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Chalk One Up for Teachers

A union victory in Los Angeles was fueled by opposition to charter schools

Sunrise Elementary is a public school on the Eastside of Los Angeles. It sits at the end of a street of modest one-story homes, across from a tall barrier wall that separates it from the hum of traffic on the Route 60 freeway.

Sunrise is one of dozens of schools in the L.A. Unified School District that shares its classroom space with a charter school, an arrangement that can be as awkward as the name for it: “co-location.” A state law allows charters to pay for classroom space in district schools when the space is not being used by a teacher with a roster of students. The two schools share the same building, the two sets of students have separate schedules, and, at Sunrise, the charter kids are identifiable by their green T-shirts.

Mimi Guzman-Duncanson, a seven-year kindergarten teacher at Sunrise, says the school lost three rooms it used as computer labs and one it used for theater class in a “co-location” arrangement with a nonprofit called Excelencia Charter Academy, which moved in at the start of the school year.

For Guzman-Duncanson, the unsuccessful attempt to prevent co-location with Excelencia had a radicalizing effect. It transformed her involvement from that of a passive member of the United Teachers of Los Angeles—“I paid my dues and that was it,” she says—to vice-chair of her local chapter and a strike captain for the district’s first teachers walkout in thirty years.

I met Guzman-Duncanson outside the entrance to Sunrise early in what proved to be the final day of a six-day strike of 31,000 educators in the second-largest school system in the country.

When the bell rang at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, no more than a few dozen kids had entered through the main gate of Sunrise Elementary. The mothers, fathers, and grandparents of students who I spoke to all said they supported the strike; many said they had taken time off work the previous week to keep their children home in a show of solidarity. A poll by researchers at Loyola Marymount University found that 77 percent of respondents in L.A. County were in support of the strike. The district reported that the overall attendance rate dropped to as low as 19 percent.

A poll by researchers at Loyola Marymount University found that 77 percent of respondents in L.A. County were in support of the strike.

On the morning I was at Sunrise, there was a pushcart beside the school entrance loaded with a coffee dispenser, creamers, and snacks; a sign taped to the front read: “The administration, staff, and community of Sunrise Elementary supports our teachers. We stand with you!” The previous week, the head of the union representing L.A. Unified School District principals had urged the district’s leadership to close schools for the duration of the strike, LAist reported.

The teachers at Sunrise told me harrowing tales of conditions that motivated them to go on strike: special-education classes taught with four separate grade levels in the same room; a kindergarten class with a student-teacher ratio of 36:1. One parent of a child with a chronic respiratory ailment told me she kept her son at home on days when his cough flared up because the school nurse was only assigned to campus one day a week.

But the concern that most frequently elicited the ire of teachers was that of “co-location.” Because California funds its public schools on a per-student basis, Excelencia is competing with Sunrise for state funding. (Charters receive public education funding, but they’re managed by nonprofits, rather than school districts.) What’s more, the area of the Boyle Heights neighborhood where the two schools share a building has one of the highest per capita supply of charters and district-run public schools in the school district. In this way, the strike is different from the ones last year in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia, where teachers won significant pay raises and improvement of working conditions. The district’s pre-strike offer of a 6-percent pay raise was in line with the 6 percent the union was demanding; but the L.A. teachers strike was never mainly about a pay raise.

In California, it’s the “competition” with charter schools that especially aggrieves public school teachers. The philosophy of the charter school movement, which is often funded by wealthy philanthropists, is that the competing schools will spur public education to improve. But there’s just as much on-the-ground evidence that working side-by-side with charter schools, or competing with them to enroll from a finite pool of students, makes it harder for public school teachers to do their jobs. Teachers unions in California argue that a twenty-seven-year-old state law authorizing charters is too permissive, and had led to rampant growth and the inadvertent rise of a “charter industry” that threatens the existence of traditional public schools.

Excelencia founder Ruben Alonzo, an MIT graduate who previously worked at a charter school in Texas, told me over the phone that his school enrolls sixty students, a number he expects to double by next year. Alonzo said he has filed paperwork to remain at Sunrise Elementary for the 2019-20 school year. He declined a request to allow me inside the school.

According to LAUSD records, Excelencia is one of five charters and nine other district-run elementary schools located in Sunrise’s zip code of 90023. Lorena Street Elementary, less than a mile away, has a co-location arrangement with the nonprofit charter Extera Public Schools. Less than two miles away, teachers at Breed Street Elementary, a district-run school, are opposing construction of a new KIPP charter school for at least 625 students.

The teachers want district-run schools like Sunrise to have a say when charter schools are considered for classroom space on those campuses. Steve Uyechi, a special education teacher at Sunrise, said there are seven charters within a two-mile radius of the school. As one woman teacher on the picket line at Sunrise put it, “You don’t open up a bakery on a block with three other bakeries.”

The Los Angeles teachers strike ended on Tuesday with a tentative agreement quickly ratified by an estimated 80 percent of union members the same day.

