Drawing the (Picket) Line: Inside the Fight for Public Education Funding in Los Angeles

“I miss my kids,” Samantha Barnea, a third grade teacher at Noble Avenue Elementary in North Hills, California, told Ms., “but I’m doing this for them.”

Barnea, in line with an overwhelming 98 percent of her colleagues in the the Los Angeles Unified School District, feels ill-equipped to properly educate her students, many of whom are ESL learners, due to disproportionate class sizes and a deficiency in supplemental resources. That’s why this week, she walked out of class—joining the slew of educators and faculty on strike and students rallying alongside them to demand an increase in public school funding.

dolores huerta, wearing red, joins teachers and students in a rainy Los Angeles schoolyard.

Feminist leader Dolores Huerta walked in solidarity with striking teachers this week in Los Angeles, where educators are demanding adequate funding for their classrooms. (Rafael Rodriguez / Dolores Huerta Foundation)

“At its heart, the standoff between L.A. Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles is a struggle over the future of public education,” Alex Caputo-Pearl, President of the UTLA, told Ms. Caputo-Pearl and his colleagues are deadlocked in their negotiations with Superintendent Austen Beutner, which has led to the first district-wide strike in 30 years. 

Rousing chants calling for Beutner’s removal as Superintendent—“Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Austen Beutner’s got to go”—are now ringing through city streets while teachers, standing outside in ponchos in pouring rain, hold signs and wave to supportive cars honking their horns as they speed by.

California ranks dismally—43rd out of 50 states—in per-student spending, despite being home to the wealthiest population in the country. 80 percent of schools within the LAUSD do not employ full-time nurses or librarians, and funding for counselors and psychologists is sorely lacking.

None of this is for lack of funds. “L.A. Unified had a reserve of $1.86 billion at the end of the 2017-18 school year,” Caputo-Pearl explained. “Its latest budget documents show the reserve growing to $1.97 billion in the 2018-19 school year.” But as public education institutions struggle to accommodate an excess of 45 pupils per class, educators and students are left to wonder where that money actually goes.

Studies have shown that the presence of such actively engaged faculty members corresponds to higher achievement and improved overall morale within public schools—meaning LAUSD’s inadequate funding leaves students at an enormous disadvantage in their individual cognitive development. “I have noticed larger class sizes correlate to more time spent trying to make sure students are on tasks, which, in turn, lowers their learning potential,” Connor Kaplan, a Biology teacher at Taft Community Charter in Woodland Hills, told Ms. “The strike is primarily for the students—so rain or shine, we will be out there trying to get our voices heard until positive change happens.”

Teachers in Los Angeles are on strike for the first time in 30 years due to inadequate funding and a lack of resources and support. (Sarah Alexander)

Beutner, a wealthy businessman with no educational background and whose noted expertise lies in corporate downsizing, has been upfront with his intentions to expand the charter model whilst increasing already tight educational budget restrictions, which decidedly places Los Angeles public schools on the chopping block. During contract negotiations last week, he failed to attend two of three meetings. ULTA and LAUSD have agreed to reopen contract negotiations today, at the behest of Caputo-Pearl and Mayor Eric Garcetti. The Mayor’s office has stated that it would moderate discussions between the union and the district, but has made no comment with regard to whether or not any new proposals have been put forth.  

At a rally Thursday morning, Caputo-Pearl commended educators and supporters for their persistence in the wake of difficult weather conditions—and urged demonstrators to maintain enthusiasm and resilience. “We are having an impact,” he declared. “Your picket lines have an impact. The rallies have an impact. Everything that you are doing has an impact.”

Sarah Alexander is a recent graduate of Cal State Northridge. In addition to being a writer, she is a visual and performing artist, and attempts to use film, music and online platforms to spark conversation about social activism. She is an anomalous LA native, which affects her personality in a plethora of unique ways.

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