Striking For The Future of Education: Interview with a Los Angeles Teacher

UTLA chapter chair meeting on Saturday, Jan 5.

Image: Hundereds of teachers gather for the chapter chair meeting of UTLA (United Teachers of Los Angeles). Source: BRRN-LA.

More than 30,000 educators in the country’s second-biggest school district of Los Angeles are poised to strike Thursday, January 10 UPDATE: Monday, January 12 for the first time since 1989. In the aftermath of the inspiring wave of teacher strikes and actions in 2018, LA teachers are preparing to fight not just for their own jobs, but to defend a vision of democratic and equitable public education against the attack from neoliberal corporate privatizers.

Two members of Black Rose/Rosa Negra – Los Angeles spoke with rank-and-file LA teacher, Kevin, to get an in-depth look at what the strike is really about, and how teachers are organizing to win. Kevin teaches math in South Central Los Angeles and is in his tenth year as a full-time teacher with two previous years as a substitute teacher. Topics include background on the key issues of privatization driving the strike, internal union politics and structure and what it will take to win the strike. The opinions in the interview are not necessarily those of BRRN.  

BRRN-LA: Thanks for interviewing with us. Let’s start with what led you to teaching?

Kevin: I liked the idea of working with young folks. Working at a high school level, you really get a chance to have meaningful conversations about the world with students. I also started in the district at a time where it was becoming clear that Los Angeles was becoming ground zero for the fight around privatization of education. I felt being a teacher and doing work around pushing back on that from the perspective of a worker and a teacher would provide a lot of value. Prior to that point I just worked low-skilled jobs my entire life. I waited tables for many years so that I could have maximum time to do activist work. I was just kind of getting tired of that whole dynamic, so I slowly began moving towards education.

BRRN-LA: Let’s talk about conditions in schools. Are you able to give your students the education that they deserve?

Kevin: No. Our students have a lot of trauma in their lives. They’re dealing with a lot of really intense stuff in their lives, so there are many days, particularly with my younger students where algebra, geometry, or academic work is not what they need at the moment. What they often need is more social-emotional support because we want to build academically successful students, but also emotionally successful students. The school I work at is committed to doing that, but there are many pressures around testing and test scores, and various district mandates that we have to meet and adhere to that cause a real strain in the balance of meeting students academic and emotional needs. So I don’t feel like I’m as effective as I could be.

“I know that as long as I’ve been a union rep on my site, at the beginning I kept thinking about when we win a strike, that’s going to be the endpoint. But really what I’ve come to understand is that this strike is not the end, it’s the beginning in many ways.”

Image: LA teachers march and rally on December 15, 2018.

BRRN-LA: With that being said, what do you think you need to be an effective teacher in your classroom?

Kevin: Individually, I think it’s not just about teaching – it’s about if a student is struggling, maybe that student needs to talk to someone. Having different counselors that can support you throughout the day. Different levels of social-emotional support is very critical.

Additionally, having the ability to determine what the curriculum looks like is really important. Obviously, there’s a framework which we work within in terms of district or state teaching and academic standard, but having autonomy to make decisions about the types of curriculum and how it is taught is really important. Overall we need more teachers. The way the district staffs schools is based on a class size norm, which can be violated at any point the district claims a fiscal emergency.

BRRN-LA: What do you think is standing in the way of you being able to actually really effectively teach and support your students?

Kevin: To me, it’s a question of how resources are devoted, how funding happens within schools. [Schools] get a certain amount of positions that are budgeted for in the money allocated by the district, but usually, that’s not enough. Then what schools have to do is identify additional funds and make a choice. Should we hire a full-time librarian? Or should we hire a full-time nurse? Or do we need to hire another teacher? To me, those types of decisions are absurd.

A key problem is the way schools are funded, you are not able to provide all the necessary supports and resources. The slate of demands that we’re pushing, which is very likely leading to a strike, is really about that. It’s the question of are we going to commit to reinvesting in public school, or are we not? The way schools are funded now does not suggests that people in power actually want public schools to thrive and be successful.

