LA teachers strike may be over, but in Sacramento, the debate has just begun

As Los Angeles teachers celebrate the end of their six-day strike against California’s largest school district, the issues underlying the union’s bitter walkout appear to be headed straight for the state Capitol.

The Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles reached a deal Tuesday, ending nearly two years of deadlocked negotiations. The strike—the first in 30 years at the district—had impacted more than a half-million students and disrupted the city for more than a week.

The deal includes 6 percent teacher pay raises, as LAUSD had proposed, as well as nurses staffed at every campus, more counselors and librarians and lower class sizes, a key teacher demand.

Also included, however, are actions that will call on the state to address some of the strike’s more controversial flashpoints, from the growth of charter schools to California’s low rank compared with other states in public school funding. 

For example, as a side-deal to the strike agreement, UTLA announced the Los Angeles school board had agreed to vote this month on a resolution that calls for Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to enact a cap on new charter schools at LAUSD while the state further studies the issue.

The resolution—which could not be immediately confirmed by the district—would be symbolic in nature but, if approved by the school board, it would call for more forceful action on public charter schools than what Newsom has recently proposed, and thrust the Legislature into an intense and high-dollar political battle over the direction of public schools.

While the governor did not take a public role in brokering a deal between the district and union, he remained in constant communication with them behind the scenes. Some of Newsom’s efforts to bridge the impasse are already before state lawmakers, including a record $80.7 billion education budget proposal, which included special education funding and a multi-billion-dollar pension relief plan for districts that indirectly freed up more money for negotiations in Los Angeles. Newsom also pledged to pursue legislation that would increase transparency and accountability for the state’s 1,200-plus public charter schools.

UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl and LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner struck an amicable tone at a Tuesday morning press conference at L.A. City Hall, where Mayor Eric Garcetti mediated a five-day marathon bargaining session that had wrapped up just hours before.

Both Caputo-Pearl and Beutner spoke of how the teacher strike heightened public awareness of the need to invest more in public education in California and beyond. Both leaders said the strike had been decades in the making and partly the result of the underfunding of public education by the state and federal government.

They, as well as Garcetti, also pointed to a 2020 ballot measure that would overhaul Proposition 13 and bring in between $6 billion and $10 billion for cities and schools as one of the next steps in securing more resources for public schools.

“This strike has helped not only move to this agreement, but has helped raise the issue of public education up nationally and even internationally in a way that we’re all now prepared to take advantage of and move forward in the next steps,” Caputo-Pearl said.

Thousands of LAUSD teachers had been on strike since January 14—the boiling point of nearly two years of unsuccessful talks with LAUSD.  The union has long demanded higher teacher pay, smaller classroom sizes, less standardized testing, more librarians, counselors and nurses and broader support and resources from the district, which has long replied that it can’t afford that level of spending.

In fact, one of the key sticking points had been stark disagreement over the district’s financial standing. Beutner had said that while the district had a $1.8 billion reserve, it was already spending at a deficit and would risk bankruptcy if it fulfilled all of the union’s demands. The union had long been skeptical over whether the district was truly in financial distress and viewed the reserve as ample funding for more resources.

Beutner said the district is spending “every nickel we have” toward the contract agreement. He added that the district still has “tremendous concerns over insolvency.”

In L.A. and across the state, many school districts have braced for budget deficits amid financial pressures over growing pension obligations, shrinking enrollments and growing populations of special needs students that cost more to teach. In the weeks leading up to the strike, the district increasingly sought to pressure Newsom and the Legislature to intervene in the Los Angeles impasse, believing that many of the core issues in the dispute can only be truly addressed at the state level.

“Forty years of underinvestment in public education cannot be solved in just one week or with just one contract,” Beutner said. “Now that students and all educators are heading back to the classroom, we must focus our attention to properly fund our schools for the long term.”

While class sizes and support resources for teachers and students dominated the contract dispute between LAUSD and UTLA, charter schools’ role in the district played a significant factor in tensions between the teachers’ union and school district.

Even though it wasn’t an item on the bargaining table, the union used its spotlight in the contract dispute to call on state leaders to impose a cap on charter schools, which the union blamed for the district’s financial distress. Most charter schools in California are nonprofit, but many regulatory constraints that govern traditional public schools don’t apply to charters.

The proposed school board resolution mirrors a proposal from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who won a competitive race in November that many viewed as a proxy battle between charter advocates and teachers’ unions. Thurmond’s platform called for a pause on new charters while the state examined their financial impact to districts.

“My office and I look forward to working with districts, the governor, and Legislature to identify new and permanent funding sources to help districts provide smaller class sizes, have increased staff such as librarians and counselors, and to support and improve public education overall in our state,” Thurmond said in a statement.

Myrna Castrejon, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, said in a statement to CALmatters that while the association is glad the district and union reached an agreement, “a charter school cap will do almost nothing to solve the district’s financial problems.”

“Independent experts who are not beholden to the district, UTLA or charters have stated clearly and unambiguously that L.A. Unified would be facing a fiscal crisis even if there were no more new charter schools,” Castrejon said.

Castrejon said that most L.A. parents who seek out charters live in low-income neighborhoods.

Gov. Gavin Newsom outlines budget proposals that, among other things, would free up money for lower class sizes at LAUSD.

“A cap on charters would simply be yet another slap in the face to low-income families who are already deprived of the opportunities that wealthier families take for granted.”

It remains unclear whether Newsom or the Legislature would even take up the issue of a potential charter cap. Many legislators expressed support for the teachers’ strike and wore red at the Capitol—the adoptive color of a teacher revolt movement that has seen educators strike in L.A. as well as conservative states such as Arizona and West Virginia last year. But few were willing to say immediately whether they would go so far as to cap charters.

“I’m so, so happy that they were able to reach an agreement in a short amount of time,” said state Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino and chair of the Senate’s education committee.

“I’m so proud of the teachers for giving up their paychecks and walking the picket line, fighting for their students and, from what we’ve been told, really achieving most, if not all of what they were asking for their students.”

Leyva had not yet seen the proposed L.A. school board resolution, though she added that “if it’s calling for more transparency in charter schools, I certainly wouldn’t object to that.”

Newsom said in a statement he is “glad that LAUSD and UTLA have come to an agreement.”

“I want to thank the thousands of dedicated teachers, parents and students who were powerfully demonstrating their passion for our public schools over the last nine days,” the governor said.

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