It achieved a six-percent pay bump for educators, a commitment from the district to provide a full-time nurse for every school and a librarian in every middle and high school, an improved ratio of school-counselors-to-students, and an incremental reduction of average class-size by four students over the three-year term of the contract. The district agreed to eliminate unpopular language from the previous deal that allowed it to disregard limits prescribed on average class size in the event of financial necessity. The district also agreed to create thirty “community schools,” a model that provides social services to students and family, robust academic programs that include the arts, and a greater degree of local control for parents and teachers.

Though state law allows charters to co-locate to district-run schools, the new deal is more transparent with teachers, notifies them further in advance of a proposed co-location at their school, and affords them more influence in the approval process.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti called the outcome of the six-day strike “historic”; education experts have tended toward more cautious assessments. Addressing many thousands of teachers at a jubilant rally at Grand Park in front of City Hall on Tuesday to celebrate the tentative agreement, Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, said of concessions from the district: “You just taught the best lesson of your life.”

Caputo-Pearl, a Brown University graduate and twenty-two-year social studies teacher in Crenshaw and Compton, swept into office at the head of a “Union Power” slate in 2014. He espoused a vision of educators as agents of far-reaching social change and builders of powerful community alliances around broad-based goals for quality public education. It was a departure from the incumbent president’s narrower focus on salary and benefits, and it resonated with a rank-and-file regrouping after years of recession-induced layoffs and salary cuts.

Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, said of concessions from the district: “You just taught the best lesson of your life.”

Caputo-Pearl referred to strike readiness as a necessity in what he described as “a struggle over the future of public education.” On the first day in office, he and his board issued a statement pledging to organize “school-by-school, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and area-by-area to a place where we can strike if we feel it is necessary in order to win the school conditions that students deserve and the respect that educators deserve.”

Elaine Burn, a fifteen-year theater teacher at Sylmar Charter High School and union activist, told me the UTLA began strike preparations in earnest when the school board hired Austin Beutner as superintendent last year. In Beutner, a wealthy and soft-spoken former investment banker with limited experience in education, Caputo-Pearl found his perfect foil.

Los Angeles today has more charters and more charter students than any other school district in the country—nearly one in five students in the LAUSD attend independent charters, close to 112,000 in all, according to district records.

Beutner was chosen after a bitterly fought school board election in May of 2018, the most expensive in the country’s history, in which charter supporters, including billionaires like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Los Angeles real-estate mogul and philanthropist Eli Broad, spent nearly $10 million to elect the LAUSD’s first pro-charter majority.

Broad’s foundation was caught pushing a $490-million plan to put half of LAUSD students in charter schools by 2023, a plan not meant for public consumption that nonetheless ended up in the hands of a reporter at the Los Angeles Times and was published in 2015.

The political ascension of the new pro-charter majority was short-lived. Less than three months after the board’s new president, Ref Rodriguez, a co-founder of the charter school network Partnership to Uplift Communities, was sworn in, he was charged with three felony counts of conspiracy, perjury, and procuring and offering a false or forged instrument. Netflix CEO Hastings put up $75,000 for his legal defense. While under criminal indictment, Rodriguez held off resigning long enough to cast a key vote for Beutner.

Caputo-Pearl has made of Beutner his most reliable applause line before rallies of strikers. Of the many signs I saw mocking Beutner on Tuesday, one that stands out had a photo of the superintendent pasted on a cartoon drawing of a rodent walking upright and the Spanish phrase, “Rata de Dos Patas,” (“Two-Legged Rat”). A week before the strike, Caputo-Pearl published an opinion piece in the L.A. Times accusing Beutner of pursuing an agenda to “dismantle” the district with the help of firms that have worked on “public school closures and charter expansion in some districts where they have worked, from New Orleans to Washington, D.C.”

As it happened, Beutner was at work behind closed doors on a plan to radically reshape the district by dividing the central bureaucracy into thirty-two de-centralized “networks.” The Times got wind of the plan after managers and other employees at L.A. Unified’s downtown headquarters were asked to justify why their jobs should continue to exist in a down-sized school system.

There will be a special election on March 5 for the open school-board seat vacated by Ref Rodriguez. It’s been speculated that the UTLA will support well-known charter opponent Jackie Goldberg, banking on momentum from the strike to take back the board majority. Beutner’s future as superintendent could hang on the election’s outcome.

In Sacramento, new California Governor Gavin Newsom chose day one of the strike as the occasion to call for legislation that brings more public scrutiny on the state’s charter schools. “We want to get a (charter) transparency bill on my desk as soon as possible,” Newsom told CalMatters in Sacramento. “I’m going to be advancing with a sense of urgency.”

What the governor means by transparency remains to be seen. Democrats won back a supermajority in the California Legislature last year, though party members have long differed on the issue of charter education.

At the conclusion of the Grand Park rally on Tuesday, as attendees dispersed, teachers of all ages clad in UTLA red were dancing to OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” in Grand Park. Lisa Rizzo, a teacher at Thomas Starr King Middle School in East Hollywood, was in the park with her five-year-old daughter, her sister, and her seven- and eight-year-old nephews.

“I feel great,” she said. “It’s been a long week, exhausting, but I couldn’t be happier. I can’t wait to go back to the classroom and start my unit.”