STORY UPDATE: After the factfinding report was released on December 18, UTLA announced it will go on strike January 10.

A Red-for-Ed wave rolled through downtown Los Angeles on December 15 as tens of thousands of members and supporters of United Teachers Los Angeles protested large class sizes, low pay, over-testing, a shortage of school nurses and other support staff, and the unregulated growth of charter schools.

UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl accused L.A. Unified’s pro-charter school board of “intentionally starving our schools while they are banking a historic budget surplus of nearly $2 billion.”

The money is there, the rainy day is now, and our kids deserve the investment. If we are forced to take dramatic action, it will be to save our schools.

The second largest education union in the nation staged the massive rally after 20 months of fruitless negotiations with Superintendent Austin Beutner. Unless LAUSD reaches an agreement with the union by year’s end, Caputo-Pearl told the overflow crowd in Grand Park, nearly 40,000 teachers will strike in mid-January.

“The money is there, the rainy day is now, and our kids deserve the investment,” he said. “If we are forced to take dramatic action, it will be to save our schools.”

Teacher demands include salary increases retroactive to July 2017, when the last contract expired; more nurses, counselors, social workers and librarians; less student testing; accountability for charter schools; and more community schools.

“More than 80 percent of LAUSD schools don’t have a full-time nurse – class sizes are among the largest in the state,” Caputo-Pearl proclaimed. 

Beutner, meanwhile, is working on a plan to break up the 900 LAUSD schools into 32 “portfolios” that regional headquarters would oversee, while slashing central office resources.

Details of the plan haven’t been released, but consulting firms working on the project are reportedly being paid by the Fund for Equity and Excellence, a group funded by Eli Broad and other wealthy philanthropists determined to privatize public education.

“The superintendent is a businessman who thinks his role is to save money. It’s not,” said Juan Ramirez, UTLA’s AFT vice president. “This is a school district, not a corporation, and our job is to provide all our students an excellent education.”

Impasse in bargaining was declared months ago, and UTLA members authorized a strike by a solid 98-2 percent margin in August. After a fact-finding panel releases its non-binding report in a few weeks, the district can impose its last, best and final proposal. Union members can then strike.

The union has strong support from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a national coalition of educators, parents, and community groups. Parents and coalition numbers shut down the board of education meeting in the week leading up to the rally.

“Parents are almost 100 percent behind us,” Ramirez said, “and now community leaders are getting involved.”

Adult education teacher Bob Yorgason came to the rally with two dozen coworkers from the Venice Skill Center, including staff represented by SEIU Local 99. Yorgason’s ESL students also attended.

LAUSD operated the second largest adult education program in the country, serving more than 400,000 students annually, until massive cuts during the Great Recession. Now, Yorgason said, charter schools are co-locating on remaining campuses.

The superintendent is a businessman who thinks his role is to save money. It’s not. This is a school district, not a corporation, and our job is to provide all our students an excellent education.

“Charters want to take over our skill centers and occupational sites to set up their schools,” he said. “They are going to kill us.”

Irene Serna teaches at Harbor Teacher Preparatory, a STEAM high school housed on the L.A. Community College District’s Harbor campus. Issues that hit closest to home for Serna are reducing class sizes and hiring more nurses and psychologists.

“I’m not worried about how a strike might affect me,” Serna said, “but I am concerned how a strike might disrupt the kids. I teach a lot of seniors, and this will be their last semester. They already have finals, college applications and admissions, and so many other things to worry about.”

Many picket signs referred to teacher strikes this year in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona, and Washington. UTLA marchers also drew strength from Tony Thurmond’s David-versus-Goliath election as California’s superintendent of public instruction in November.

“Tony Thurmond won against $34 million from the privatizers,” Caputo-Pearl said, then drew a connection to the upcoming election to fill a key seat on the school board this March.

UTLA is endorsing former Assemblymember and L.A. City Council Member Jackie Goldberg in a crowded field to replace the head of the board’s charter advocates, Ref Rodriguez. Critics called for Rodriguez to resign when he was indicted for violating campaign finance laws, but he stayed until the board could narrowly vote to hire Beutner. The race is likely to be decided in a May run-off election.

-Steve Weingarten, CFT Reporter