Complaints of LA teachers echo demands from other walkouts
By CAROLYN THOMPSON
The setting is different, but the complaints of teachers who are out on strike in Los Angeles are echoing those heard in walkouts nationwide.
Unlike protests that closed schools last spring in states including West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona, the strike that began Monday is unfolding in a liberal-leaning state and one of the country's biggest cities.
But it highlights common challenges facing educators across the country. Public education funding in many states has not returned to levels seen before the Great Recession, schools are facing teacher shortages tied to low pay and the pressures of standardized testing and teacher evaluations, and the rise of alternatives to traditional public schools is blamed for eroding already scarce resources.
"On one level, what you see is teachers getting courage from other teachers in other states. We saw that this past spring," University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black said. "But all of them were experiencing conditions that, in their own right, did not require outside inspiration."
A look at some of the issues:
Six years after the 2009 end of the Great Recession, California was among 29 states still providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which analyzed spending data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Arizona, Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma cut income tax rates in recent years, further straining finances in an age of more stringent learning standards.
In 2016, California spent $11,495 per pupil. That was up nearly 10 percent from the previous year but still just under the national average and about half of what the highest spending state - New York - committed.
Union leaders say it has left schools without enough nurses, librarians, psychologists and counselors. About 80 percent of the district's schools lack a full-time nurse, United Teachers Los Angeles said.
Teachers who were among the nation's worst-paid educators - with average salaries in the low- to mid-$40,000s - came out of the spring walkouts with wins.
Oklahoma teachers were promised an average $6,100 raise. Arizona teachers won a 20 percent raise over three years, and West Virginia teachers, the first to walk out in a movement that would coalesce under the #RedForEd banner, secured a 5 percent boost in pay.
California ranks among the top states for average teacher salaries but also for cost of living.
In Los Angeles, where the average home price of more than $600,000 dwarfs the national average, teachers earn between $44,000 and $86,000 a year depending on their education and experience, according to the Los Angeles County Office of Education.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has offered a 6 percent raise over the first two years of a three-year contract. The union wants a 6.5 percent raise at the start of a two-year contract.
An April poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Americans overwhelmingly believe teachers don't make enough money, a finding borne out by the Economic Policy Institute, which measured an 11 percent weekly pay gap between teachers and similarly educated professionals.
Los Angeles teachers are sharing stories of students sitting on window sills or the floor of overcrowded classrooms.
"Amidst the wealth of LA, we shouldn't have classes with more than 45 students," union President Alex Caputo-Pearl said.
Last year, social media posts from Oklahoma teachers who didn't have enough chairs for their students gave the public a glimpse into classrooms with 30 students or more. That's about double the number recommended in a 2016 report by the National Education Policy Center, which found class size affected student outcomes.
The LA district said its latest contract offer includes $100 million to add nearly 1,000 additional teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians in 2019-20 and reduce some class sizes.
Los Angeles is experiencing the same tension over charter schools seen in Arizona and elsewhere, with critics arguing the privately run public schools hurt district finances by drawing away students and the funding that goes with them. Caputo-Pearl has called the money flowing to charters an "existential threat."
"What you are facing here in Los Angeles is part of the same playbook we've seen in place after place, year after year," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said while protesting with Los Angeles teachers last month. "Starve the schools to create a crisis, go after teachers, and hand over control to those who want to run schools like a business rather than invest in what our kids need."
District Superintendent Austin Beutner has said he envisions moving toward an education system with public and charter schools under the same leadership.
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