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Educators across U.S. inspired by L.A. teachers' win

"Our issues are very much like the ones in Los Angeles," said a union official in Sacramento.
Image: Kate Martin
Kate Martin, a former teacher and current employee of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, unloads items for a potential teachers' strike outside the union's headquarters in south Denver on Jan. 17.David Zalubowski / AP

Teachers in Denver have authorized a strike against the public school district, but the pending labor action is not just about their pocketbooks.

"They’re striking for better pay, they’re striking for our profession, and they’re striking for Denver students," Rob Gould, lead negotiator for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, told reporters this week.

The idea that taxpayers need to reinvest in often neglected public schools has been embraced by educators' unions from coast-to-coast. Teachers in Denver; Sacramento and Oakland, California; and Virginia are in the midst of labor disputes that could help shape the nature of public education funding in the years to come.

If Los Angeles is a bellwether, the nation could be turning a corner when it comes to pumping fresh cash into classrooms instead of pinching education pennies. United Teachers Los Angeles embarked on a seven-day strike that ended Tuesday when the UTLA agreed to a new contract with the nation's second-largest school district.

"What we are witnessing is not a moment but a movement of and by educators who are fighting for the public schools our students deserve," National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement.

The Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to spend an additional $403 million on schools through 2022, reduce average class size, now at 42, for middle and high schools and give campus administrators some say when privately run charter schools come aboard.

"The second-largest school district going on strike will inspire teachers across the nation to do what they need to to improve the quality of their schools," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.

In California's capital, the Sacramento City Teachers Association says the district has failed to live up to its end of previous bargaining, allegedly putting money into administrator bonuses instead of reducing class size as promised.

The president of the labor group, David Fisher, said members have been clamoring for a strike vote. The timing doesn't bode well for the district if it's trying to avoid this national wave of pro-student labor action.

"Our issues are very much like the ones in Los Angeles," Fisher said. "We already got the district to use health care savings to implement lower class sizes and other issues. We just need to get them to do it."

In the Bay Area, members of the Oakland Education Association were expected to vote on a strike authorization next week. Keith Brown, president of the union, said in a statement, "Teachers are fed up with the poor working conditions and salaries, and with the learning conditions that our students are having to endure."

On the other side of the country, Virginia Educators United was planning to take a day off from teaching and march in the state capital. The story is much the same: A lack of investment in the classroom, particularly at a time when state lawmakers were considering giving Amazon $550 million in tax breaks.

"We haven’t brought school funding back up to adequate levels" seen before the Great Recession, said Virginia Educators United organizer Deanna Fierro. "We’re at a point where it’s getting well over 10 years and we’re starting feel the pinch, especially in our own pocketbooks."

The labor disputes are part of a national surge of labor actions — in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and North Carolina — that started last year under the National Education Association's "Red for Ed" banner. Teachers in Los Angeles wore red T-shirts as they demonstrated.

UCLA education professor Pedro Noguera said the apparent victory in L.A., where more than 600,000 students were invited back to school Wednesday, will "inspire teachers around the country to focus beyond salary and benefits and think about the conditions they work under."

"With cases like the L.A. strike it’s exciting because it gives educators courage and motivation," said Fierro of Virginia Educators United.