Another piece is that there are many schools where decisions about how schools are staffed are made by a small group of people who work outside the classroom, such as principals or assistant principals. That’s not a huge issue at my school site, because we have a strong enough staff of teachers that are able to push and leverage our strength to build more transparent decision-making. But I know other school sites have way more struggles with problematic principals who just want to wield power and decision-making without any collective input. For some sites, that’s what stands in the way for them to getting the things that are important or needed.

BRRN-LA: What is your vision for what L.A. schools should be?

Kevin: Every single school site should be able to determine, as a community, what they need. They should have genuine autonomous decision-making powers over who they hire, what type of curriculum is used, how and how often students are assessed, etc. When I say community, I mean school staff, parents, students and the surrounding community. I think any sane person understands that makes sense. And I think that the only way we get it is if we battle for it.

BRRN-LA: Let’s talk about the school district, what would you say is their vision?

Kevin: I think there’s two things. I think the district wants uniformity in the schools. They want every school to be the same. Every high school is using curriculum X or Y, and they all have the same procedure for doing all of these things. From a bureaucrat’s perspective, it’s easier to manage something where you know everything’s the same. That is essentially a corporate model.

Our current Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker with no education background, and a staunch neoliberal, takes that a step further and want to apply a market driven agenda to LAUSD. They, along with half of our school board members, would like to continue to open our district to charter schools which provide a corporate, profit driven model of education. They look at places like New Orleans, Detroit and Newark, NJ, where these models of privatization came into the urban school districts and essentially destroyed public school systems and uphold them as viable models of education “reform.”

In 2015, Eli Broad, a wealthy philanthropist, has been trying to get a foothold within LA schools, wrote a plan that 50% of LAUSD schools would be charter schools within 10 years. And this time these forces [of privatization] have drawn a line in the sand. They see Los Angeles, the second largest school district in the country, as a gateway for more unhinged free market capitalism. Recently, there was a plan by Beutner and his ilk that was leaked about breaking up LAUSD into 32 different networks, which is a modeled after other major urban school districts that were privatized.

This level of privatization would create a separate but equal school system. Charters to serve families that have class privilege or the ability be intimately involved in every decision of their child’s life and and public schools to serve the communities with the highest needs. And so I think we’re potentially deepening and formalizing segregation once again in a really destructive and deep way because LAUSD primarily serves communities of color. By creating a two-tiered education system of charters and public schools, the issues that currently exist within South LA are just going to grow more acute and frankly, more deadly.

BRRN-LA: What are the stakes for this strike in terms of those two visions you’ve put forth, one of schools based on local democracy and adequate funding and the other based around privatization and corporatization?

Kevin: Lowering class size issue is a critical demand. If their vision is to essentially disinvest in public schools, then they need to be able to have the flexibility to allow charter schools to continue to grow within LAUSD. Charter schools are an important feature for their corporate model because it allows them to privatize slowly. If we win our demand around class size, then they have to adhere to the class sizes in our contract. This would mean that the school district would have to hire thousands more teachers. And we can attract teachers from charter schools given that their working conditions are often atrocious.

I think we’ve done a good job of holding strong around our demands. I know at my site, we’ve really hit hard on how important class size is and what that means. And I think we have members that probably could live with just the salary demands, but I think there’s been a good job done across the board of hammering home the point that this is about investing in our schools. And so the only way we avert a strike, I think, is if the district is willing to really move on the class size and spend their reserve funds.

And so to me, it’s literally about one or the other vision. I think we can win. I think we will win if we strike, frankly.

Is it a risk? I think for our members, yes. But I think we are in a place where UTLA is as strong as it’s been in as long as I can remember it. That doesn’t mean there’s not issues. But that said, I think in terms of how we’re oriented and organized, I think it’s as strong as it’s been. And I think that they’re just two opposite visions. And honestly, this is five years in the making. And I know that as long as I’ve been a union rep on my site, at the beginning I kept thinking about when we win a strike, that’s going to be the endpoint. But really what I’ve come to understand is that this strike is not the end, it’s the beginning in many ways.

