An estimated 40,000 teachers and health and human services professionals from the Los Angeles Unified School District took time out of their teaching schedules to protest planned cutbacks to education Friday, June 6th.
The demonstration, which had been planned for several weeks, was designed to get the attention of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers who have indicated that they will have to make hard choices this summer to reduce a mushrooming budget deficit, including cuts that will cost the district more that $350 million and potentially jeopardize thousands of probationary teachers.
At Loyola Village Elementary School and Westchester High School, parents of students at both schools joined teachers during the first hour of the school day. Educators throughout the district voluntarily gave up one hour of pay to participate in the protest.
“This was an incredible day for the City of Los Angeles and for public education in Los Angeles,” said A.J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “I am proud of teachers who stepped up and took a stand against the budget cuts. They were willing to do the right thing for kids.”
LAUSD officials attempted to prevent district educators from protesting by filing on May 31st with the Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) for an injunction, but the board refused to halt the demonstrations.
Subsequent to that action, the district asked a Superior Court judge to stop what it characterized as a teacher “walkout,” but again were rebuffed when the judge ruled that there was no legal or factual basis to halt the demonstration.
LAUSD Superintendent David L. Brewer said that the district agrees that the cutbacks to education are severe, but disagreed with the decision not to teach the first classroom hour and demonstrate instead.
“The district strongly supported the message behind the walkouts. We agree that the governor should not balance the state budget on the backs of students,” Brewer said, echoing Duffy’s earlier comments. “However, we were opposed to the walkouts because we felt they would jeopardize student safety and deprive them of valuable classroom time as they prepare for end-of-the year final exams.”
Eugene Blunt, who teaches third-grade at Loyola Village, was one of the many local educators who participated in the protest.
“Whenever there are constricting budgets, education is usually the first on the chopping block,” he said. “We would like to see a different way of thinking. What we need is more money for education, not less.”
Fred Page, who teaches mathematics at Westchester High, said that the beneficiaries of the protest would be the students.
“We’re not doing it for ourselves or the administrators; we’re doing this for the students,” Page told The Argonaut. “If we didn’t do this for the kids, they’ll be the ones who lose in the end.”
Blunt agrees. “If we’re going to see a difference in what goes on beyond these walls,” the Loyola Village teacher said, gesturing toward the school, “we’re going to have to make putting money into education a priority.”
Page wasn’t surprised that the district tried to stop the demonstration.
“Not at all,” he said. “There’s always obstacles between the union and the district, unfortunately.”
Heather Kahler, who is the parent of a first-grade student at Coeur d’Alene Avenue Elementary School in Venice, took part in the protest in front of her daughter’s school. “The need for educating our nation’s kids well is like the need for food, air and water,” she said.
She agrees with Page that the protesting educators have their students’ best interest in mind.
“The teachers were out there for the kids, fighting for the budget they deserve,” she asserted. “To have the budget slashed in half is a slap in the face to all of the work and efforts parents already put into their schools to make them better for their kids.”
At the three local schools, commuters honked their horns and waved at the protesting teachers and parents.
Not everyone was supportive of the demonstration.
“By ‘not clocking in’ for an additional hour (on June 6th), the only people UTLA is hurting is our children,” wrote Kelly Kane, a Westchester parent whose two children are enrolled at Westport Heights Elementary School, in an e-mail on the day of the protest.
“The teachers at my children’s elementary school reluctantly followed orders, but even they realized the potential danger of over 500 children under the supervision of a handful of non-UTLA staff.”
According to an LAUSD press release, the school district reported that the hour-long “walkout” resulted in “classroom disruptions for many of the LAUSD’s 700,000 students, and no reported breaches of student safety or security throughout the district.”
“We’re very relieved and grateful to know that the walkouts proceeded without incident and that student safety was never compromised,” Brewer said in a statement after the protests. “I must thank our school principals, their staffs and parent volunteers for rolling with the punches and ensuring the well-being of our students.”
Kane, who is the president of the WestchesterñPlaya del Rey Education Foundation, questioned why the union decided to proceed with the morning protest unilaterally without networking with other groups.
“Why did UTLA feel the need to take action without input from any other entity which could have, and would have, partnered with them on any other action which was more reasonable?” she asked. “Wouldn’t that have sent a much stronger message to Sacramento?”
Blunt said that the protest action was taken because it was the best way to send a message to both the school district and to state legislators about how educators and parents feel about what many are calling draconian reductions to the state education budget.
“Any sort of cut will have a real effect on teachers,” said Blunt, who commutes to Westchester from Pasadena. “This is a basic, fundamental way to attract attention to what is happening to education.”
“This was not a frivolous action,” Duffy added.
The teachers union president said that more actions to draw attention to the teachers plight are planned for the future.
“The district should continue to pay attention, because they are not completely out of harm’s way,” Duffy warned.
Kalher said that she had discussed Brewer’s position with other parents on the teachers’ demonstration.
“Parents that I talked to are angry at him for opposing the union action,” she said.
Brewer said that despite the protest, the district will seek to do its part to convey the message to Schwarzenegger about what the planned cutbacks will do to public education.
“The district will continue to work with teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders to let elected officials in Sacramento know that any cuts to public education are unacceptable,” he said. “In fact, the governor and the Legislature need to make education a priority and find new ways to generate revenues.”