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Most of the signs and chants call for better pay, smaller classes and more staff support, but the backdrop to the Los Angeles Unified School District strike is a battle that has long loomed large over education in California: The fight over charter schools.
The country’s second-largest public school district, which educates over 480,000 students, has seen a steady decline in enrollment and resources as the area’s charter school enrollment has nearly doubled in the past decade.
The tensions between teachers’ unions and organizations representing charter schools have grown at a similar breakneck speed. During the last two statewide elections, each side spent tens of millions of dollars on political campaigns to back candidates for governor and state superintendent of public instruction.
How the acrimony plays out in the Los Angeles strike, the first in 30 years, will have a ripple effect in school districts across California, as many wrestle with similar issues of declining enrollment, dwindling finances and a growing number of charter schools.
Central to the concerns of teachers and union leaders at Los Angeles Unified is the argument that the growth of charter schools in the city has come at the expense of dollars for district schools and the teachers working in them.
“We want LAUSD and the City of L.A., and the County of Los Angeles, to join us in calling for a cap on charter schools,” Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the union representing the roughly 31,000 striking teachers in Los Angeles, said Tuesday, hours before a large rally in front of the L.A. offices of the state’s largest charter association. “There are too many schools in Los Angeles right now. We do not need to have the ‘grow-as-fast-as-you-can’ business model that’s promoted by charter billionaires. We need to invest in our existing schools — charter and district.”
As the United Teachers Los Angeles strike enters its third day, it is using its seat at the bargaining table to push a number of issues related to how charter schools are operated in the district. One, reforming how the district shares classroom space with charter schools, is a specific demand in the union’s negotiations with the district. Another, capping the number of charter schools, is a policy goal that the union is keeping top-of-mind during the strike.
Key to the bitter dispute: Charter schools, which enroll about a fifth of students in Los Angeles Unified, have contributed to a loss of $600 million annually that otherwise would benefit students in district schools, according to union officials, largely because of fixed costs that can’t be reduced even if there are fewer students. Charter backers have pushed back on those figures.
Enrollment in the district has been declining since 2003, when more than 700,000 students were enrolled. Just over 480,000 students occupy seats in the district’s schools today. In addition, more than 100,000 are enrolled in independently run charter schools.
Whether charter schools can be fully blamed for the drop in enrollment in district schools is an open question.
Because districts receive state money for the number of students they enroll, union leaders say students leaving for charter schools means less money for the district to cover the kinds of expenses the striking teachers are demanding. Those include a 6.5-percent salary increase, a reduction in class sizes and more money for support staff, such as nurses and school counselors.
In the days and weeks leading up to the strike, union officials have sought changes in how traditional public schools provide space to charter schools. State law requires districts to free up unused classrooms and other facilities for charter schools.
Specific to the contract dispute, Caputo-Pearl said his union wants limits on what’s shared to free up computer labs, dance studios and music centers that can be used by students and teachers, even if the rooms aren’t used all the time.
Los Angeles Unified District officials say the union’s charter-school demands are beyond the scope of what state law says can be discussed during negotiations.
“It’s not an appropriate subject for bargaining,” said Robert Samples, the district’s interim director of labor relations, saying these are issues that would have to be resolved in the Legislature.
He said the district proposed forming a working group to discuss how charter and district schools can share space. The union has called that proposal inadequate.
Disputes over how charter and public schools should coexist don’t seem to have a place in contract negotiations, said Pedro Noguera, a UCLA professor of education and founder of the Center for Transformation of Schools.
“I’m not sure politically what they’re trying to gain through the strike” regarding charter schools, Noguera said.
If the main issue for striking teachers is more money, Noguera said, United Teachers Los Angeles is already in a stronger position thanks to newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In his first state budget proposal last week, Newsom proposed more money for K-12 education and extra dollars for school districts to pay their massive pension obligations — a growing cost pressure for districts. The budget also included more money for homelessness and mental health services, “all of which can translate into additional services and support for children served by LAUSD,” the governor said in a statement this week.
For Caputo-Pearl, though, the bigger issue is charter expansion. He thinks the show of strength this week during the strike will put pressure on state leaders to limit charter growth.
In response to questions about the strike this week, Newsom indicated that he is eager to sign legislation promoted by UTLA and other teachers unions requiring more transparency in charter school operations.
There is growing evidence that the charter sector in Los Angeles is having its own enrollment troubles, raising questions about whether there are more charter schools than there is demand.
A recent district report concluded that charter schools the district authorized are struggling to reach enrollment goals. In 2017-18, independent charter schools overseen by the district enrolled 15,882 fewer students than what the charter school operators projected. Only 34 of 224 charter schools met or exceeded their enrollment targets.
The union on Tuesday held a rally outside of the Los Angeles office of the California Charter Schools Association, the state’s main charter school membership organization, which has received millions of dollars from wealthy donors through its political arm that it then distributes to candidates running for office.
Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the charter schools association, said she supports the union’s demands for better pay and working conditions. But she added that while demand for charter schools in Los Angeles varies by neighborhood, around 16,000 students are on waitlists to get into particular charter schools in Los Angeles.
Disagreements aside, teachers in both district and charter schools should have better pay and access to more resources, Caputo-Pearl said.
One of the three Accelerated Schools charter campuses, whose teachers are also represented by United Teachers Los Angeles, joined the strike on Tuesday — the first charter school strike in California history, according to the union.
“We actually support the original intent of charters, which was to have small efforts to innovate and then feed lessons back into the public system to try to help the overall public system,” Caputo-Pearl said. “That’s not happening.”
Randi Weingarten, the president of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, with 1.7 million members, the American Federation of Teachers, on Tuesday said charter groups are trying “to divide educator against educator.”
Charter schools aren’t typically unionized, though in California about 30 percent are represented by unions, according to the California Charter Schools Association.
Teachers at unionized charter schools in Los Angeles are sympathetic to the strike.
Some teachers at the Green Dot charter school network, represented by the Asociación de Maestros Unidos, which like UTLA is affiliated with the California Teachers Association, took paid time off to walk the picket lines with Los Angeles Unified teachers. Others made care packages at locations where Green Dot shares space with district-run schools.
“If there are charter schools that are not meeting their enrollment, then there’s no point in operating a school that’s not attracting families or students,” said Angel Maldonado, president of the labor union that represents Green Dot teachers in California.
While Maldonado called the demands of striking teachers “spot on,” he’s concerned that changes to how the district shares space with charter schools could lead to lost jobs for his members.
“That is something that would worry me,” he said, “and would worry a lot of my membership.”
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