A year ago teachers in Los Angeles were celebrating the signing of a new agreement with their district after an outpouring of support from teachers around California and the larger public.
The strike, soon followed by another high-profile one in Oakland, seemed to presage the emergence of a powerful surge of teacher activism in California, adding momentum to the RedForEd protests featuring teachers wearing red T-shirts in several other states, including Republican-led Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
But since then, there have been few visible signs of teacher activism, at least as measured by demonstrations, marches or strikes. There has only been one other significant teacher strike in the state — in New Haven Unified, an 11,000-student district south of Oakland — although threatened strikes in a handful of other districts have been averted.
And in Los Angeles the popular support teachers enjoyed, as reflected in many polls, failed to translate into passage of a parcel tax there intended to raise a half billion dollars for the district each year. Less than half of voters backed the tax, compared to the two-thirds needed for approval
Nor have appeals to Sacramento resulted in significant increases in funding this year to significantly raise the state’s low ranking in per pupil spending compared to other states.
But education, labor and civic leaders interviewed by EdSource say that the impact of last year’s teacher activism has been considerable, although less visible, at least as measured by the size of teacher rallies or the number of strikes in the state.
Like any movement, they say, the impact is being felt on multiple levels, and has yet to be fully expressed.
They also say a good deal of last year’s activism is now being funneled into organizing for passage of a statewide initiative called Schools and Communities First that will be on the November ballot, and is intended to raise billions of dollars for schools and community colleges by increasing taxes on commercial property.
“I’ve been going through a lot of strategizing meetings and I’ve been part of huge gatherings of thousands of people training for Schools and Communities First, and that’s where everybody’s focus is, to try to get this done statewide,” said L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Focusing only on California runs the risk of missing the broader narrative of a still rising teacher movement across the country, several point out. Over the past year, there were major strikes in Denver and Chicago, both large urban districts. There were other significant strikes in Little Rock, Arkansas and statewide in West Virginia. “The national wave has definitely continued, with strikes being a major part of it,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.
What’s more, both L.A. and Oakland teachers shifted the more traditional arc of teacher organizing by focusing not just on higher salaries, but on support services such as more school nurses, librarians and counselors, as well as smaller class sizes. “I think the Los Angeles strike started a pattern that we saw picked up in Oakland and then Chicago, of teachers in urban districts really pushing a broader agenda focused on the conditions in schools,” said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at UCLA and founder of the Center for the Transformation of Schools.
This represents a radical departure from the dominant narrative of the No Child Left Behind era, when teachers were largely blamed for poor performing students, and when “solutions” such as firing teachers and principals and converting schools to charter schools or closing them altogether were embraced.
‘Social justice teacher unionism’
What is emerging now, said John Rogers, director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, is “social justice teacher unionism.” That, he said, “emphasizes moving beyond narrow bread and butter issues (like teacher salaries) to taking on broader issues affecting schools and the communities where they operate.”
In that vein, the strike settlement in Los Angeles called for the establishment of more “community schools,” which provide an array of social services beyond classroom instruction. Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken the idea further, and proposes to spend $300 million to expand community schools across the state next year. The funds would be used for non-classroom activities such as increasing parent engagement at the schools, and offering after-school programs as well as health services there.
Education leaders say the strikes made the state’s underfunding of its schools, at least relative to other states, a much more prominent issue.
One reason there haven’t more strikes over the past year is that while their outcomes were hailed as victories for teachers, they reinforced the reality that striking against local districts will only yield limited gains. Most school districts depend almost entirely on the state for funds, and can’t easily generate more revenue to meet teacher and staff demands or wishes.
“I think we’re taking the conversation where it belongs — to Sacramento,” said Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner. L.A. Unified school board member Nick Melvoin backed that view. “There is a tacit recognition that districts don’t have the resources, and that this is an issue that is far larger than Los Angeles Unified.”
Impact of charter schools
Another arena where the strike’s impact has been felt has been charter schools. A major rallying cry in last year’s teachers strikes was opposition to charter schools, which in California enroll just over 1 in 10 of public school students. Strike leaders believe that labor conflicts played a role in forcing the hand of legislative leaders — including Gov. Newsom — to reach a historic reform of California’s 25-year-old charter school law last summer.
A key piece of the reform is that it will allow districts, including Oakland and Los Angeles, to take into account the financial impact of a charter school on the district when deciding whether to allow it to open. The law doesn’t go into effect until the next school year, so it is not clear what impact it will have. But it could be considerable.
“There is no question that the L.A. strike drove a lot of that,” said Caputo-Pearl, noting that Newsom called for creating a task force on charter schools a week after the L.A. strike, which brought competing sides to the same table for the first time.
Nationally, the charter reforms in California, along with high-profile teacher criticisms of charter schools, have had a ripple effect by undermining support for them among Democrats, both in California and nationally, said Julie Marsh, a professor at the USC Rossier School of Education and a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a research and policy organization.
The recent teacher activism, said Marsh, “is playing a part in the national political dynamic, and in weakening political support for charter schools and school choice policies.” That trend has been accentuated as a result of President Donald Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ promotion of a “school choice” agenda, including support for charter schools.
The attention that the strikes have drawn to teachers may also have had some influence on Newsom’s proposal to dedicate nearly $1 billion for teacher preparation and recruitment in his budget proposal, Marsh said. Other factors also played a role, such State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond’s longstanding advocacy of the need for more support for teachers. “But the fact that we have some significant money behind shortages, professional development and mentoring (of new teachers), that could be linked to the strike in some sense, and a growing understanding among state leaders that this is a really important area needing support,” she said.
Schools and Communities First
The next big test for the teacher movement in California, with or without red T-shirts, will be the convincing enough voters to support the commercial property tax initiative on the November ballot, known as Schools and Communities First. It would raise at least $4.5 billion for schools and community colleges and an additional $6.5 billion for a range of other health and social services, and possibly billions more.
If approved, it would mark the biggest reform by far of Proposition 13 since the tax-cutting initiative was approved by voters in 1978. It will not be an easy task. There will be massive opposition from business interests. Polls also show that the majority of voters still think that Prop. 13 has been mostly a positive force in the state.
The crushing defeat of the parcel tax measure in Los Angeles last spring also sends a warning signal. However, UCLA’s Rogers says that the measure was not the “not the best test” of whether the political energy from the strike could be sustained. He said the parcel tax measure was “ill-timed” and “was not framed in the most politically adept way” and he thinks the Schools and Communities First measure has a better chance of passing.
Activists are hoping that a massive Democratic turnout in November, driven by voters’’ desire to remove Trump from office, will make the difference. Among other activities, UTLA’s Caputo-Pearl said that local teachers’ unions are working “to turn every school into a vehicle to be talking to the community and making sure people get out and vote for this.”
Backers of the initiative will have to overcome doubts among voters about how well existing funds are being spent in schools, as well skepticism that schools have as desperate a need for more funds, as they are often told.
To convince voters, organizers of the initiative will need to come up with way to frame how the money raised through the initiative will be spent, said Ron Solórzano, a professor of education at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “People want to know, where is that money going? How is it being used?”