BRRN-LA: Looking at the organization of the union, shortly before the 2015 contract negotiations a union reform slate won the union leadership elections. And they were reelected. They’re still in power. What do you think the effect of their leadership or that change in leadership of the reform caucus, what do you think the effect has been on the union and it’s organizing?

Kevin: With this leadership, there are stark differences, but the orientation is toward organizing. The current union president comes out of a left organizing background. So I think the union’s orientation towards fighting for quality schools has more of a social justice framework. Whereas I think in previous leaderships, it was about what legal strategy to use to get our demands, which is more typical of mainstream unions.

I think with the new orientation we’ve gotten to the point where teachers understand it’s not just about your day-to-day, it’s about what are the conditions that make public schools thrive? And it’s about what you need as a teacher and what does that mean for a school district? Getting teachers on board with that has been a real shift.

I think a concern that I have is that in 2020 our current leadership will be termed out, or at least the president, Alex Caputo-Pearl. So the question is, what do we do moving forward? How do we continue to build the work that we’re doing? Who is positioned to do that? Right now I think the model is we have a really strong leader in Caputo-Pearl, who has a really strong vision and orientation towards organizing and social justice. That said, it’s not a sustainable model. I think that we’ve got a lot of work to do moving forward to building a union that consistently empowers members to act, and is not necessarily driven by a handful of people. I say that from the sense that building genuine democratic structures is on-going challenging work.

BRRN-LA: What role do you think the wave of teachers’ strikes across the nation has had in the fight?

Kevin: At last year’s UTLA leadership conference, folks from Puerto Rico, Arizona, West Virginia, and Chicago, gave workshops or were keynote speakers, and so I think that really helped. I think UTLA as a whole really looked at these struggles and tried to figure out what made Chicago’s strike successful? What made these different strikes successful? What can we learn from them? How can we build off of that? I think the strikes laid a narrative that helped inform the work that we do. I think seeing this happening across the country really made folks understand that our fight is a really just fight, and it’s not just about us. It’s about conditions nationwide.

BRRN-LA: How are teachers preparing for the strike?

Kevin: Our model is essentially building a team of people that can help you organize your workplace. The way it looked at a UTLA level was what was called Contract Action Teams (CAT teams), and the idea was you identify folks that you’ll use to communicate to other people as things are happening with negotiations and important information needs to be communicated, or there’s going to be a rally.

On our school site, we had already been instituting something similar. We went through a process where we collectively identified what are the key issues that we’re struggling with on our site, from something as mundane as bathroom availability, to the special ed teachers are not being supported by their administrators. Then we took those issues and we pulled out the ones that were most prevalent, and then we used those issues to develop committees.

We created six different committees that folks could get involved in. Every other school union meeting, there would be a committee meeting, so instead of us running the meeting, folks would meet with their committees and they would talk through, “What are some key issues? What are some action steps? What are we going to do next? What do we need?” We used that to really develop leadership within our own site, and to just really empower folks to understand that whatever your orientation is to UTLA and leadership, understand that you’re f*cking UTLA. And then based on that, we would use those committees to help us get ready for the strike and get people to come out to a rally, or get people to picket in front of the school, or flyer parents, and stuff like that.

BRRN-LA: What about preparing in terms of working with the students and parents?

Kevin: Across the district, what LAUSD is trying to do is really silence teachers from talking to parents. One thing they did is have our administrators give staff a memo that essentially said you can’t talk to parents about labor disputes or have any materials related to the labor dispute on campus. If you do that, you could be punished with a write up. Essentially, it’s illegal, but the district did that to silence us and really try to make the debate one-sided.

