Photo: AP

Last year, a string of teachers strikes galvanized people across the country and won fights for education in multiple states. Now, the uprising has made its way into 2019. Teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the U.S., are preparing to strike. This could mean a massive upheaval affecting a network of 900 schools, 30,000 teachers and more than half a million students.

Los Angeles Unified District students return from winter break today, with their teachers present. But if a resolution isn’t reached between the union and the district, teachers will go on strike on Thursday.

As in many of the strikes last year, this step comes after months of failed negotiations between the union and the district, according to the New York Times. The teachers’ demands include higher pay, smaller classes, more support staff like librarians and counselors, and restricting the amount spent by the district on charter schools.

Many of the strikes last year took place in conservative states like West Virginia and Oklahoma. Los Angeles teachers have a stronger union than many of those districts, so their strike will look more traditional than some of those last year, in which teachers broke with union leadership and sometimes defied state laws.

“California has been underfunding its schools for many, many years,” Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at the UCLA, told the Times.

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“It’s not even close to where we should be,” Noguera added. “I would not say that the state has deliberately starved the schools, but there has been no leadership from the state.”

The crisis impacting California’s public schools is nothing new. In fact, the root of the problem goes all the way back to 1978.

From the Times:

Many observers say the state’s property tax law is the major culprit for chronic funding shortages in large urban school districts. In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, which capped property taxes and drastically limited what the state could bring in for public schools. The law means that smaller affluent suburban communities can raise money for their schools with local bonds or parcel taxes much more easily than poorer urban districts, including Los Angeles.

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The state now only spends about $11,000 per year per child on education, about half the amount New York spends.

Funding isn’t the only issue. As wealthier families choose publicly funded, privately operated charter schools or go straight to private schools, Los Angeles schools have become some of the most racially segregated in the country.

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed on Sunday, Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s main union, laid out the case the teachers are making:

The district does not have nearly enough counselors, psychologists or librarians to give students the support they need, and 80% of schools don’t even have full-time nurses. Unnecessary standardized testing is pushing the arts and ethnic studies out of the curriculum.

Parents have little say over how funding is spent at their schools. Charter schools, which are operated mostly by corporate chains, have expanded by 287% over the last 10 years, draining more than $600 million from non-charter schools every year. Salaries for educators are low compared to surrounding districts, a significant disadvantage as L.A. Unified tries to recruit and retain teachers during a national shortage.

With the vast majority of our students coming from low-income neighborhoods of color, there is no way to describe the persistence of such conditions other than racial discrimination.

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Austin Beutner, the district superintendent, says that the district can not meet the union’s demands without bankrupting itself.

“We need to be working ourselves out of a hole,” he told the Times. “I have yet to understand how a strike is going to get us there.”

But teachers say their demands are based on what they need to keep doing their jobs.

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“Pretty much everyone at my age owns things, a home or a condo or something, and for me to get that I’d have to commute an hour and a half every day,” Los Angeles teacher Amy Owen told the Times. “If you looked at my salary just as a number I would be doing well in many places. But in L.A. I am just barely middle class. I understand that teaching is not a profession where you are going to make a lot of money, but we deserve some basic respect.”