The report released Tuesday by a fact-finding panel on Los Angeles Unified School District teacher negotiations didn’t provide the kind of definitive who’s-right-or-wrong message that could have brought the contract dispute to a quick end. The two sides still appear far apart, and on Wednesday, United Teachers Los Angeles set a strike for Jan. 10.
That’s unfortunate, and hasty. In fact, the portion of the report written by the neutral fact-finder on the panel — one of three members of the group — did offer enough guidance to enable the two sides to hammer out their differences. Yes, he concluded, L.A. Unified teachers are underpaid, whether viewed in terms of the high cost of living here, what neighboring districts pay, or simply the need to attract enough bright, committed educators to local schools.
But he also concluded that L.A. Unified is in a legitimately tight spot financially and can’t afford a bigger raise than it is already offering. (That point was accepted by both of the other members of the panel, one from the union and one from the school district.) A 6% raise makes sense, he concluded, even though the union wants 6.5%.
The district has nothing to gain from a strike; parents fear it, and a walkout of even a couple of weeks could be devastating to students.
He then offered this suggestion to help break the impasse: The district can and should spend more on the class-size reduction that UTLA seeks as well as the hiring of additional counselors, nurses and librarians. That could require L.A. Unified to dip into its $1.8-billion reserve, which the district insists it needs to cover its structural deficit over the next couple of years, but which the union claims is needlessly going unspent. The union also believes that more money could be forthcoming from the state or from a parcel tax vote in 2020 or both.
A strike should be avoided if it is at all possible. And a compromise ought to be attainable — there’s plenty of middle ground between the district’s offer of $30 million for staff hires and the union’s demand for more than 25 times that amount. One way that the two sides could accomplish that is by agreeing to set aside money from future funding increases for these initiatives and for additional wage increases.
The bigger question, though, is what the union’s goal is, and why it was so eager to set a strike date before sitting down with the fact-finder’s report and trying to hammer out a reasonable bargain. The district has nothing to gain from a strike; parents fear it, and a walkout of even a couple of weeks could be devastating to students.
We understand that the union has its eye on bigger issues than getting a few financial concessions from the district. The union sees existential threats to the traditional practice of public education and especially to the role of labor. Charter schools have had a significant effect on district finances, to the detriment of traditional schools. Reformers such as Supt. Austin Beutner and the philanthropists who donate huge sums to candidates for education-related offices who share their views are seen by teachers as gunning for their unions. (What the unions don’t like to mention is that these philanthropists represent the first challenge in many decades to union spending on campaigns. If the union feels justified spending millions to help its preferred candidates, why shouldn’t those who disagree with its positions?)
The union may see a strike as a way to send a “we’re mad as hell and we won’t take it anymore” message to legislators and the public, scaring voters into passing new taxes for schools and promoting new legislation to put the brakes on charter schools. It could work.
Or it could backfire, putting everyone at risk, including the union. Families might find the rancor so off-putting, and the strike so detrimental to their children, that those who can do so flee district schools for nearby districts, charter schools or private schools. Declining enrollment is already the biggest cause of revenue loss to the district; a strike could worsen that. The damage to public confidence in local schools could easily extend to teachers as well.
Both sides should sit down and make concessions to reach an agreement based on the fact-finders’ middle ground. Then they should go together to Sacramento and to the ballot to find new ways to bring money into the system — money that can shore up the district’s unstable financing, hire more staff and raise salaries for hardworking teachers, who certainly deserve more.
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