The chances of avoiding a teachers strike in Los Angeles are getting dimmer by the day. It’s terribly disappointing that the two sides have been unable to take a recent fact-finding report to heart by finding areas of compromise on the issues of salaries, class size and hiring of additional teachers, counselors and nurses. The two sides aren’t really that far apart on wages. And, frankly, it would be fiscally irresponsible for the Los Angeles Unified School District to do the kind of massive hiring demanded by the union, given the financial situation it’s facing. There is room for some hiring — the district has offered to increase the staff by about 1,000 — but not much past that.
Besides, when it comes to issues involving money, Los Angeles isn’t where the real debate needs to take place. The district and the union should be partners in an intensive lobbying effort in Sacramento, along with parents and other districts throughout California, to bring about serious, lasting improvements in the funding of public schools. In fact, the whole state should be unwilling to tolerate school funding levels that, when California’s cost of living is factored in, put us in the bottom quintile nationwide.
Nonetheless, a strike is where things are headed. If it happens, it will be a mess all around. The district’s financial crisis will worsen because the state won’t pay for the students who don’t show up to school. Teacher salaries won’t have to be paid during the strike, but the district will still bear the burden of administrative expenses, retiree benefits and substitute teacher wages.
Schools would remain open during a strike, but despite Supt. Austin Beutner’s promise that instruction would continue, it’s obvious that little if any learning would take place. The plan is to corral the students into large spaces on campus such as auditoriums, where a minimal number of adults can oversee the maximum number of students. Parents who rely on the schools for meals and child care during their work hours would get that much, but their children would probably be so bored and cramped for hours on end that they will actually look forward to their regular lessons once the whole thing is over.
Low-income students have the most to lose. In the event of a strike, middle-class families will find it easier to make other arrangements for their kids. Parents might take time off from work, work from home, hire help or forge cooperative babysitting. There will be plenty of food at these homes. But low-income families are less likely to work in jobs where they can take time off, and they cannot afford to lose pay.
As bad as all this would be, the union and its members don’t appear to be in the mood to join hands with Beutner in any kind of coming-together moment. There’s no getting around the subtext of the strike talk: The union and many of its teachers weren’t happy about Beutner being named superintendent. They see him as a wealthy pal of even wealthier philanthropists who have pushed for more charter schools, which many teachers believe pose an existential threat to the public school system. They resent Beutner’s lack of education background and the fact that disgraced school board member and former charter-school executive Ref Rodriguez clung to his position on the board long enough to get Beutner hired.
Certainly there needs to be a fuller, deeper and more informed discussion about the appropriate number of charter schools in L.A., and the rules that ought to govern them. But there is little to be gained by making this personal. Beutner has repeatedly offered to reach a compromise guided by the fact-finding report. It is not his job to be popular with the union, and he would be remiss if he gave in to demands to cede authority to teachers over decisions that belong to the district, such as which standardized tests students will be required to take, or which schools are converted to magnets. (The union reportedly dropped those requests Monday.) Beutner’s job is to provide the best education possible for L.A. Unified’s students — while working to build trust among its teachers, who have a lot to do with how good that education will be. The union doesn’t have to like the superintendent, but it should do its best to reach an agreement with him.