Los Angeles teachers set to strike in nation's second-largest system

Thousands of Los Angeles teachers rallied in December. Now, they are poised to walk off their jobs Monday in the nation’s second-largest school system. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

LOS ANGELES — Teachers in Los Angeles, home to the nation’s second-largest school system, are set to strike Monday as their union battles with the school system to reverse years of cuts that have left classrooms overcrowded and schools deprived of nurses, counselors and librarians.

The strike will draw about 30,000 unionized teachers out of classrooms and will affect more than 600,000 schoolchildren across the sprawling district, which encompasses 710 square miles and includes more than 600 K-12 schools, making it larger than many state systems.

The clash between the school system and United Teachers Los Angeles could lend momentum to teacher strikes in other parts of the state, with educators in at least one other district on the cusp of walking off the job. It also could reverberate across the state’s political landscape, where Democrats backing charter schools have duked it out with those aligned with teachers unions. The expected job action follows a year in which teachers in six states walked out of classrooms to demand better pay and classroom conditions, portending a continuation of historic teacher activism.

“We’re in a battle for the soul of public education,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “We’re more convinced than ever that the district won’t move without a strike.”

The union is demanding that the school system invest more money to reduce class sizes and hire more support staff. Many schools have nurses only one day a week and counselors who are overburdened with students. The union hopes those investments will prevent families from leaving comprehensive public schools for the city’s robust charter school network, taking state funding with them. Average class size hovers above 32 students for middle and high school students, with some teachers contending with up to 42 students in a single class.

Maria Arienza, who teaches AP Spanish at North Hollywood High, said she had 49 students in a single class last semester.

“My kids don’t have enough desks,” said Arienza, who has taught for seven years. “They sit on the floor in a crowded classroom.”

But schools superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and nonprofit executive who was hired to get the system’s finances in order, said the district cannot afford the union’s demands. The school system presented another offer to the union last week, after the newly installed governor, Gavin Newsom (D), pledged to give Los Angeles schools more money. But it was not close enough to the union’s demands.

“If we agreed to UTLA’s demands, the district would become immediately bankrupt and would be taken over by the state that same day,” Beutner said in an interview Saturday. “That’s the fact.”

The school system has said it plans to remain open, and it has relaxed requirements for parent volunteers, deployed central office staff to classrooms and brought in high-priced substitutes to teach and supervise children. The school system serves about 1 million meals every school day, with three-quarters of schoolchildren qualifying for free meals because they come from low-income households.

Many parents are keeping their children out of school because of safety concerns or in solidarity with teachers.

Some of the striking teachers will be joined by students, who have felt the impact of underinvestment. Makailah Jenkins, 16, is a junior at Washington Preparatory High in South Los Angeles. One of her classes was so crowded that she had to stand until a student transferred out, freeing up a seat. There is no one to teach AP U.S. History, so she takes it online.

“I am being affected by these things as well,” Jenkins said. “It’s my duty to make my voice heard.”

The teachers strikes that happened last year unfolded in a half-dozen GOP-controlled states. But the strike in California is no “red state revolt.” The teachers union commands great influence and helped elect Newsom, who last week promised a massive infusion of cash into teacher pension funds.

Instead, the fault lines exist between those aligned with unions and those who want to see charter schools proliferate. The latter group includes wealthy philanthropists such as Eli Broad, whose namesake contemporary art museum overlooks downtown Los Angeles; Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix; and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Wealthy charter school backers financed the gubernatorial campaign of former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was trounced in the primary by Newsom. Teachers unions backed Newsom. Charter backers also spent tens of millions of dollars in a bid to elect a former charter network CEO as state superintendent of public instruction, a role that has little power over charter school policy. He was edged out by Marshall Tuck, who was backed by teachers unions in the most expensive state school chiefs race in history, with campaign contributions topping $50 million.

The clash in Los Angeles is viewed by some as the latest chapter in the long-running — and expensive — battle for the future of California schools.