LAUSD teachers and their supporters say the strike is really about improving learning conditions for students

By Joe Piasecki

ABOVE: Heavy rain didn’t dampen strikers’ spirits outside Mark Twain Middle School or Venice High School, where Title I coordinator Monica Studer had a case of déjà vu (Photos by Maria Martin)
BELOW: Teachers and parents came out in force at Cowan Avenue and Kentwood elementary schools in Westchester (Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner)

It’s early Monday morning, in the pouring rain, and Short Avenue Elementary School fifth-grader Sophia Riegleman is marching with her teachers outside the Del Rey campus at the start of the LAUSD teachers’ strike. A supportive passerby comments that “teachers need money too,” but that’s not the only reason Sophia and her mother, Marina Marquez, have joined the United Teachers of Los Angeles picket line.

Sophia requires special accommodations at school for a chronic medical condition, but “the nurse that comes is only here once a week,” she says. “I can’t even remember [what day] because I barely see her.” Marquez adds that front office staffers do their best, but it isn’t the same as having a nurse available when Sophia is hurting.

“This is not about the 6% raise. It’s more about classroom conditions,” explains special education resource teacher Dayna Hendrick of the need for more nurses, more librarians, more counselors and, perhaps most of all, lower class sizes. While Short and other Westside public elementary schools count themselves lucky with classroom head-counts in the mid-twenties, class sizes balloon at local middle and high schools.

“My daughter’s class at Venice High — it has 42 or 43 kids! My son at Mark Twain Middle School [where Sophia might be headed next year],
he has 36 kids in some of his classes,” adds Hendrick.

Similar scenes of parents and students standing in waterlogged solidarity with striking LAUSD teachers played out in Westchester, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista, Mar Vista and Venice. According to the district, only about a third of LAUSD students attended school on the first day of the strike.

Westside teachers on the picket lines weren’t explicitly saying they’d sacrifice pay to lower class sizes and hire more support staff, but repeatedly cited those goals as moral imperative for the strike.

“We believe in what we do,” said Kentwood Elementary School fourth grade teacher Greg Liebowitz, “but over the years we’ve seen a continuing lack of funding for our public schools. We’ve seen them cut our librarian. We only have a nurse once a week. We see our class sizes inching up higher and higher. With too many kids in a classroom, you can’t get to all your kids — no matter how good of a teacher you are. I’ve been doing this for 22 years, and I don’t like the direction we’re going. This is our stand.”

“My children deserve an educational environment where they’re not being warehoused. … There’s no opportunity to create special bonds with a student when you have a classroom of 45 kids,” said Paseo Del Rey Natural Science Magnet Elementary School parent Justin Daza-Ritchie.

“Having 500 students per counselor is not OK,” said Westminster Avenue Elementary School science lab teacher and instructional coach Susana Plazola.

“A lot of people think we’re striking for more money, but it’s so much more than that,” said Jane Wilkins, a special education teacher at Cowan Avenue Elementary School. “When teachers also have to take on the roles of nurse, of counselor, of librarian, that doesn’t give kids the education they deserve.”

Friends of Playa Vista Elementary Vice President Marianna Villa stood with teachers outside the school not because she’s unhappy with conditions there, but because she knows how much extra work and money goes into maintaining them. “We’re in a special place, but we know it’s because it comes out of our pockets. Our families raise upwards of half-a-million dollars a year to fund some of the teachers and aides who keep our student-teacher ratio low,” she said.

The issue of charter schools drawing enrollment and resources away from traditional public schools also came up frequently, as did concern over Supt. Austin Beutner’s idea to decentralize LAUSD into 32 sub-districts that could accelerate the proliferation of charters. Beutner’s also a target because he’s the one telling United Teachers of Los Angeles that LAUSD doesn’t have enough money to meet its demands.

One statistical comparison that comes up frequently among parents and teachers: California is the world’s fifth-largest economy, but it ranks 43rd out of 50 states in per-pupil education funding.

But also employing that statistic is Nick Melvoin, a former LAUSD teacher who represents Westside neighborhoods on the LAUSD Board of Education after defeating UTLA-backed incumbent Steve Zimmer in 2017. Like Beutner, Melvoin argues that LAUSD just doesn’t have enough money to fund all of what UTLA is asking. The L.A. County Office of Education, he says, has warned the district that it’s risking insolvency by 2021 if it continues to spend down its fiscal reserves to pay for ongoing personnel expenses.

Teachers shouldn’t be striking against LAUSD, says Melvoin, but the California Legislature and the governor’s office — which control 90% of LAUSD’s funding.

“It’s in the zeitgeist around the country, but the key difference is that other strikes were aimed at state capitols, where the money is, and if this were in Sacramento I’d be marching with them. We’ve allocated every dollar of our reserves over the next three years to a 6% raise for our employees, 3% going back to last year, and hundreds of millions of dollars to hire 1,300 employees to lower class size, have more nurses and more counselors,” Melvoin said.

“I’ll admit that I’m inspired by the activism we’re seeing. I think people are standing up and saying our public schools matter, and it’s important to invest in our kids. That’s why I ran for the school board,” he continued. “What I hope is whether it’s a parent or United States senator that’s tweeting out support, that it won’t end this week. That they’ll be there when we ask people to vote for higher taxes so we can put more money in schools, that they’ll have that same level of advocacy.”

Staff writer Gary Walker contributed reporting from Paseo Del Rey and Westminster Avenue Elementary.