“This Was About the Survival of Public Education”: LA Teachers Claim Victory After Week-Long Strike

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Public school teachers in Los Angeles are returning to classrooms today after approving an agreement to end a historic 6-day strike. The strike was the first in Los Angeles in three decades. It came after more than 20 months of strained negotiations between the union—United Teachers Los Angeles—and the school district. The strike effectively shut down Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second largest school district. On Tuesday morning, union leaders and Los Angeles city officials announced that they had reached a deal on a new contract. After a vote, the union announced Tuesday night that the contract had been approved by a supermajority of UTLA members. Included in the agreement are pay increases for teachers, additional support staff in schools, smaller class sizes and the regulation of charter schools. For more, we speak with the union’s bargaining committee chair, Arlene Inouye, as well as labor journalist and author Sarah Jaffe.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin the show in Los Angeles, where public school teachers are returning to school today after approving an agreement to end a historic 6-day strike. The strike was the first in Los Angeles in three decades. It came after more than 20 months of strained negotiations between the union—the United Teachers Los Angeles—and the school district. The strike effectively shut down Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second largest school district. On Tuesday morning, union leaders and Los Angeles city officials announced they had reached a deal on a new contract. This is Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI: I’m proud to announce that, pending approval by the teachers of—they’re represented by UTLA—and education professionals and the Board of Education, that we have an agreement that will allow our teachers to go back to work on their campuses tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: After a vote, the union announced Tuesday night the contract had been approved by a supermajority of UTLA members. Included in the agreement are pay increases for teachers, additional support staff in schools, smaller class sizes and the regulation of charter schools. Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, praised the striking teachers.

ALEX CAPUTO-PEARL: We have seen, over the last week, something pretty amazing happen. We went on strike, in one of the largest strikes that the United States has seen in decades. And the creativity and innovation and passion and love and emotion of our members was out on the street, in the communities, in the parks, for everyone to see. And I’m so proud of our members—classroom teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians, psychologists, early educators, adult educators—who took it upon themselves, in record numbers on picket lines, to express what we’ve all known but has been a truth hard to tell sometimes, which is that public education desperately needs attention, from the city, from the country, from the state.

AMY GOODMAN: Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner also spoke Tuesday at the news conference, explaining four key areas where an agreement had been reached.

AUSTIN BEUTNER: The first was to provide a fair 6 percent increase to all who work in schools. The second was to reduce class sizes, provide more support to educators in schools, more nurses, counselors and librarians. The third was to invest every nickel we have in our classrooms, while maintaining the fiscal solvency of Los Angeles Unified. And the last, probably the most important, is to strengthen the voice of educators and provide more opportunities for collaboration for all who work in our schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Arlene Inouye is chair of the bargaining team for United Teachers Los Angeles, or UTLA. She’s also the UTLA secretary. And Sarah Jaffe is with us here in New York, reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, formerly The Nation Institute. She’s author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Arlene Inouye, let’s begin with you. We see you in all of these images as the announcements were being made. Democracy Now! has just returned from Los Angeles. We went to the major rally right before the announcement, where firefighters had joined with the teachers in protesting. Talk about the agreement that was reached, the striking teachers voted for last night. What exactly did you achieve?

ARLENE INOUYE: Yes, thank you, Amy. This was a historic agreement and, actually, much—even gave us more than we had expected, although we had very, very strong demands, and we were clear that we had—these demands needed to be met. And they included, basically, investing in our students, a respect for educators and to stop the privatization of our schools.

So, specifically, we were able to lower class sizes by anywhere from up to seven, one to seven students in a class, depending on which kind of classroom you have, and to eliminate a provision that was in our contract that allowed the district to unilaterally increase class sizes. So, that’s out. And we were also able to get a nurse at every school five days a week, which was exactly what we asked for; more academic counselors, so that there’s a ratio of 500 to 1. We also asked for teacher librarians to be brought back into our middle and high schools, so that’s hiring of 41 additional teacher librarians. Mental health professionals—we were able to get funding for different sources so we can lower the ratio for psychiatric social workers, psychologists, pupil services attendance counselors. There were gains for a lot of our—the diversity of our unions, a lot of the different groups, such as substitutes, such as early educators, such as adult educators. We have bilingual education in there.

We have a provision to stop the—to allow for a charter cap to be introduced at the state level. We have a state law that allows unregulated charter schools to be, you know, started up anywhere, and it’s an unlimited number. So now we have a cap on that, and also, for the very first time, a co-location article in our contract, meaning that we’ve set—we put the educators involved in the process that allows charter schools to come onto our public school campuses and to take over the space that the district says is unoccupied. And this is a state law that’s been very difficult for L.A. Unified, because we have basically segregated campuses where we have charter schools on one side and our public school on the other hand. And sometimes the charter schools, very often, have lower class sizes. So, we’re able to compete with the charter schools by making our conditions better. We’re also able to put into the contract community schools, which is our alternative to charter schools. And that’s bringing the investments into the neighborhood school and allowing the parents, the educators and students to have a say in the curriculum, whether it’s music, art, dual language, ethnic studies, whatever it is that that community will be able to develop and be connected with parents.

