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Opinion

Op-Ed: Alex Caputo-Pearl: Why Los Angeles teachers may have to strike

Alex Caputo-Pearl
United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl, center, joins teachers at a rally next to the Broad Museum in Los Angeles on Dec. 15, 2018.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associatd Press)

Teachers in Los Angeles may be forced to strike on Jan. 10.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has a record-breaking reserve of nearly $2 billion that should be spent on its resource-starved students. Yet Supt. Austin Beutner, a multimillionaire with experience in corporate downsizing but none in education, argues that the reserve is already accounted for in future spending, and that cuts should be made. He simultaneously refuses to talk about charter school regulations, calling the issue a “shiny ball” that distracts from the real issues.

District officials have cast the impasse as a funding problem. But at its heart, the standoff between L.A. Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles is a struggle over the future of public education.

Consider the conditions within the district. Class sizes often exceed 45 students in secondary schools; 35 students in upper elementary grades; and 25 students in lower elementary grades.

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The district does not have nearly enough counselors, psychologists or librarians to give students the support they need, and 80% of schools don’t even have full-time nurses. Unnecessary standardized testing is pushing the arts and ethnic studies out of the curriculum.

The standoff between L.A. Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles is a struggle over the future of public education.

Parents have little say over how funding is spent at their schools. Charter schools, which are operated mostly by corporate chains, have expanded by 287% over the last 10 years, draining more than $600 million from non-charter schools every year. Salaries for educators are low compared to surrounding districts, a significant disadvantage as L.A. Unified tries to recruit and retain teachers during a national shortage.

With the vast majority of our students coming from low-income neighborhoods of color, there is no way to describe the persistence of such conditions other than racial discrimination.

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Working together with parents, the teachers union has put forward proposals to address many of these issues. Over 20 months of negotiations, the district has responded with inadequate counter-proposals.

Meanwhile, Beutner has moved ahead with what we believe is his agenda to dismantle the district. Through an outside foundation, he has brought on firms that have led public school closures and charter expansion in some districts where they have worked, from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. This approach, drawn from Wall Street, is called the “portfolio” model, and it has been criticized for having a negative effect on student equity and parent inclusion.

It is for many of these reasons that 98% of L.A. Unified’s educators voted to authorize a strike. Parents are actively supporting the teachers. There were many parents among the estimated 50,000 people who attended the UTLA March for Public Education on Dec. 15.

Beutner has attempted to narrow the issues mainly to salary. Educators will not be bought off. We need a host of improvements for our students.

Beutner has also said that the district doesn’t have reserves that will last longer than two to three years. The reality is that L.A. Unified had a reserve of $1.86 billion at the end of the 2017-18 school year. Its latest budget documents show the reserve growing to $1.97 billion in the 2018-19 school year.

The district warns about a fiscal cliff, but its warnings ring hollow. Three years ago, district officials projected that the 2017-18 reserve would be $105 million. They were off by more than $1.7 billion.

L.A. Unified has also overestimated its spending on books and other supplies over the last five years to the tune of hundreds of millions, meaning more money is available. The district has also failed to collect the full amounts owed by charters that are located on its campuses.

My colleagues and I agree with Beutner on at least one thing: The real long-term solution is for Sacramento to increase statewide school funding. It is downright shameful that the richest state in the country ranks 43rd out of 50 when it comes to per-pupil spending.

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We have been working to change this. Beutner should help by supporting legislation to close the carried interest loophole, which has allowed hedge fund managers to inappropriately classify income as capital gains. This could bring hundreds of millions to schools annually.

He should also build support among the wealthy for Schools and Communities First, which closes the corporate loophole in Proposition 13 and could bring up to $5 billion in new annual funding to public schools. This is on the 2020 ballot.

United Teachers Los Angeles’ struggle for a fair contract is just one part of a broader movement for students, families and schools. We will engage in whatever talks are possible before Jan. 10 to avert a strike. But for talks to be successful, the district needs to commit to improve public schools.

I have taught in Compton and at Crenshaw High School. I have been in my own children’s classrooms. And I have visited hundreds of other schools. There is wonderful promise in the students at all of our schools. But although they are surrounded by wealth, students across the city are not getting what they deserve.

Enough is enough. Invest in our students now.

Alex Caputo-Pearl is president of United Teachers Los Angeles. He is an LAUSD parent and previously taught for 22 years in the Compton and Los Angeles school districts.

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