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Four Days In: Protest, Publicity and the Fight for Public EducationEXPAND
Ted Soqui

Four Days In: Protest, Publicity and the Fight for Public Education

In the first three days of L.A.’s historic teacher strike, the battle over the future of the city’s public schools raged on in competing press conferences, school and LAUSD site picket lines, boisterous rallies — and across social media platforms, where parents and teachers vented frustrations with district leadership.

Wednesday was another cold, rainy day, and again tens of thousands took to the streets wearing “red for ed,” conveying a message of solidarity and conviction. That message was beamed back — from local elected leaders, other unions, state lawmakers, celebrities and passers-by. By Wednesday night, the teachers union announced the district was ready to return to the bargaining table the next day, this time with Mayor Eric Garcetti mediating.

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A few prominent op-eds notwithstanding, the district has fared sort of miserably in the battle for hearts and minds, with LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner increasingly cast as an agent of nefarious capitalist greed. LAUSD's attempts to co-opt public sentiment drummed up by the teachers and paint the district as a hamstrung ally fell flat.

Meanwhile, teachers long frustrated with deteriorating conditions but unable to fight off charter encroachment, ballooning class sizes and dire understaffing were having a moment, suddenly center stage in a righteous crusade for the future of public education — one with profound political nerves and increasing popular appeal.

Even Dolores Huerta walked the picket line with her grandson. Talk about optics.

Speaking at a UTLA press conference in front of his alma mater, Alexander Hamilton High School, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz on Wednesday vowed to fight the “unbridled growth” of charter schools.

“Is this going to bankrupt the district? Is this going to end public education in L.A.? I don’t think we know. But it’s certainly a huge danger,” Koretz said, calling for a moratorium on charter schools. “I fear that charter schools could destroy this district. So, I’m not going to let that happen as an L.A. City Councilmember. I’m going to push the school board to get back to the table, and I’m going to ask them to halt this growth of charter schools.”

While UTLA rallies were animated by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten’s fiery rhetoric as well as music and celebrity appearances, the district tried to manage its narrative in a series of grim press conferences. Straining to project an image of open schools as a “safe haven” for its most vulnerable students, at a Tuesday afternoon press conference, LAUSD touted increased attendance during the strike (up 15,000 from Monday to nearly 160,000, out of around 600,000 total; Wednesday it dropped to 132,411). And in an effort to flip the script, it brought in service workers and parents to speak on its behalf.

“The teachers are on strike and not concerned about the children because their children are in private schools, Catholic schools or charter schools,” said LAUSD parent Adela Chavez, describing her fear for her children’s safety in a South L.A. neighborhood rife with gang activity.

On social media, such messaging efforts were roundly met with disgust and dismay from parents, who continue to call for Beutner’s resignation, and counter the narrative of “business as usual” inside schools, where they claim students have been loosely supervised and parked in front of movies or handouts in lieu of instruction. UTLA, in turn, pointed to about 80 percent support among L.A. County families (per a Loyola Marymount survey).

Meanwhile, the embattled superintendent suggested lawmakers showing solidarity with teachers focus on “green for ed,” volleying the financial onus back to the state, which provides a majority of LAUSD funding. To the mayor’s suggestion that the district extend funding beyond projected deficits, he retorted: “If Mr. Garcetti wants us to take that leap of faith, perhaps the city can backstop it.”

That may not happen, but under increasing pressure, district reps have been more energetic about floating alternative funding sources — including from the county (which just approved $10 million for mental health counselors), the state and property tax reform.

View from the street
Out in the streets of downtown and at school sites, teachers recounted their own experiences in their classrooms, expressed frustration with how the media covered the issues, and reported feeling increasing community support.

Virginia Gandera, a third-grade teacher at Micheltorena Elementary School, recalled the last teachers strike, 30 years ago, when she first started.

“Now I see more parent involvement, more support for teachers. Back then, it was just teachers out here. It was like, ‘Oh, you teachers want more money,'” Gandera recalled. Now, she said, parents are showing up to join her on the picket line each day.

She remembered a time when there was a nurse on-site every day of the week; when there was money for pencils, tissue paper and glue, and parents didn’t have to donate money for copy paper. Now the librarian is there four days a week but only every other week, and the nurse only comes on Thursdays.

“Our resources are diminishing every year," Gandera said. "The district used to pay for the music teacher, for the nurses. Now it has to come from each school’s budget. So it’s like we can’t buy supplies because we want an art teacher, a nurse. The budget is all student enrollment. When I started it was over 1,500 students and there were lots of supplies. Now it’s 400.”

Christina Oseguera, a third-grade teacher at Woodlake Elementary, an affiliated charter school, also cited inadequate staffing — including a nurse only one day a week, paid for out of the school’s own budget, a librarian that parents pay, and the need for counselors.

“More and more students these days need psychological help or being able to talk just because of our society, the turmoil they’ve been through. We have a lot of homeless students, students who live below the poverty line. Those students, those are the people we’re fighting for,” Oseguera said.

As a pupil services and attendance (PSA) counselor with the district, Ashley Brown provides exactly that kind of help.

