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Opinion

Op-Ed: An L.A. teachers strike — the first in 30 years — would hurt students and families, while solving nothing

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, JANUARY 8, 2019: A group of teachers supporters applaud a fellow sup
A group of teachers supporters applaud a fellow supporter speaking during a Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education meeting in Los Angeles on Jan. 8.
(Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Unified School District faces the possibility of a teachers strike as soon as Thursday, the first in more than 30 years. If it comes to pass, it will hurt the kids and families we serve, without solving the problems facing the district. So why does the teachers union leadership seem so determined to go down that road?

A better path would be to resolve the contract negotiations, avoid a strike and start a new chapter based on trust, mutual respect and transparency. L. A. Unified is spending all of the resources it has on the educators and others who work in our schools, and on our students. Instead of allowing the conflict to continue, our common priority has to be working with legislative leaders in Sacramento, where 90% of funding for schools in L.A. Unified comes from, to find more money to better support all of those who work educating our children.

Let’s start with what we ought to be able to agree on.

  • Public education is the foundation of our communities. All children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, the place they live or the color of their skin, deserve a great education.
  • Public education does not receive the recognition or funding it should and our educators are frustrated for good reason. Since I started as superintendent six months ago, I’ve witnessed on a daily basis the passion and commitment of our educators and I’ve learned more about their concerns. There’s no question that people who work in public schools are underpaid. Many schools lack needed resources. The bureaucracy is overwhelming. These concerns are not new, and more has to be done to address them. Now.
  • To be sure, many students in L.A. Unified are getting a great education, but we still have a long way to go. A record 77% of students are graduating and progress has been made in student learning. But 12% of students who begin in our high schools drop out before graduation. Worse yet, 88% of those entering students will not graduate from college. We need to do better. Almost 70% of the students in L.A. Unified are not proficient in math; about 60% are not proficient in English. These numbers are simply not acceptable.
  • Los Angeles Unified is spending money at an unsustainable clip. The State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the County Superintendent of Education, two independent commissions established by prior school superintendents, a nationally recognized financial expert (the firm of Houlihan Lokey) and an independent “fact finder” appointed by the state have all said that L.A. Unified has a large and growing budget deficit that has put it in a perilous financial position. If nothing changes, it will become insolvent and be taken over by the state, which will lead to draconian cuts.
UTLA leaders have not made a single counteroffer on salary or class size. Not one.
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If this is all true, why haven’t L.A. Unified and the teacher’s union, United Teachers Los Angeles, been able to reach an agreement? Because UTLA leadership will not acknowledge the basic facts. Over a three-year period that began last July, L.A. Unified will spend about $24 billion educating students. Unfortunately, the state’s forecasts tell us our revenue over that period will be closer to $22 billion and we will spend every penny of our reserves to cover the shortfall. The often cited $1.8 billion in reserves is already being spent. Nearly $500 million is committed to a 6% raise for all district employees, including teachers. $600 million is being used to add 1,000 educators to schools to reduce class size and hire more nurses, counselors and librarians. The remaining funds are committed to fund ongoing budget deficits. L.A. Unified’s most recent report to regulators shows it will have about $1 million of reserves left at the end of that three-year period. You read that correctly: a $1 million cushion out of $24 billion in spending — virtually no margin for error.

The cost of what UTLA is asking for would be an additional $3 billion-plus over the same three-year period. Where is that money supposed to come from?

So what is this really about? UTLA leaders have said since early 2017 — before contract negotiations even began and more than a year before I became superintendent — that they wanted “a strike to create a state crisis.” L.A. Unified has made proposal after proposal, all of which have been rejected. UTLA leaders, meanwhile, have not made a single counteroffer on salary or class size. Not one.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute from L.A. Times Opinion »

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The main elements in L.A. Unified’s latest offer are the 6% raise mentioned above, retroactive to 2017, and the nearly 1,000 additional educators in schools — teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians. UTLA leaders have said that their “last, best and final” offer, essentially unchanged since April of 2017, is all they will accept. They know that these demands cannot be met.

If UTLA leaders do indeed want a strike — a “few days of turmoil,” as their leader put it — it will certainly happen. Not only will students and families be hurt, but teachers will go without pay and the district stands to lose millions in state funding if students don’t come to school.

Make no mistake: A strike will worsen the culture and climate in our schools. What it won’t do is provide more money to reduce class sizes and hire more nurses, counselors and librarians.

We’ve got lots of work to do, and the kids are counting on us.

Austin Beutner is superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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