Home > Uncategorized > LA Teachers Strike Breaks New Ground… Could Re-Define Union’s Mission

LA Teachers Strike Breaks New Ground… Could Re-Define Union’s Mission

Two recent articles I accessed through Diane Ravitch’s blog indicate that the teacher’s strike in Los Angeles is about more that wages, hours, and working conditions: it is about governance, support services, and equitable opportunity for students.

Capital and Main writer Bobbi Murray’s article on January 11, 2019, outlines the risks the union is taking by striking and the rewards it might reap, but as the subheading of the article indicates, their bold demands might make it difficult to know what constitutes a victory. Ms. Murray frames the issues this way:

For 21 months negotiations have ground on between UTLA and the second-largest district in the nation. (The Los Angeles Unified School District enrolls 640,000 students.) The more nuts-and-bolts issues on the table include union demands for a 6.5 percent pay raise, a limit to class sizes (that can now hover around 38 pupils per classroom), and a push for more support staff such as nurses and librarians.

Kent Wong, executive director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center, notes that UTLA’s demands have moved away from larger raises and toward more funding to alleviate the deep education cuts that have been made over the years.

“It is important to understand the bigger forces at work here,” said Wong, who added that the pro-charter forces have invested millions of dollars to elect a pro-charter majority on the Los Angeles school board to shift resources from public schools to charters.

All strikes are risky undertakings and it’s an axiom that no one wins a strike. But a UTLA walkout would dramatically raise the stakes by casting the strike as a challenge to the creeping absorption of public schools by private charter management organizations.

“A strike is a big deal,” Wong said, because “you have this massive privatization scheme that’s been gutting support for public education and resources for public education. That’s the broader scenario that’s at stake here.”

In effect, the teachers in Los Angeles are not only embarking on a traditional strike that  pits teachers seeking higher wages and better working conditions against a school board that wants to operate as cheaply and efficiently as possible, it is striking against a group of presumably high-minded philanthropists who want to control public education and change it and it is striking to restore deep cuts to public education that have occurred since the economic melt down in 2008. Given these broad goals, what would a union victory look like? Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs UC Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy offers this response:

“One definition would be very concrete things [like raises and staffing issues] —the union could win some of that… The other definition is bigger—it could be the re-funding of public education in California and the country. This kind of strike is a powerful impulse to tell the [Democratic] supermajorities in Sacramento to modify Proposition 13, to bring new sources of funds so that school districts are not starved.”

Earlier this week Education Dive writer Linda Jacobsen wrote that the Los Angeles teachers are also seeking community schools, which provide wraparound services for students. In effect, the community school model describes how additional funding for schools would not only go into the pockets of teachers, it would expand the array of services available to students, making it clear that teachers are not only looking out for themselves, they are also seeking what is best for the children they serve:

Community schools are highlighted as part of the union-led Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools platform, nationally and in Los Angeles. And in a 2017 article for Center X at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Caputo-Pearl mentioned community schools in describing the union’s campaign to see the state or at least LAUSD spend $20,000 per student by 2020.

It would mean a nurse in every school. It would mean a librarian in every school. It would mean actually having restorative justice programs, staffed with people whose job it is to help develop restorative practices,” he said. “It would mean another one of our common good proposals around investing in a community schools model. It would mean more schools with wraparound services, with real breadth of curriculum in ethnic studies, music and the arts.” 

In several urban districts, teachers unions have been actively involved in supporting the community school model. Unions “provide a vehicle to quickly reach cohesiveness between schools and communities,” José Munoz, the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, wrote in an email. “That communication power helps harness and scale best practices nationally.”

Community schools develop in many ways, but they typically include formal partnerships in which community organizations provide schools with wraparound services such as health, mental health and after-school programs, and a separate coordinator position is created to make it all work. Unions view the strategy as a way to address many of the nonacademic issues — such as food insecurity, mental of physical health needs, or a lack of enrichment opportunities — that interfere with students’ learning.

“All of these issues walk into a classroom whether you want it or not,” Karen Alford, a vice president for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City, said in an interview. Alford leads the union’s “community learning school” initiative in which the union is the lead community agency and pays for a full-time community school director (or coordinator) at 31 schools across the district.

These articles illustrate the broad frame the unions are using to define their demands, and also indicate that the unions… NOT the school boards, politicians, or administrators… are taking the lead in coordinating the services children need.

As one who forged partnerships with health departments, the department of social services, and several non-profits when I was a county superintendent in Maryland in the 1990s, it is sad to see that few if any school leaders are advocating for community schools today and even sadder to see that few if any political leaders are pushing for them. But it is very heartening to see that rank-and-file teachers recognize the need for such services and are willing to incorporate demands for these services in their collective bargaining battles.

Community schools that provide coordinated wraparound services to students are the best way forward to address the needs of children raised in poverty… and with the majority of public schools educating students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, it is essential that unions promote this model. Bravo to the teachers for standing up to the philanthropists who seek to strip them of their power and offer factory model schools that assume every child can succeed with grit and perseverance.

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