“Beutner does not like my position — he doesn’t think it’s necessary,” Brown said. “What I do is monitor attendance. So if kids are missing, I go find them. I help bring them back into schools, I help them get resources to stay in school. … I help homeless students find housing. I work with our homeless counselors. So there’s a lot of different aspects to what I do.

“They want to downsize the position; there’s been talks of too many counselors, language like that. So that’s why I’m out here.” As she boarded a bus to take her from the rally back to her school site, she added, “And when I go do classroom visits, it’s so overcrowded that there’s not enough seats for the kids.”

Brent Smiley, a 23-year LAUSD veteran who teaches American history at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, described the impact of overcrowding on his classes.

“I have 42 kids in my first-period class, and my smallest class is 39 kids. … It takes me about 15 hours to grade one essay, because I’m seeing over 200 kids a day. When I used to see 160 — I mean, that’s huge. I can’t give them the quality instruction they deserve,” Smiley said.

His daughter, Maya, 15, a student at Grover Cleveland High School, said, “For me, being on the picket line — I hope a lot of kids are doing (this), because I’m sitting with 42 kids in my math class. Nothing is getting done.

Brent Smiley said, “The nurses are given to us one day a week … so we can buy paper or we can have a nurse. And the counselors, sometimes it’s 750 kids per counselor. Those are the issues — it isn’t the money.”

Smiley, recalling walking the picket line (at age 5) with his mother, a teacher, in ’79, said, “It’s weird, because it’s the same fight.” But this time, axing a clause that allows the district to unilaterally override contractual class-size caps is a priority.

“We’ve got to get them to change that from being a unilateral decision of the school board to a bilateral decision where they have to sit with us and answer our questions, every year,” Smiley said. “We’re not going back in until we get a deal that allows us to do this.”

Some, like Andrew Skomra, a second-grade teacher at Ivanhoe Elementary, reported strong parent support.
“We have a tremendous parent body at this school and they’ve been so proactive in organizing amongst themselves and supporting the teachers, and sort of chipping away at the false information that LAUSD has been posting on their own website,” he said Tuesday as he stood in the rain with his two small children holding a sign in front of his school. “Our parents are fully supportive and you can tell because only eight kids out of 456 showed up today.”

Others, like Lorna Estrada, a fifth-grade teacher at Lemay Street Elementary, said they wished parents were better informed.

“I think there is a growing support, but maybe communication … between our parent groups may not be that great. There might be the opinion that it’s just inconvenient, but there’s a bigger picture. We want to let our families know that we’re out there fighting for their children,” Estrada said.

“All the creativity, instruction, academic content — it’s so much. We’re asked to do so much all the time. Our absence is going to be felt.”

Her colleague, Veronica Pepe, added, “Right now the media is saying we’re fighting for pay. That’s not true! I think some parents are not well informed.”

James Lopez, a 26-year LAUSD veteran, a UTLA chapter chair and kindergarten teacher at Logan Academy of Global Ecology in Echo Park, said the strike is a long time coming.

As one of the first public school sites to be co-located with a charter, Lopez called Logan a “ground zero” for the ensuing, unspoken competition. “This school was slated to be closed and swallowed by Gabriella [Charter Schools],” he said, adding that, when Logan’s test scores went up, that didn’t happen. The tension remained.

“Charters began under the idea we were going to give schools and teachers freedom to find innovative solutions. … The idea was they would almost function as labs, and whatever best practices came out would somehow influence the rest. That never happened,” Lopez said. “As soon as the strike is over … I’ve advocated for a co-location committee where parents, teachers and administrators have regular meetings. … We need to build capacity.”

But Lopez said the district squashed his efforts to hold a monthly UTLA parent-teacher meeting on campus.

“Every principal, they freak out. As soon as teachers start talking with parents, with no administrator, they get really nervous. ... In the district they get very uncomfortable the closer parents and teachers get. The better informed, the more communication. These parents will rise up.”

Lopez credits UTLA leadership with framing the struggle in a way that finally galvanized its ranks and won over the public. Just a few years ago, he said, many of the teachers now on strike were hardly so politically awakened.

“People better watch out if they get enlightened. Because if they get pissed, a big group of women — and it’s mostly women — it’s gonna be like the California nurses,” he said, with reverence.

Skomra, the Ivanhoe second-grade teacher, only two years into the profession, is swept up in the same movement as the veterans who have rationed glue, bought paper and overextended themselves for the last decade or longer.

“It’s a huge issue for younger teachers and people who are considering going into the teaching profession. LAUSD represents a larger trend of what’s happening in public education across the country. It’s bigger than just the teachers. It’s about getting the second largest school district to take the money that’s already there and spending on the future of public education,” he said.

“For me personally, it’s about giving me a future. That I can commit to this profession and I don’t have to worry about feeding my kids and living in this expensive city, on a teacher’s salary. And right now LAUSD is not giving us a ton of hope that they’re going to fully fund our schools. Not just this year or next but for the long run.”

Lopez also was looking ahead. “This fight right now is necessary. But I’m anxious for the fight after that. When we organize teachers for academic excellence. When we use union resources for kicking ass in the classroom.”

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