Tens of thousands of Los Angeles public school educators and their allies marched on Saturday to demand smaller class sizes, a 6 percent pay raise and the hiring of more school nurses, counselors, and librarians. (While the teachers’ union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, estimated a crowd of 50,00 ,Los Angeles School Police Chief Steven Zipperman put it at 10,000.) UTLA told the Associated Press that it’s been negotiating with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for 20 months, but bargaining is now at an impasse. The school district says UTLA’s demands will increase its deficit; UTLA, meanwhile, argues that the district has a cash reserve of $1.8 billion that it could use to pay teachers a higher wage and hire more support staff. “It’s unconscionable to hold on to that money acting like kids don’t need it now. We need it now,” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl told the AP. The union is preparing to go on strike in January; it would be the district’s first strike in 30 years.
Saturday’s marchers wore red, an explicit callback to the Red for Ed movement that began with West Virginia teachers in February and quickly spread to Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Colorado in the spring. In several of those states, teachers cited the prospect of privately-run charters siphoning funds from traditional public schools as a reason to protest; Los Angeles educators have similar concerns. UTLA is demanding stricter regulation for charter schools, and leaders are especially critical of Los Angeles school superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker with ties to the charter school movement. LAUSD has more charter schools than any other school district in the nation, and charter advocates and operators currently control the city school board, which leaves UTLA in a less-than-desirable bargaining position.
A LAUSD strike would broadcast these conflicts to new audiences, much as the West Virginia walkout put the state’s staggeringly low teacher pay in the spotlight. LAUSD is the nation’s second-largest school district, serving about 640,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. A strike would affect just under 500,000 students enrolled both in traditional public schools and unionized charter schools. There are, by contrast, about 265,755 public school students in West Virginia, where the only state-wide walkout occurred. A UTLA strike wouldn’t be the biggest Red for Ed action – walkouts in Arizona and Oklahoma affected around 530,698 and 500,000 students respectively – but it would still be significant, as the biggest teacher strike to hit a largely Democratic state in years. (The strike at Acero charter schools in Chicago earlier this month occurred in a mostly Democratic state, but it did not spring organically out of the Red for Ed movement. After Acero teachers nearly went on strike in 2016, the Chicago Teachers’ Union subsequently timed 11 charter school contracts to expire at the same time.)
UTLA teachers might not be the only educators to walk out in January. Teachers in Oakland, California are also readying for a potential strike, and Virginia educators are planning a Red for Ed march in Richmond on the 28th to demand more funding for public schools. The teachers’ strike wave looks set to continue into 2019, and there’s no reason to expect momentum to slow, either; Edweek reported on December 14 that 55 percent of teachers nationwide say they’re dissatisfied with their salaries, and public support for higher teacher pay increased significantly in states that witnessed walkouts this year, rising from 47 percent in 2017 to 63 percent in 2018. As long as strikes keep working, and public education remain underfunded, teachers are going to keep walking out.