not so much so — is draining resources from traditional schools and the neediest students.

The teachers union has to acknowledge that if a charter offers students a better option, students deserve to take full advantage.

The district needs to find more ways to cut costs, shrink class sizes and pay teachers what they deserve.

The teachers union has to admit the district is on track to go broke, and either start contributing toward healthcare premiums or find ways to trim retiree healthcare costs.

Parents can help by learning English, so they can better monitor their children’s progress in school and open more doors for them.

And everyone has to recognize that whether or not our children are in LAUSD, we all have a stake, if not a moral duty. A well-educated army of future taxpayers serves all of us, and there are great costs ahead for not developing all that potential.

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Last fall I spent several weeks at Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima, where nearly a quarter of the students are classified as homeless, and many eat most of their meals on campus. I was impressed by what was accomplished each day by the principal, teachers and staff despite all the resource shortages, and I’m certain the results would be even better with more support.

The adults on both sides insist their first interest is the students, which has the right ring, but it looks at times as if power and ego come first.

On Monday, if schools are closed, the biggest losers are the kids.

So get it together, keep the doors open, and teach. The children are hungry to learn, and capable of great things.

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