So, this is our vision for public schools. And we are so excited that we’re able to move this vision forward and to address the unregulated charter school growth in L.A., which we’re ground zero for here. And we have over 270 unregulated charter schools. And we knew that this is about the survival of public education. It’s about the desperate resources we’ve needed in our classrooms. We’ve had classes, I think you’ve heard, you know, in the thirties in our elementary school, and forties and fifties and even sometimes sixties in our high school. We have kids sitting on window sills.

AMY GOODMAN: Sixty kids in a class?

ARLENE INOUYE: That’s correct. We do. We’ve documented, for example, the highest—you know, the hundred highest class sizes. We have secondary schools where they have a caseload of 500, 300 to 500 students on a caseload. That’s how many kids our educators see in a day.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to—

ARLENE INOUYE: So, these—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break.

ARLENE INOUYE: Go ahead, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: And then we’re going to come back to this discussion. Arlene Inouye, chair of the bargaining team for UTLA, United Teachers Los Angeles. Sarah Jaffe will also be joining us, who’s been writing about this strike. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll talk more about the message this is sending to others around the country about the privatization of education. Also, Denver teachers just voted to go on strike. They’ll be striking on Monday. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “People Have the Power” by Patti Smith. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, in New York right now, just flew in on the red-eye from Los Angeles. When we came into Los Angeles yesterday morning, we went to a rally of hundreds of teachers and firefighters from Los Angeles, from New York, as well, unions that had come in solidarity to support the striking teachers. We spoke with a number of those teachers and supporters just before the agreement was reached between United Teachers Los Angeles and the school district. Again, this was the first teachers’ strike in Los Angeles in 30 years. I began by speaking with teacher Marianne O’Brien.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about the school we’re standing outside of? And you’re a teacher. What grade do you teach? And why are you here?

MARIANNE O’BRIEN: So, we’re at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex. It’s made up of four schools. The school that we’re at is the Los Angeles School of Global Studies. And I’m a 10th grade English teacher.

AMY GOODMAN: And why are you out here?

MARIANNE O’BRIEN: We’re out here today for a number of reasons. I mean, we do want better resources for our school. We went a higher salary. We want smaller class size, less testing. But I think, ultimately, this fight is about the privatization of schools. We have a superintendent, Austin Beutner, who is right now pushing to privatize schools. And that’s a problem for us, because our students would be disproportionately hurt by that and not have access to a quality education, if all the funding for public school is pulled into charter schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how that works.

MARIANNE O’BRIEN: It’s not a private school; it’s a charter school. So, a charter school works in that it has more autonomy, so it would pull funding from public schools to make their own school. And that’s a problem. Because they have more autonomy, they’re allowed to choose which students get to go to their schools, and they’re allowed to kick out students. They’re also allowed to fire teachers. So, it’s a problem because they get to choose which students go into their schools, so they’re not going to choose the students who have IEPs, who are English learners. And those are the students who go to our—

AMY GOODMAN: IEP?

MARIANNE O’BRIEN: That’s special ed, Individualized Education Plan.

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s your name? And where do you teach? What do you teach?

LILIT AZARIAN: My name is Lilit Azarian. I also teach at the School of Global Studies with Marianne here. I teach mainly ninth graders now in an ethnic studies class.

And I’m not just here for myself. I’m out here for my kids, because they can’t fight for what they deserve. And what they deserve are fully funded community schools. If the community school isn’t the best school available, then that’s a problem, because the community school should be the school where every single student can come and get a quality education. So, what we’ve been doing is funneling money from community schools to establish a completely disparate system that enables certain individuals, certain families access to a quality education, at the expense of others.

And my students deserve the best. My students deserve the most of my time, the most of my energy, but they also deserve a nurse on campus every single day of the week. They deserve a fully stacked library. They deserve psychiatric social workers, as so many have already mentioned. Our students come in with a lot of trauma. They need to—those needs need to be addressed before they can be able to learn in my classroom. So, I’m out here for them. This isn’t about us. This is not about our pay. That is by far the least important of our demands. This is about our kids and what they deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the second largest school district in the country, and it’s 75 percent Latino?

LILIT AZARIAN: Yes. So, this is about fighting for, you know, communities of color, because those are the communities that are affected by this privatization that’s taken over. And unfortunately, it’s taken a strike to get attention to this really critical issue. I would much rather—all of us would much rather be in our classrooms with our kids right now. We’re out here because we feel like we have to, because this is the only way that we can make our voices heard, on behalf of our students.

AMY GOODMAN: Teachers at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, which houses four schools, right before the announcement came down that the teachers and the district had reached an agreement. The teachers voted on it last night, and more than 31,000 teachers will go back to school today.

Our guests are Arlene Inouye, chair of the bargaining team for UTLA and UTLA secretary—that’s United Teachers Los Angeles—and Sarah Jaffe of the Type Media Center, formerly The Nation Institute.

Sarah, you’ve been following this closely.

SARAH JAFFE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: This deep concern about the privatization of public education and the resources, public resources—

SARAH JAFFE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —being funneled to private corporations. And particular concern in the raff I repeatedly heard yesterday from the teachers expressed against the superintendent, Austin Beutner—

SARAH JAFFE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —who didn’t come from an education background but from a hedge fund.

