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Los Angeles Teachers Stay Strong; Win Improvements

Friday, January 25th, 2019

Less than a month into 2019, the teachers of Los Angeles have proven that last year’s wave of collective action isn’t quieting down. After taking to the streets in a strike that has captured the country’s imagination, members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) are returning to classrooms today after overwhelmingly approving a paradigm-shifting contract that delivers on key demands.

For six days, more than 30,000 UTLA teachers went on strike to shine a light on the daily realities of a neglected and underfunded public school system. They demanded better, and by standing together, they won it. Here are just a few critical improvements in UTLA’s new contract:

  • A much-deserved 6% pay raise with no contingencies;
  • A nurse in every school five days a week;
  • A teacher librarian in every secondary school five days a week;
  • Hard caps on class size that will go into effect immediately in 2019–2020, with additional improvements every year after;
  • A commitment to reduce testing by 50%;
  • Hard caps on special education caseloads; and
  • A clear pathway to cap charter schools.

“For too long teachers have lived with a hard truth to tell—that for years our students were being starved of the resources they need,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl following the vote. “Our expectations were fundamentally raised by this strike. Together, we said we deserve better, our students deserve better. We must keep our expectations high and not let go of this moment, because the next struggle is right around the corner.”

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on January 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

L.A. Teachers on What Was Won—And Which Battles Are Next

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

Following a six-day teachers’ strike over inadequate public-school funding, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) reached a tentative agreement Tuesday. While tallies haven’t yet been released, UTLA has confirmed that teachers voted in favor of the contract and, as of Wednesday, have returned to their classrooms.

The agreement, which was preceded by a nearly 21-month bargaining period, reverses some of the trends the union was protesting, including bloated class sizes, insufficient staffing of nurses and counselors, excessive standardized testing and a lack of resources for special education. (UTLA’s protests, including the strike, were largely the product of a reform movement among educational unions nationwide.)

It also calls for a greater reckoning with charter schools: publicly funded, privately operated schools boosted primarily by wealthy financiers and executives. UTLA members rebuke these schools for siphoning funding from public schools and view a pro-charter district agenda as the cause of the aforementioned problems.

The new contract would restrict school privatization, calling on California to establish a cap on charter schools. It also states that Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti will endorse the Schools and Communities First ballot initiative, which will ostensibly redirect $11 billion per year to California schools, community colleges, health clinics and other local institutions.

In These Times spoke to five teachers from five different LAUSD schools. While most of them contend that more could have been won, these rank-and-file members overwhelmingly consider the new terms an improvement and a testament to the power of strikes.

“I am pleased with the agreement for several reasons,” second-grade teacher and rank-and-file UTLA member Traci Rustin told In These Times. “I think we started a conversation about charter schools among those members of the community and UTLA who had not previously given it much thought.”

Rustin and some other teachers, however, found the vote bittersweet, arguing that while they’re eager to return to work, the proposed terms should have included more aggressive changes. The agreement prevents the district from “unilaterally ignor[ing]” all class sizes and promises a gradual reduction of class size—which routinely exceeds 40—over the next four years, imposing maximums of 39 students for English and math courses in secondary schools. While the change marks an improvement, some remain frustrated.

“There are classes with 45 students in them. Do we really think that 41 students, three years from now will be acceptable? Absolutely not!” a kindergarten teacher in West Los Angeles who wished to remain anonymous told In These Times. “I am glad that the school district cannot come in and change that on a whim, like they were initially trying to do. … But the reduction isn’t enough.”

The 2019-2020 school year will see additional full-time teacher librarians and counselors for secondary schools, and nurses for all schools. By the 2020-2021 school year, theoretically, each school will be equipped with one nurse, five days a week. In the 2014-2015 school year, California ranked below all other states in student-to-librarian ratios, while nearly 40 percent of LAUSD schools were staffed with a nurse only one day a week, according to UTLA.

Still, the proposed staff-to-student ratios continue to worry some. “I don’t think that having a ratio of 500 students to one counselor is acceptable,” said the kindergarten teacher. “Yes, the district is giving us 17 more counselors to meet that ratio, finally, but a 500 to 1 ratio for mental health is not showing our students that we’re there for them.”

“It’s a little disheartening to realize that we’ve gained no ground on school psychologists and librarians for elementary schools,” added fourth-grade teacher Anavelia Valencia.

To address the issue of rampant standardized testing, UTLA has also vowed to establish a committee with LAUSD to cut testing in half—a move teachers overwhelmingly approve. Teachers will also receive a retroactive raise of three percent for the 2017-2018 school year, as well as an additional three percent retroactive raise dating from July 1, 2018. While educators emphasize that their salaries are a low-level concern, the raises come at a time when many California teachers can scarcely afford to rent or buy a home, yet don’t qualify for public housing.

The contract also ensures a number of changes designed to bolster students’ wellbeing. Schools will curtail “random” searches of students—a practice that has elicited strong criticism for targeting and criminalizing Black, Latinx and Muslim students. Schools will also plan to replace some of their industrial environs—bungalows, asphalt—with plant life, which has been shown to have therapeutic effects. Furthermore, according to the agreement, the district will provide an attorney for immigrant families as part of an Immigrant Defense Fund initiative.

While teachers find many of these changes promising, the circumstances surrounding voting were somewhat contentious. Because UTLA teachers learned of the contract the same day they were expected to vote, “several members were upset about voting so quickly,” said Rustin. “I wouldn’t have minded having an extra day to vote, but I also understand the need to return to work ASAP.” Relatedly, some organized impromptu meetings to discuss the contract and the merits of voting either way.

