The L.A. strike is the latest teacher uprising in a string of walkouts across the country over the past year. Strikes took place in Republican strongholds including West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona last spring, all of them generally calling for increased funding and improved school conditions on top of better pay and benefits; smaller-scale walkouts also took place in Colorado and, just last month, Chicago, when teachers at a predominantly Latino charter-school network went on strike to demand things like smaller class sizes and stronger support for immigrant children. While the L.A. strike, which is United Teachers Los Angeles’s first strike in almost 30 years, is the latest installment of a trend driven by exasperated educators, various factors make it unique.
Read: The ripple effect of the West Virginia teachers’ strike
One distinction: the demographic makeup of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)’s teachers compared with the district’s student body. In Los Angeles, 73 percent of students are Latino and another 15 percent or so are other racial minorities. Latino educators account for 43 percent of LAUSD’s teaching force this school year, district data show, up from 41 percent the year prior, while their white counterparts make up 34 percent. (Black and non-Filipino Asian teachers each account for about 10 percent, while 3 percent of educators are Filipino and just under 1 percent are either Native American or Pacific Islander.)
These statistics are striking when compared with the national landscape: Of the millions of educators who teach in the country’s public schools—where more than half of the nearly 51 million students are children of color—a whopping 80 percent are white. And Los Angeles stands out even when compared with nearby districts such as San Diego Unified, where close to half of all students are Latino compared with only 18 percent of their teachers. Across California, a recent EdSource analysis found, the rate of Latino public-school teachers is half what it is in LAUSD.
Numerous Latino teachers repeatedly told me that a sense of solidarity with their students is what’s driving them to the picket lines—a profoundly personal connection to those children, and a fear that current school conditions are not serving them.
The sprawling school district is the United States’ second largest, enrolling nearly 600,000 K–12 students on close to 1,000 campuses that stretch across the metropolis and dozens of surrounding municipalities. As is the case with other large urban districts, the vast majority of LAUSD’s children are low-income, with more than eight in 10 of them relying on subsidized meals. The handful of LAUSD teachers I interviewed told me how much they relate to their students’ struggles as immigrants who lack documentation, or as impoverished kids who frequently find themselves homeless, or as traumatized children whose lives have been disrupted by gang violence. Rodolfo Dueñas, for one, lost both his brother and sister to gang violence when he was young. It’s impossible to say exactly how many LAUSD teachers relate to students’ lived experiences in this way, and how Los Angeles compares with other urban school districts in this regard, because such data don’t exist. However, both the state and district are actively engaged in diversity-focused teacher-recruitment initiatives—and LAUSD even offers its own accredited teacher-preparation program targeted at people who already live in the community in which they’d teach.