SARAH JAFFE: Yeah, he’s a Wall Street guy, and he certainly became a big hate object for the teachers that I spoke to. There were so many “Austin Beutner’s got to go” chants. And also from parents and students, I should say. They definitely have a lot to say about Austin Beutner. He came in, seen as somebody who came in with a plan, which was to privatize the district, break it up into 32 portfolio districts, which is something like what they did in Newark with Cory Booker. And—

AMY GOODMAN: When he was mayor.

SARAH JAFFE: When he was mayor, yes. And so, the teachers, the students and the parents were angry enough at Austin Beutner to actually go to his house on Thursday evening and have a rally outside of his house and say, you know, “We have questions about privatization. We have questions about the gentrification of our city. We want to live in an affordable place that has public schools that everybody can access.” And they see him as an obstacle in this.

And one of the teachers last night that I spoke with retweeted one of my tweets about the press conference saying, “He still has to go.” So, they are not satisfied. And actually, there’s an interesting story to follow up on this, which is that there’s going to be a special school board election coming up very soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of that, what happened to the school board, how Superintendent Beutner was chosen.

SARAH JAFFE: Yeah, so the school board was elected in an election last year that had something like $14.7 million in outside funding spent on it by charter school advocates, big dollar hedge funds, things like that—the usual people that we see that roll into these places. So they got a majority of pro-charter school candidates on there. They put Beutner in.

And then one of the school board members—and Arlene, I’m sure, can talk much more about this—had to leave the board because of a scandal about campaign funding. So now there’s going to be a special election for his seat. The teachers have their candidate who’s going to be running. They have others that are going to be seen as more pro-charter school. And that’s going to be the next big fight, because, well, if the teachers want Beutner gone, that’s going to be the way to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Arlene Inouye, can you talk about the message that’s being sent and your particular struggle around the school board and what you want to see happen, how you see this whole debate around charter schools shaping up now that the strike has ended?

ARLENE INOUYE: Yes, Amy. I feel like this strike has sent a powerful message throughout the country, and even the world, that public educators are standing up for our schools, our students and for ourselves. You know, we’re looking at decades of cuts and the demonization of public schools and the school teachers who work in them. This has been years in the making. And the use of standardized tests to, you know, rank students, rank schools, close schools, privatize schools, we know this is the model that’s coming. And LAUSD had, through—with Austin Beutner, had the “reimagine LAUSD,” that we were very concerned about.

So, what we have done through this strike, through this new contract, is to say no to the privatization of schools, where we’re ground zero, and to say yes to investing in our public schools, because we believe it’s a foundation of our democracy and a civic institution, that every student needs a quality education. We have a higher percentage of special needs in L.A. Unified, because the charter schools do not take the same proportion or choose to not accept the neediest kids in our city. And we are, you know, 90 percent students of color, 82 percent poverty and free lunch program. We want to now invest in the students who have been stripped of a quality education. We’ve had the highest class sizes in the nation. We are 48 out of 50.

So, we are ecstatic that this turns—is a turnaround, a real clear shift in the direction of our school district. And, again, we are a union that four years ago set out on this path. This just didn’t happen, you know, the last 21 months when we’ve been in negotiations. But four years ago, we set down a path to organize our schools, to bring in parents and communities and to have a social justice agenda, an educational justice agenda for all of our students. And so, that’s why it is so exciting to us, is because we see in fruition this all coming to pass.

And this is what other unions across the nation, other teachers’ unions, are also fighting for, the same issues. You know, in different degrees, we have the same issues of the privatization of our schools and of the funding. So, we are part of this movement—

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to—

ARLENE INOUYE: —that began with Chicago—

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about the—

ARLENE INOUYE: —in 2012, and continues.

AMY GOODMAN: —the progressive Union Power caucus, Sarah, and the significance of it within the UTLA.

SARAH JAFFE: Yeah. So, like Arlene said, the movement that we have seen among teachers’ unions, really, we got a wind of it in Chicago, but there has been reform currents within the UTLA for at least a decade. Teachers told me about movements going back to the 2008 financial crisis, recession, the layoffs of a lot of teachers, the attempts to form a caucus really coming out of that, and, in 2014, becoming the Union Power caucus that took charge, that—with teachers like Arlene, with Alex Caputo-Pearl, that brought in things like an organizing department, a research department, a political department, that the union didn’t have before, and actually voted to raise their own dues in order to do those things. So, you know, in the post-Janus climate for public sector workers, we really should be looking at a union that, again, got teachers to vote to increase their own dues to invest in really becoming a fighting, organizing union.

And when we talk about this district, I was really struck by how geographically huge it is. Right? I live here in New York, which is the biggest school district in the country. But you could fit I don’t know how many New Yorks inside the 960 square miles of the L.A. Unified School District. So, when they got a 98 percent strike vote in this district, that takes three hours to drive across, they really had to build, from the bottom up, structures that got them in communication with every teacher in every school, in order to do this and then to pull off this strike, where pretty much every teacher went out.

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