So on our end, we saw it for what it was- bullshit. For me, as someone who’s been around and knows the game, if they were going to write me up for talking to parents, that’s an easy thing to fight. I know the process to fight that. But, if you’re like a first- year teacher and maybe you’re not as empowered, maybe you’re still probationary, that could send you a chilling message. That also made it really difficult because we had a plan working with our parent center to have a workshop for parents about the strike. And the administrators would not let it happen.

On the other hand, my daughter goes to an elementary school. The teachers had an on-campus meeting with parents to talk about the strike. The principal was there. So at some school sites, principals who felt like their jobs were more secure, they pushed back and didn’t put out these memos.  So we definitely have some challenges communicating with parents. That said, when we were flyering parents outside of school, they were on board 100%. They understand that our teaching conditions are their students’ learning conditions.

BRRN-LA: What are other things that the district is doing to try and win the strike from their end?

Kevin: One example is Beutner called a meeting with all the student presidents of the school leadership classes. He had a meeting with these students and he gave them a flyer that said, “This is what UTLA claims. This is the reality.” One of his strategies was to leverage students, who he perceived to be student leaders, to get them on LAUSD’s side. That was happening literally at the same time he’s telling us to not f*cking talk to parents or students about this.

I think those were some things that were happening. I think also the stalling of negotiations. He knew that we were committed to this legal process before striking, and he really took advantage of that on our end. They really dragged out the process as much as they could. I think their hope was that teacher energy for a strike would wane – but the strategy backfired.

Facing back of crowd, march participants are holding screen printed education picket signs.

Image: LA teachers march and rally, December 15, 2018. Poster design by John Fleissner.

BRRN-LA: What do you think teachers need to do in order to win the strike and come out strong and organized?

Kevin: We’ve got to have the overwhelming majority, I would say 95-100%, of the teachers out on the picket lines every day. We have to have students, parents and community members out on the line with us as well. We have to have conversations with our neighbors, and in our communities about the importance of investing in public schools. I think what’s going to win our demands is having wide parent and community support. And thus far parents have been overwhelmingly supportive of our demands because they are broad-based

BRRN-LA: Going back to what you said earlier, you mentioned how this strike would be the beginning of a struggle, so specifically what do you think teachers need to be doing to really be well positioned, not just to win this strike but to build the sort of organization and power to take the struggle to the next stage?

Kevin: I think the structures that we’ve employed to build up for this strike, I think they need to be continued on school sites. For us, it’s easy to continue that, because our committees are not connected just to the contract fight. Maybe empowering teachers to think about a committee structure. There’s probably a lot of schools that are just using it strictly for the contract, but I would suggest building a committee structure that’s connected to what the needs of the school are. This can allow us to continue this work of democratizing our school sites because I think that’ll help empower and build a broader subset of UTLA members.

Right now the way the school board is you have three folks that are explicitly pro charter. Then, you have three folks that are more open to UTLA. Having a fourth person that would be in line with all of our demands will be really critical moving forward. Then, I think really the larger picture is about pushing back and the campaign around rolling back Proposition 13. There’s going to be a proposition on the ballot for 2020 that will roll back the Prop 13 corporate property tax loophole. People can relate to electoral politics however they choose to relate to them, and obviously there are major limitations, but this is one front of our fight moving forward.

BRRN-LA: What have you learned from this strike that you think is important for teachers and other districts to know?

Kevin: It’s really important for people to think about their work conditions as a collective set of demands. And to really try to understand that their work conditions are their students’ learning conditions. That, in and of itself, really lends itself to a natural alliance with parents, community, and students and it’s really important for teachers to see what they do as not just within their fight with their local districts; to see it as more than just pay.

Because the district would love for us to take the pay raise and walk away from any commitments on our demands that would invest in our public schools and create more democratic structures, it is vital that we put forth a comprehensive set of demands that can begin to allows us to create the schools we need, want, and love.

For more related articles on teacher organizing and strikes, we recommend the following articles video: