3 Reasons to Pay Attention to the L.A. Teacher Strike

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Striking teachers and their supporters rally in downtown Los Angeles on the second day of the teachers strike, on Jan. 15, 2019. Teachers of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest public school district in the United States, are striking for smaller class size, better school funding and higher teacher pay. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Erin McHenry-Sorber is an assistant professor of higher education at West Virginia University. She does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment. This was originally published in The Conversation.

The first mass teacher labor action of 2019 is unfolding in California as United Teachers Los Angeles walked out for the first time in 30 years.

This strike, which began on Jan. 14, isn’t just about what's going on in Los Angeles. Here are three reasons the nation should pay attention.

1. The L.A. case is different

The L.A. strike is a standout due to its sheer size.

With 640,000 students, and about 500,000 enrolled in the district’s public schools, Los Angeles represents the second-largest school district in the United States. It is second only to New York City.

The L.A. strike also involves 34,000 teachers.

To compare, the statewide 2018 teacher strike in West Virginia – where I am researching teacher strikes and teacher shortages – involved about 20,000 teachers and affected approximately 270,000 students.

Also, the political context is different. When West Virginia teachers walked out of the classroom, they were battling a conservative state legislature in a largely rural, majority-white state. Los Angeles is urban, far more diverse and located in a state that has voted mostly Democratic in presidential elections since 1992.

Los Angeles Unified School District’s student population is 73 percent Latino, 10.5 percent white, 8.2 percent black and 4.2 percent Asian. The district serves over 150,000 students and their first language is not English.

The situation for the L.A. teachers union is also different in several ways. For instance, it is engaged in an active fight against the rapid growth of charter schools. Los Angeles is home to 277 charter schools, the largest number of such institutions in the U.S.

Since 2008, the charter industry in Los Angeles has grown 287 percent. According to the L.A. teachers union, the charter schools are effectively siphoning away $550 million per year from the district’s traditional public schools.

The union argues that LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner is a pro-charter school superintendent with no education experience.

The teachers union has proposed greater transparency and more accountability for L.A. charter schools and has called for an immediate cap on charter school growth in the school district. The district has provided no counteroffer to these demands.

Teachers in Los Angeles have negotiated the current contract under dispute for over 20 months, and have been working without a contract for over a year.

This is not uncommon. For example, Oakland teachers in Northern California have been working without a contract for more than a year. A recent contract resolution following a Pennsylvania school district strike came after teachers worked without a contract for 3½ years.

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2. It’s not just about better pay

Like strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado and North Carolina, the Los Angeles teachers’ strike is essentially about greater investment in public education.

For L.A. teachers, this includes a 6.5 percent salary increase to make up for what the union calls “stagnant wages.”

The average teacher makes almost 19 percent less in wages than comparable workers. In California, specifically, this figure is about 15 percent. L.A. teachers make between $50,000 and $80,000 a year, but the cost of living in the city is so high that a two-bedroom apartment requires a six-figure income. This means many teachers have two, or in some cases, three jobs.

But beyond wages, teachers have begun to demand a greater commitment to investment in public education from their governing bodies, either school boards or state legislatures.

In Oklahoma, for example, striking teachers protested inadequate instructional materials, including outdated and deteriorating textbooks. In Los Angeles, striking teachers are demanding, among other things, a reduction in classroom sizes, which can be up to 46 students in some classrooms based on their current contract. Teachers argue the large class sizes make it difficult to meet the needs of their students.

They also want an increase in school nurses, librarians and counselors.

These issues get at the heart of student learning. Students need adequate supplies, individual teacher attention and access to mental health services, such as counselors, if they are expected to thrive in the classroom.

But the ability of public schools to provide for all of these instructional and social support needs has become increasingly difficult as states have continued to underfund their public education systems.

3. L.A. strike could spur other teacher strikes

The L.A. teachers strike suggests that the wave of teacher protests is not over.

Teacher strikes and work stoppages have been preceded by a nationwide teacher shortage that continues to grow across many states, which do not have enough certified math, special education, science and, in increasing cases, elementary teachers to meet the needs of their students.

In California, 80 percent of districts reported a teacher shortage in the 2017 to 2018 school year. Teacher shortages are most often blamed on low teacher pay, one of the commonalities across teacher strikes.

These shortages are arguably exacerbated by an increase in the “teacher pay penalty,” the term used to describe disparities in teacher salary compared to professions requiring comparable levels of education.

At the same time teachers find themselves increasingly undervalued, most states are still funding their public education systems at levels below that of the 2008 recession. This includes California, which ranked 41st nationwide in per pupil spending when adjusted for cost of living.

As long as public schools remain underfunded, the nation can expect to see more teacher strikes in other school districts and states in the near future.