Blame Sacramento

In the L.A. teachers’ strike, the state is the real problem.

More than 30,000 teachers in the Los Angeles public school system held a rally at City Hall on January 14, 2019.
More than 30,000 teachers in the Los Angeles public school system held a rally at City Hall on January 14, 2019. (Mike Blake / Reuters)

Undeterred by an afternoon rainstorm, a band of students, teachers, and parents crowded the streets outside Hollywood High School the other day to chant, whistle, and brandish protest signs in support of United Teachers Los Angeles, the city’s striking teachers’ union.

Stop Cheaping out on the Children read one sign that pretty much summed up the union’s bargaining stance.

Similar scenes are playing out across L.A. in the city’s first teacher strike since a nine-day walkout in 1989. Rallies and protests on behalf of the 35,000 union members have scrambled the daily schedules of nearly 500,000 students and their parents and sparked a tweetstorm of support from boldfaced names in Hollywood and Congress.

The strike was all but inevitable. From his first day in office as union president in 2014, Alex Caputo-Pearl made clear that his vision of quality public education included more money for teachers, smaller class sizes, and expanded student support in the form of more nurses, counselors, and librarians—demands the district has addressed since then only modestly.

Caputo-Pearl’s first contract with the Los Angeles Unified School District expired almost two years ago, and tensions have been building ever since. Teachers simply aren’t buying the argument that there isn’t enough wiggle room to meet their needs in a $7.5 billion operating budget, plus the district’s roughly $2 billion reserve fund. The district’s unwillingness to spend the latter is a major point of contention with the union.

The state requires every district to set aside money for periods of economic uncertainty, for large and unanticipated expenditures, and to be eligible for a higher credit rating. While the union argues that the reserve should all go to teachers, the district says that it has already been earmarked for various costs over the next several years.

And that, says Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and publisher of the Los Angeles Times with no prior experience in public education, could push the district into insolvency by 2021.

What if he’s right? What if the district really can’t afford the sort of investment that could make a difference in academic outcomes, now shaped by some class sizes that exceed 40 students and the pedagogical challenges inherent to Los Angeles, where 80 percent of public-school students live in poverty and many are learning English?

The real bogeyman isn’t L.A. Unified, and it isn’t Los Angeles, either. In Los Angeles, unlike New York, the city plays no role in public education. It’s Sacramento, the state’s capital, which provides about 90 percent of district revenue.

Despite being the world’s fifth-biggest economy, with Democrats serving in every statewide office and holding supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature, California ranks in the middle among states in per-pupil spending on elementary and secondary education—about $12,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures for 2016. That’s slightly under the national average and about half as much as the list leader, New York.

To make matters worse, California’s support for L.A.’s public schools has been diluted by the explosive growth of independent charters, which are publicly funded, privately run, and a severe financial drain on a system in which state money follows the student. Most of them are nonunion.

In L.A. Unified, which operates more than 1,300 schools, enrollment has been declining for a decade as the number of charters rises. The city now leads all others with 225 independent charters, serving more than 110,000 kids. Do the math, and it’s $1.3 billion of state funds not going into L.A. Unified, a sum the district needs to help cover capital improvements, transportation, teaching material, and other costs—even if it has fewer students to teach.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, conceded that the state needs to provide more money, much more. “Our target is both, the district and the state,” she told me.

She focused her ire on Beutner for his unwillingness to release the reserve fund, calling his resistance “a series of excuses that don’t meet the needs of students.”

But she was hardly effusive about the first budget from California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, who took office this month. Newsom proposed spending a record $80.7 billion on kindergarten through community college, a 3.6 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. He also proposed adding $3 billion to the state’s share of pension payments for teachers and administrators, which reduces the level of mandated contributions from districts, enabling them to use money for other things.

That’s not enough, Weingarten suggested. L.A. Unified and other districts need “a long-term, sustainable investment plan to fund the future.”

Within a day of Newsom’s budget announcement, the district made a new offer to the union that included $130 million for 1,200 more teachers, new caps on class size, money for more nurses and librarians, and a 6 percent pay raise.

Just as quickly, however, the union rejected the offer, calling it “basically the same” as the previous one, “just dressed up slightly differently.”

The problem isn’t the proposed salary increase; it’s the proposed cap on class size, which the teachers say is still too high. Education experts generally agree that academic achievement improves with fewer students in the classroom, especially for kids in kindergarten to third grade. The gold standard of evidence is the Tennessee Project STAR study, from the 1980s, and subsequent examinations have produced similar results. In the Tennessee study, the largest class sizes had 22 to 26 students. In the latest L.A. Unified proposal, classes were capped at 35 for grades 4 to 6, 39 for middle- and high-school math and English classes, and 34 at the highest-need middle schools.

But short of releasing the district reserves, there are only three main ways to scare up the funds necessary to dramatically reduce classroom size, and all would require aggressive action by—you guessed it—state lawmakers.

The first is to realign the state budget, robbing another interest group to pay the teachers. That’s a tough fight.

The second is to raise taxes, and good luck with that. As the bluest of blue states, California ranks annually among the highest-taxed states in the country, usually in the top five, with high-income earners taking the heaviest hit. State lawmakers are already contemplating universal health care and preschool, and Newsom has talked about “rebalancing” the personal income tax structure, an initiative that would surely whack the middle class.

The third approach is regulatory reform that would stem the growth of independent charter schools and impose new layers of accountability, a goal of California teachers’ unions for more than a decade.

Both sides in the strike now seem to acknowledge that the state is the bigger problem for teachers than the district. In separate interviews with The New York Times this week, Beutner and Caputo-Pearl each said the state needs to spend more to sustain the kind of academic achievement that everyone says they want.

That’s why Charles Kerchner, a professor emeritus at Claremont Graduate University and an expert in public-school labor relations, suggested this week that the district and the teachers’ union should be “holding hands on the place to Sacramento.”

“The solution is a statewide one, not L.A.-specific,” he said. “The paymaster here is the state.”

Taken together, the complexity of issues has made fierce enemies of the district and the union, irrespective of all the nice things they say about teachers and their unyielding respect for them. But talk is cheap, and solutions are expensive. Beutner and Caputo-Pearl don’t much care for each other, but combining forces might be their only way out.