Alessandro Niculescu, 10, holds up a sign in the rain on the first day of the Los Angeles teachers' strike.Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP

In a highly anticipated move that for key organizers has been years in the making, more than 30,000 educators on Monday kicked off a strike that’s put regular K–12 classes on hiatus in the country’s second-largest public-school district. A whopping 98 percent of L.A. teachers, who because of stalled negotiations with the district have been working without a contract for more than a year, voted to authorize the strike. They are demanding smaller class sizes and more funding for support staff such as counselors and nurses. They’re also calling for higher pay, though that is less of a sticking point now that the district and teachers’ union are all but in agreement on this front, with the former offering raises that are just 0.5 percent lower than the 6 percent hikes educators are demanding.

Rodolfo Dueñas, an L.A. native and public-school teacher who is picketing, describes this burgeoning movement as a natural next step for the many Latinos like him whose activism can be traced back to the mid-1990s, when thousands of Latino teens staged a school walkout in opposition to an anti-immigrant state-ballot initiative known as Proposition 187. For many like Dueñas in the “187 Generation,” those experiences eventually drove them into teaching. And Dueñas’s generation has been following in the footsteps of the Latino education activists who came before them, during the 1968 walkouts known by some as the Mexican Student Movement.

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.

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.

Roxana Dueñas, a 34-year-old ethnic-studies teacher at a high school in Eastside L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, says her own background as an LAUSD student whose working-class parents immigrated from Mexico was a driving force behind her decision to pursue the profession. “I see myself in my students in both the literal and metaphorical sense,” she says, noting that her sister and cousins attend the school at which she teaches. (Roxana Dueñas and Rodolfo Dueñas are not related.)

This kind of synergy is rare in public education. Despite the growing emphasis in recent decades on racial inequality in the country’s school system, the share of educators of color has hardly budged, growing just a few percentage points over the past three decades, according to an analysis by the Albert Shanker Institute. Research shows that the problem isn’t uneven recruitment of educators but rather uneven attrition: Teachers of color leave the profession at a higher rate than their white counterparts—a trend that’s particularly pronounced among black educators, whose share of the teaching force has declined. According to the Shanker Institute report, teachers of color tend to be concentrated in urban schools serving high-poverty, minority communities, where the working conditions—often, a limited say in decision making and a lack of professional autonomy in the classroom—eventually burn them out. This is one force driving the teacher shortages seen in parts of the country.

The Shanker Institute report highlights Los Angeles as an outlier, because so many of its teachers are Latino. Following nine cities—including Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.—over a decade, the report found that despite significant upticks in the Latino-student population, the share of Latino educators overall grew modestly at best but generally remained stable. Los Angeles was the only city that saw a sizable uptick in the share of Latino educators. In fact, turnover rates were lowest for LAUSD’s Latino teachers—with three in 10 of them leaving the profession after three years, compared with four in 10 of their white, black, and Asian counterparts.

But Monday’s walkout demonstrates that LAUSD may not keep up these retention rates for long. Not only have LAUSD’s teachers been working without a contract for more than a year, they argue that they’ve also struggled with a decade of budget cuts that have chipped away at school resources and made it nearly impossible to serve their students adequately. Some classes now have as many as 46 students, surpassing the 39-student limit the teachers’ previous contract stipulated. Meanwhile, many LAUSD schools lack full-time librarians and nurses.

“You’re working in these conditions committed to the students because you get satisfaction knowing you’re making a difference,” says Martha Infante Thorpe, a 48-year-old social-studies teacher who’s joining the strike. Infante Thorpe taught at a high school in South Central L.A. for more than two decades but recently moved and now teaches at a school in a middle-class community, a transition that’s exposed her to just how uneven public-school resources can be. “Then you come to this point when you realize that people are taking advantage of your kind and altruistic nature.”

Of course, while the teachers’ union argues that it is striking to improve conditions for the students, the walkout is leaving many vulnerable kids without a reliable place to go during the day. Schools remain open, serving meals to eligible children and offering before- and after-school programs, and relying on volunteers, substitute teachers, and non-district education employees to offer some semblance of instruction and extracurricular support to students who do show up. But it’s unclear how many will, and either way, the strike is likely creating immense stress for hundreds of thousands of low-income LAUSD parents, many of whom don’t speak English, as they scramble to figure out what child-care options are available in a sprawling city where traffic congestion is rampant and public transportation can be unreliable. The kids, also, could be missing out on valuable learning opportunities that teachers may not have time to revisit once they return to the classrooms; the ad hoc classes being offered to the children who do attend can only go so far.

Some observers challenge the premise that race—and, namely, Latino identity—is a key force behind the strike’s narrative. Critics such as Jeanne Allen, who founded and oversees the Center for Education Reform, which advocates for charter schools, chalks the walkout up to the latest desperate attempt by a teachers’ union to retain its control over a school system amid declining public support for collective bargaining and in the aftermath of a recent Supreme Court decision that limits unions’ fundraising abilities. Janelle Erickson, a spokeswoman for LAUSD, pointed to United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl as the mastermind behind the uprising, citing a speech he made back in 2016 to suggest it’s been more than two years in the making. That most of L.A.’s teachers are people of color, many of whom relate to the students they teach, is noteworthy but coincidental, the thinking goes. Caputo-Pearl’s campaign against charter schools and other forms of “privatization” in education, Erickson argued in an email, is the driving force behind this walkout.

None of the classroom teachers whom I spoke with even mentioned Caputo-Pearl, however, and few of them talked about charter schools. Instead, when asked how their own background may have informed their take on the strike, almost every LAUSD teacher I interviewed used the word “personal.” For many if not most of the middle-aged Latino LAUSD educators today, teaching emerged as one of the few entry points into the middle class, according to Maria Brenes, the executive director of InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit aimed at enhancing the lives of youth in Eastside L.A. The cost of living in Los Angeles has soared in recent years, leaving many middle-class families, let alone those who rely on a teachers’ salary, unable to afford to buy a home.

But several striking teachers told me that better pay is a relatively low priority for them. Rodolfo Dueñas, for example, says he’s fighting to ensure that the aloof, uninspiring public schooling he received doesn’t repeat itself.

As a teacher in LAUSD today, “it’s almost like you’re looking at your little brother, your little sister, and you’re reliving the traumas of education in the past,” he says. “And you’re like, ‘Dang! Some of these things are still happening.’ It’s almost like you’re fighting for something you wish you could’ve fought for when you were in school.” He doesn’t recall his school doing anything to support him when his siblings were killed; he says no one asked him if he wanted to talk, let alone offered counseling. While LAUSD today offers much more mental-health support to kids than it did in Dueñas’s days, it’s far from enough, he argues. Absent a counselor at school, “they at least have someone like me who they can connect with,” he says, “but I’m not a professional, I’m not trained. I’m still trying to deal with my own trauma.”

Some teachers told me that they’re striking to set an example for their students, so students can recognize their own agency to change things. By striking, Roxana Dueñas says she’s modeling for her students the values that she’d wished she’d learned in school. “I think even our young people have learned to accept and normalize your condition,” she says. Her mission is to inspire her students to question the status quo, to ask: “‘Why is this happening? Why should we accept it?’”

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