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L.A. teachers join U.S. movement against underfunded schools

"What you’re seeing is a national phenomenon, and it’s been building for decades," said National Education Assn. president Lily Eskelsen García.
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Jennifer Villaryo looked at the young woman through smudged spectacles and gave her this advice: "Don't get bogged down in the party scene."

The student, taking the 42-year-old’s "student success" night course at an adult school in Santa Monica this week, promised her those days are in her past, and Villaryo nodded approvingly.

The gig is Villaryo’s third job. She teaches second grade and coaches volleyball for the Los Angeles Unified School District. The paycheck trifecta allows her to live in what she describes as a "super crappy" one-bedroom apartment in Gardena, a city that's often an hour’s drive south of her main job at Grand View Elementary School in L.A.’s Mar Vista community.

"I’m not married," she said. "I don’t have kids."

That’s a teacher's life in California, which has the fifth-largest economy in the world but also the highest poverty rate in the nation. Los Angeles Unified teachers have authorized a strike that is expected to begin Monday if talks between their union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and the district continue to be unfruitful.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that the strike could go on after the district challenged the UTLA over the amount of notice it provided.

Despite exorbitant housing costs that cut everyone down a notch — about one in five Californians is poor, according to the U.S. Census Bureau‘s Supplemental Poverty Measure — the teachers’ dispute isn’t just about teachers’ pay.

Educators in the second-largest school district in the nation say they’re making a last stand against more than two generations of state defunding of public schools, understaffing of nurses and janitors and an onslaught of what they call the privatization of public education — charter schools.

"Here we are with a public education system in the richest state in the union with a crisis in funding," said outside observer Oscar de la Torre, a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board. "UTLA is rightfully launching a campaign to save public education."

The nation’s largest labor organization for public school instructors, the National Education Association, frames the looming strike as an extension of teacher walkouts over education funding in states like Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

"What you’re seeing is a national phenomenon, and it’s been building for decades," said NEA president Lily Eskelsen García. "Privatizing public education, standardizing testing, taking away professional judgement, all of those things are proven to be bad ideas."

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said, "We want to see a cap on charter schools."

Image: Alex Caputo-Pearl
United Teachers Los Angeles union president Alex Caputo-Pearl, from center, speaks during a news conference at the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters, in Los Angeles on Jan. 9, 2019.Jae C. Hong / AP

California ranks 41st in the nation in per pupil spending, and about one in five public school students is an English language learner. Critics often focus on Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative approved by voters who feared being taxed out of their increasingly valuable homes. The measure limited property tax increases and, at the same time, correlated to decreasing per pupil spending.

As some schools crumble, folks who’ve lived in a home long enough to see its value double and triple still pay taxes largely based on what they paid when their grown kids were in elementary school. In 2014, a group of educators started a Facebook page to document the daily disrepair they witnessed in L.A. schools

"We need to revisit the issue of Proposition 13 and the systematic defunding of education," said Kent Wong, director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Labor Center. "But for the school district to say we don’t have the money, there’s nothing that can be done, it’s disingenuous."

Susan Shelley, vice president of communications for the group behind Proposition 13, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said by email that the initiative has nothing to do with per pupil spending.

"Property tax revenue goes to Sacramento, and Sacramento decides how much goes to schools," she said. "The state’s general fund budget is at record levels, and how that money is spent is up to our lawmakers and the governor."

Even as California enjoys a nearly $9 billion surplus and L.A. Unified possesses $1.8 billion in reserves, average high school class size in the district has grown to 42 students. The union complains there aren’t enough nurses and other support staff to serve the district’s 1,322 schools.

The recently appointed superintendent, Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and deputy mayor, said Tuesday that his 694,096-student district could not afford what the UTLA is seeking.

Image: Austin Beutner
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner talks to reporters during a news conference at the LAUSD headquarters, in Los Angeles, last Wednesday.Jae C. Hong / AP

"We do not have the resources to meet all the demands," he said in a news conference. "We will become insolvent."

So far, the district says it has offered a 6 percent raise retroactive to the last school year and $100 million for additional teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians. It's vowing to create a "working group" on charter schools. The total investment, LAUSD says, will reduce class size and address UTLA’s concerns about staffing.

The district's $1.8 billion in reserves is already spoken for, Beutner said.

"We are spending all the reserves we have," he said Wednesday in a news conference.

The California Charter Schools Association said in a statement that charter enrollment in the district is 88 percent Latino and African-American and 82 percent low income, "and they are learning more and attending college at higher rates."

"A cap on charter schools won't solve the financial challenges before L.A. Unified," the association said. "It will hurt the hundreds of thousands of kids who need great public schools the most and the families who historically have struggled to access a free education that will help lift them up beyond their challenges and open the doors of opportunity."

The district said it will keep campuses open during the strike. The union said the district has hired strike replacements as part of what it calls a "union-busting agenda."

“We have a duty to provide an education to our students, and we will take appropriate measures to do so," district spokeswoman Shannon Haber said in a statement.

While the union claims widespread support from parents, the district’s open-campus policy could sway some hearts and minds in a city where a vast working class counts on school to double as childcare. It would be the first strike at L.A. Unified schools since 1989.

Gustavo Arellano, a Los Angeles Times staff writer who has contributed to NBC News' THINK, wrote in an opinion piece for the Times last month that a prolonged strike would hurt those least able to afford it.

"The optics of such a strike, in an era when family budgets are stretched to snapping, are not good," he wrote. "Will the union offer to pay for the day care of all these parents … ?"

Caputo-Pearl of the UTLA said, "We have been overwhelmed with support from parents and support from other community networks."

But make no mistake, the teachers do want money. They want a larger raise than the district is offering, the likes of which most Americans haven’t seen since before Barack Obama was president.

The union is demanding a 6.5 percent raise retroactive for two school years. The UTLA says the district’s 6 percent raise will also come with a reduction in health care benefits. Teachers currently earn about $50,000 to $88,000, depending on experience, education and credentials. That’s not bad, given the median household income in Los Angeles County is $61,015.

But a teacher's salary doesn't go very far relative to the region’s cost of living, particularly when it comes to housing.

In 2017, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that Los Angeles shared “the top of the list” with a handful of cities, including New York, where a large portion of renters were burdened by their housing costs. A few independent analyses have found that it takes near or even more than a six-figure income to rent a median, two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles.

Villaryo knows the pain.

“I don’t have much savings,” she said. “Most of my teacher friends have at least two jobs or they’re living with parents. These are grown people.”

The job of educating the poorest of the poor, the children of immigrants, has been accepted with pride by people like Vallaryo.

“This really isn’t about pay,” Villaryo said. “We really want to be teaching. But it’s about the kids. Unfortunately, there has to be some disruption in order to make the district and the state realize it.”