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Column: L.A. teachers’ strike: How we got here and how we get out

The ifs and maybes, after months of failed negotiations, are now in the past. The LAUSD strike has begun, and there are only two questions to consider:

What will it take to end it? And when will that happen?

Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems possible we’re in for a long one. It might be a stretch to suggest that either side wanted a strike, but each side clearly drew a deep line.

For the teachers union, the line is about classes that are too big and paychecks that are too small, and also about combating the slow death of traditional schools as charters mushroom.

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For the district, the line is mostly financial: It says it can’t afford to give teachers everything they want. But you also have to wonder if there’s a calculation that a protracted stalemate could be spun to demonize the union and plug charter schools.

On Sunday, I got a reminder of just how deep the resentments run when one teacher after another rapped my knuckles with a ruler for a column in which I suggested a strike would not help students and both sides needed to give a little more.

“On this issue you don’t know what you are talking about,” one teacher wrote. “How many classes have you taught? Zero. You don’t know the day to day struggles of those in the trenches. Who are you to judge? What’s your paycheck look like?”

My response:

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True, I’m not in the trenches. But as a parent and journalist, I’ve learned a thing or two about schools over the decades. I’m not a trained teacher nor a full-time teacher, but teaching at Cal State L.A. for several years has given me a greater appreciation of the challenges students present and of the value of smaller class sizes, and mine are half the size of some LAUSD classes.

Another teacher had this to say:

“Charters should not be siphoning funds from the [schools] where the poorest children are. Some charter schools are very good; but overall they are not accountable, not held to the same standards, and often use teachers who are not fully credentialed. There is a HUGE difference between the learning that is possible in a classroom of 19 students versus one that has over 35 or more!”

My response:

There’s not much there for me to disagree with. But charters are not going away, and in some cases, parents like them better than traditional alternatives. As for reduction of class sizes, again, I’m on your side. But if we’re going from 35 students to 19, this is going to be a very long strike.

Retired adult school teacher Julie Carson of Granada Hills wrote a powerful rebuke of my suggestion that a strike would not advance anyone’s cause.

“You probably would have told MLK to stay home too, wouldn’t you?” she wrote. “How do you think change happens, especially in this district, this city, this state, where, as you most eloquently pointed out in your series on the effects of poverty in the schools, the consequences of increasing income inequality play out in every classroom?”

I wish I’d had Carson as my writing teacher. She’s good.

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“Who else but teachers, who are on the front lines every day, experiencing first hand these effects, should stand up and revolt? Because what they see every day is truly revolting. It requires a “revolution” of sorts — in the form of this strike. They can’t and won’t take it anymore,” Carson went on.

“Change doesn’t come from a place of comfort or talking nice to each other. In a perfect world maybe, but not this one. This isn’t just about what’s going on in LAUSD — it’s a microcosm of what’s going on in the country. And it is teachers who are saying ENOUGH.”

I truly appreciate Carson’s idealism, and she is correct:

My conclusion after two months last fall at an LAUSD elementary campus was that we expected public schools to compensate for all society’s failures, and to do so without the resources they had when California ranked higher in spending per pupil.

But L.A. Unified is as much a victim of those realities as it is the cause of them, and I don’t see either side getting what it wants if they continue to operate as enemies rather than allies. Turning that around could be difficult, though, because, in all of Los Angeles, I don’t think there are two more confident, uncompromising people than teachers union head Alex Caputo-Pearl and LAUSD boss Austin Beutner.

Yes, teachers, I’m with you in spirit. But the district anticipates big declines in student enrollment in coming years, and that means big cuts in revenue along with growing costs for pensions and retiree healthcare.

Yes, teachers, I think you are and have been underpaid, and that many of you work daily miracles in the classroom. I want you to get big raises and smaller classes, but both are fabulously expensive, so you’ve got to give a little more to get a little more.

While I’m calling people out, have LAUSD board members been kidnapped, bound and gagged through this process? And Mayor Eric Garcetti? He has no jurisdiction, but he certainly has an opportunity. If you really think you should be president one day, what better way to stake a claim than play a central role in helping resolve a massive strike — in your own city — that touches on race, class, education, income inequality and the future of the economy? Also, let’s not forget Gavin Newsom. What better opportunity for a new governor to make a mark than by coming to the rescue of more than half-a-million students in the state’s largest metropolis?

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When the marching is done, if not before, we need teachers and administrators to share a bullhorn when it comes to possibly reviving the local parcel tax idea for school funding, or supporting the ballot measure to raise school funds by closing the Prop. 13 loophole for businesses, or demanding healthcare reform that lowers school district insurance costs, or petitioning the new governor to make an even bigger commitment than he already has to public education.

All of that, too, is worth marching for.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez


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