Whatever the outcome of the new terms, teachers agree much more work remains on the local, state and national levels—especially as educators in Denver and Oakland are preparing for potential strikes in response to public-school funding issues—and are returning to the classroom intent on keeping the struggle alive. In the meantime, they look forward to a fairer—and more galvanized—labor landscape. “The future of public education depends on making informed decisions about charter schools versus community schools,” said Rustin. “We were successful in calling attention to this.”

“Teachers have been beat down,” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said at a press conference on Tuesday night. “One of the things we’re most proud of is that this campaign… had our members say, ‘I deserve better.’”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

Here’s Why LA Teachers Are Walking Out in a Historic Strike

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

After nearly two years of bargaining, public-school teachers in Los Angeles have initiated a strike in protest of their district’s policies. Starting today, teachers are picketing outside of their workplaces, underscoring an inveterate lack of investment in public schools made worse by a pro-charter-school “austerity agenda.”

From April of 2017 to January of this year, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA)—which represents more than 35,000 teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—had been in negotiations with the district, and eventually reached an impasse. The union’s proposals address grievances including preferential funding for charter schools, and such related problems as inflated class size, inadequate support for special and bilingual education, and excessive standardized testing.

The strike is the culmination of a protracted battle against the de facto privatization brought on by the growth of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated—that is, independent of local school board regulations. In Los Angeles County, charter-school enrollment has risen 35.7 percent since 2012 to 2013, rendering the county, among dozens of others in California, one of the fastest-growing hubs of charter-school education.

In recent years, Los Angeles charter-school advocates have generated unprecedented financing: Pro-charter groups, for example, were responsible for more than two-thirds of the $14.3 million in campaign spending in a May, 2017, LAUSD school board election. That election saw pro-charter candidates clinch a majority and, the following year, appoint former investment banker and deputy mayor Austin Beutner as superintendent.

Much of this growth can be attributed to charters currying favor with Wall Street and Silicon Valley as grounds for tax breaks, real-estate investments, and business opportunities. In Los Angeles specifically, charter schools have become the pet projects of prominent billionaires, including Netflix chief Reed Hastings and real-estate developer and financier Eli Broad.

UTLA contends that the political climate of the school board has stripped traditional public schools of funding. A 2016 report commissioned by the union found that charters had siphoned $591 million from traditional public schools. The union also says that the district has $1.86 billion in “unrestricted” reserves, which UTLA claims can be used to fund LAUSD’s public schools. Beutner argues that the reserve funds exist, but are already being spent.

According to UTLA treasurer Alex Orozco, there’s no evidence the reserve funds have been spent, and the current distribution of funds has bred untenable student-to-teacher ratios. Orozco told In These Times that he visits schools with average class sizes in the 40s—a number that LAUSD’s own statistics for middle- and high-school classes confirm.

Beutner responded to these concerns via an article in the Los Angeles Times, proposing “to add teachers and reduce class size at 15 middle schools and 75 elementary schools in communities that have the highest needs.” UTLA holds that this falls short. “You can just feel the disrespect,” Orozco said. “The proposal that he put out addressed class size, which in the 16 months that we were in negotiations, not once did they address class size. But they addressed class size at the bare minimum, which is focusing on our neediest schools.”

Availability of essential personnel outside the classroom, including nurses, librarians, counselors and school psychologists, has also been compromised. For the 2014 to 2015 fiscal year, California ranked as the worst state in student-to-teacher librarian ratios. Meanwhile, California suffers a troubling shortage of school nurses. UTLA maintains that nearly 40 percent of LAUSD public schools have a nurse for only one day a week. According to Orozco, many schools are forced to pay out of pocket for a nurse.

This scarcity disproportionately affects students with disabilities and special needs, who may benefit from more regular visits. After appointments, nurses and school psychologists “are spending a lot of time doing paperwork,” says special-education teacher and UTLA rank-and-file member Allison Johnson. “So if they’re only there one day a week, then how much time are they actually getting to provide care for the students?”

Johnson’s concerns raise questions about the district’s support for students who depend on accommodations for disabilities, language barriers, and other needs. Traditional public schools are legally required to provide for these students. Charter schools, however, aren’t held to the same standards. A report from the Los Angeles Board of Education found that, as of 2014, the percentage of total LAUSD charter students with severe disabilities was less than one-third that of traditional district schools.

Another symptom of charterization, UTLA says, is an excess of standardized testing. According to UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl, the district requires up to 18 discretionary standardized tests—despite mounting nationwide criticism of standardized testing—in addition to those mandated by the federal and state governments. Orozco told In These Times that these tests are administered so frequently in order to generate school performance data, which can be leveraged into justifications for charter models.

Tests “make it very easy for the charters to come and privatize our schools based on this data that was collected by these exams that really are not necessary,” he said. “We want our teachers to be able to use their professional judgment and assess the kids in many other different ways.”

When contacted for comment, LAUSD referred In These Times to its website, which includes the following statement: “We hear our teachers and want to work with them. Los Angeles Unified and teachers agree—smaller class sizes, more teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians in schools would make our schools better. We know teachers deserve to be paid more and a working environment where kids can have the best possible education.”

In addition to its class-size reduction proposal, LAUSD has offered a six-percent pay raise to teachers, back pay for the 2017 to 2018 year, and no changes to their health benefits. In anticipation of a strike, the district has already hired 400 non-union substitute teachers for its more than 600,000 students.

Still, UTLA, frustrated by “20 months of fruitless bargaining and lies and manipulation,” as well as Beutner’s and other criticism in the media of the educators for their demands and decision to strike, feel this is far from enough. Echoing the concerns of many of her colleagues, Johnson argues that while a strike isn’t ideal, teachers have been left with no choice.

“It’s not about the raise,” she said. “People are mad. They want things to change. They want the profession to be respected and to have what we need to be able to function as educators.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

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