L.A. Teachers Strike Continues Battle Against Education Austerity and Charter School Privatization

Interview with Isabel Nunez, professor of educational studies, and director of the School of Education at Purdue University, conducted by Scott Harris

In another sign of growing anger and militancy among U.S. educators, teachers in Los Angeles walked off their jobs for the first time in 30 years on Jan. 14, effectively shutting down the second largest school district in the U.S. The strike, supported by an overwhelming majority of the city’s 30,000 teachers, was called to demand increased wages, smaller classroom sizes and the hiring of more support staff – including nurses, counselors and librarians.
After walking the picket line for six school days, L.A. teachers won a tentative deal that included a 6 percent pay raise and caps on class sizes; the hiring of full-time nurses for every school, as well as a pledge to hire librarians for every middle and high school in the district by the fall of 2020. In the deal announced Jan. 22 that still must be ratified by union members, the city and county also committed to expand programs to provide additional support services for the neediest students.
The Los Angeles Teachers strike echoed complaints about the failings of U.S. education, heard in statewide strikes and job actions last year in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Colorado and Arizona. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Isabel Nunez, professor of educational studies, and director of the School of Education at Purdue University, who assesses the damage austerity budgets have done to public schools and the threat charter schools privatization poses to public education.

ISABEL NUNEZ: The teachers strike in L.A. is part of a larger movement by teachers to stand up and defend public education. So this has been going on for awhile. There are a couple of main models of teachers’ unions out there. One is the service-oriented union where the idea is that the union will negotiate contracts and defend teachers on an individual basis. It’s basically the union provides service to the members. But another model, the social organizing model of teachers unions looks at the teachers themselves as being the union. So the union is not this separate entity that does things for us. We are the union and this model looks at broader issues. It’s not just what’s going on in the classroom; it’s not just wages and working conditions, but what is happening in schools and what is happening in our district connect to larger issues of social justice and the rule of education in a democratic society.And so, looking at that big picture, there are really frightening moves toward privatization. We have a secretary of education who is pretty unabashedly pro-privatization, the inroads of charter schools and charter management organization leave teachers with a lot, a lot of work to do. So I was really excited when Alex Hutto and the Progressive Caucus that he’s a part of came into power in L.A. And I thought this might happen that the L.A. teachers might join the rest of the movements in the country around defending public education.

BETWEEN THE LINES: As you discussed in your article, there have been statewide teachers strikes in 2018 in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Colorado and Arizona. Tell us about the environment in terms of austerity that teachers and students have experienced with a lot less resources flowing from state governments to schools across the country.

ISABEL NUNEZ: There has been a marked disinvestment in public education both at the K-12 level and it’s in higher education also. And, interestingly, many of those wildcat strikes were in very red states, right? Some in Right to Work states where the ability of teachers unions to collectively bargain was limited. But teachers still stood in solidarity and took tremendous risks to their jobs and you know, perhaps to their reputations and the opinions of their neighbors – right? – to defend public education. So that was very exciting to see how many teachers, even in a very conservative political climate, were willing to stand up in Chicago.

And in L.A. it’s a little bit different. Chicago and L.A. are both pretty blue, pretty Democratic. But the forces of privatization are still strong. It’s kind of been a really bipartisan effort to weaken public schools. What was passed under the Race to the Top legislation has been so destructive in terms of value-added in-teacher evaluation, which means that teacher’s evaluations are heavily dependent on students’ test scores, which you know, those are more impacted by parental income than anything else. So, it just punishes the teachers who choose to work with the highest-need populations, as well as being statistically indefensible. But so, it’s been both the Democratic and Republican project to dismantle public education. And so, it’s exciting to me to see teachers in both more progressive and conservative areas standing in solidarity together.

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