If Los Angeles teachers walk off the job January 14, as widely expected, it will be a meta-strike with extremely high stakes not only for teachers, students and parents in L.A., but for public education across the U.S. The stalemated negotiations over wages, class size, staffing and other issues matter – but they are proxies for an epic fight that has been playing out in American school districts for more than a decade.
On one side of this divide are those who believe that public education as an institution should be preserved more or less in its current form, with a greater infusion of money to address chronic underfunding and understaffing. On the other side is an array of forces that want to radically restructure public schools, and who have made it clear they do not believe that the L.A. Unified School District in its current incarnation is worth investing in – or even preserving.
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) strike is the culmination of many years of conflict between charter schools supporters and public school advocates. The last time they had a strike was during the 1989 LAUSD teacher strike. A lot has changed since then. The 2019 LAUSD teacher strike will face opposition from an alliance of corporate executives and venture capitalists obsessed with expanding the charter school presence in California. They’ll also face a staggering amount of money privatization proponents used to purchase influence within the state’s Republican and Democratic parties. It’ll be an uphill battle all the way, but it’s a fight worth having.
Los Angeles, with it’s sprawling economic and racial diversity, has been ground zero for the fight between those who want to reinvest in public schools and those who want to privatize them. The district has long received criticisms for its high drop-out and expulsion rates, large class sizes, poor maintenance, and lackluster administration. The massive size of the school district has allowed metro leaders to conduct large-scale experiments with charters schools. In 2016-2017 some 107,000 of its approximately 735,000 students were enrolled in independent charter schools and magnet schools.
How have these experiments fared? It’s a mixed bag, and your conclusion is likely related to how you define success in public education. Consider the racial aspects of district’s charter and magnet school program:
LAUSD’s student population is nearly three-quarters Hispanic, but less than half of the students in its charter schools are Hispanic. Not surprisingly, the students who are comparably over-served by charter and magnet schools more than anyone else are white. It’s disturbing to see these discrepancies in a region with a growing nonwhite population, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that charter schools are becoming the West Coast’s version of segregation academies.
For their part, United Teachers Los Angeles (the teachers union) wants to invest more resources into the public school system. They don’t see the schools as inherently doomed to fail. Instead, they are going on strike to secure higher salaries to recruit and retain teachers, reduce the size of classes, and bring in more support staff including career counselors, social workers, librarians, school psychologists, and nurses—strategies based on evidence rather than ideology or capitalist greed.
While charter school proponents enjoy the financial support of corporate executives and their vanity philanthropies, the teachers have been successful in building grassroots community support for reinvestment and oversight of privately run charters. Charter school advocates were routed at the state level during the 2018 elections after they support Trump-backed John Cox after their preferred Democratic candidate, former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, was defeated in the gubernatorial primary. But this hasn’t lessened their resolve when it comes to taking over local school boards. In fact, philanthropies supported by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Walmart fortune scion Alice Walton, and other corporate leaders threw an unprecedented $8.5 million dollars behind “school choice” candidates in local school board elections—this was after they spent $23 million on Villaraigosa’s failed campaign for governor.
Just as Texas has an outsized influence on what makes it in textbooks, California has an outsized influence on how public education is structured, funded, and delivered in the United States. And California’s coziness with charter schools is like chum in the water for capitalists looking to turn schools into a durable revenue source.
Thankfully, venture capitalist-turned-education expert and Young Gary Busey lookalike Marshall Tuck was soundly defeated in the state education superintendent race last year. Less fortunately, the LA Board of Education inflicted Austin Beutner on the school district.
Austin Beutner, LAUSD’s superintendent, is nothing if not a proponent of radical restructuring. He was appointed to his post not because of his experience in education – he has never held a position in that field – but because he is a fervent advocate of an approach that has its roots in the private sector, where he spent the bulk of his career. Beutner made his considerable fortune in business, starting at the powerhouse private equity firm Blackstone and then co-founding the investment banking company Evercore Partners.
Selected by a divided school board in May, Beutner is now arguably the most powerful figure in the national movement to upend traditional public education. As head of the country’s second-largest school district, he is aggressively advancing a controversial blueprint that could make LAUSD almost unrecognizable.
So how do you think a private equity firm crony plans on reforming public schools? In the most predictable way ever:
Though Beutner has yet to unveil his proposal, he has tipped his hand in a big way with the hiring of consultant Cami Anderson, the former superintendent of Newark, New Jersey public schools. In Newark, Anderson pushed through a disruptive plan called the “portfolio model.” As the L.A. Times reported in November, under the portfolio model the district would be divided into 32 networks. These networks, observed reporter Bill Raden on this site, “would be overseen like a stock portfolio. A portfolio manager would keep the ‘good’ schools and dump the ‘bad’ by turning them over to a charter or shutting them down much like a bum stock. The changes in Newark included neighborhood school closures, mass firings of teachers and principals, a spike in new charters and a revolt by parents that drove out . . . Anderson.”
Ain’t government by corporate raiding grand?
If the teachers of LAUSD go on strike, don’t expect it to stay in LA County. Teachers all over California are already meeting to discuss ways they can show solidarity with their fellow educators. Underfunding and chartering are pulling resources away from public schools throughout the state, and teachers are getting tired of being told there’s nothing the state or local school boards can do about it.
“I am tired of being told that there isn’t enough money to pay teachers more or buy books for my colleague’s classrooms,” Deirdre Snyder, treasurer of the Oakland Education Association, told the crowd of educators at their Oakland gathering. “I am tired of being told that there isn’t enough money by Democrats who say that they support labor and human rights. We have work to do in California.”
. . .
At the gathering in Oakland, teachers stressed the need to frame disputes beyond their local districts.
Gonzalez, the Richmond teachers union president, said that looming teachers’ strikes in L.A. and Oakland are “not just to fight for what’s right in Oakland (and Los Angeles), but about public education in California.”
My heart is with them.