At the center of the mutual recriminations between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the United Teachers of Los Angeles, who voted to go on strike today, is a seemingly narrow question that stands in for a gargantuan project: What sort of control over class sizes should be in a teachers’ union contract? “Control over the worksite” is how superintendent Austin Beutner referred, in September, to an entire category of the union’s proposals: a technical, even clinical sort of phrasing. But for the hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, administrators, and parents, all of whose daily lives are bound up in the nature of the school district, it goes to the heart of the matter. Construing the issue as a question of work rules obscures the fact that the number of students in public school classrooms is irrefutably political.
That is the vision at the core of classroom size: it is the idea of transforming the nation’s second largest public school system with an eye to an entirely different vision of society. Bounded to the east by the City of Pasadena and the Los Angeles River, to the north by the San Gabriel Mountains, and to the west by the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, LA Unified stretches 710 square miles from the San Fernando Valley to the Port of Long Beach. Its jurisdiction includes not just the schools of the City of Los Angeles, but of thirty-one other municipalities, torn by the cutouts of Santa Monica and Beverly Hills and the industrial districts of Hawthorne and Inglewood. Its roughly 1,200 schools serve 640,000 students, of whom over 27 percent are English-language learners, in and around a city of four million. The task of managing such a system is social planning of a high order. With its $7.5 billion budget and a staff of eighty thousand (excluding charter schools), even minor details of the district’s program can’t help but shape the social structure of the metropolis.
Lately that structure has become even more stratified. In just ten years, LA Unified has overseen the movement of its student body into district-authorized, third-party managed charter schools with blinding speed. During the 2007–8 school year, 103 charter schools enrolled 41,000 students out of a then-total 700,000. Today, there are 275 charters enrolling over 150,000 students, according to the LAUSD Charter Schools Division. The percentage of students in non-district schools has risen from less than 6 to 23, even as the total size of the system has fallen off. It’s not just that charter schools are growing. Parents are pulling their children out of district schools.
The reason is, of course and unsurprisingly, that parents are worried about their future of their children. Test scores in LA Unified are average, compared to other urban districts. A little over half of LA Unified’s students rated “basic” and about a quarter rated “proficient” in reading in 2017, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress administered by the federal Department of Education; the portions in math were two-thirds “basic” and a quarter “proficient.” The promulgation of standards allows a division and grading of facilities, but the framing of a response to this knowledge is intensely ideological. “Charter schools,” writes Allysia Finley of the Wall Street Journal in a representative editorial, “provide low-income parents an escape valve” from “the financially and academically struggling district.” The assumption is that public standards can’t be raised and so must be escaped. But the context, as Finley and all know, is the increasing cleavage of the city: half of Los Angeles makes less than $52,000 while median rent is $2,500; middle-wage jobs declined by 27 percent between 1990 and 2012; one in five Angelenos live below the poverty line, defined for a family of four as $24,600 a year. The results are plain in even the most impressionistic appraisals. In 2010, there were thirty-eight thousand homeless people in the city; in 2018, over fifty-five thousand. Seventeen thousand of them are homeless students in district schools.
Many of the union’s thirty thousand members—certified teachers, librarians, counselors, nurses, and social workers; about half of the district workforce—naturally disapprove. Because the State of California calculates its funding commitment to local school districts according to enrollment—at an average of about $12,000 per student per year—the growth of charters in Los Angeles has deprived district schools and their five hundred thousand students of money they would otherwise get. A high school social studies teacher in the San Fernando Valley I spoke with over the phone described the frequent use of test scores to compare charter schools to district-run schools as “ludicrous.” “They choose their students,” he said. “Then they have the goddamn gall to compare their test scores to ours and say that they’re doing better than us.” In 2016, the ACLU of Southern California identified 253 charter schools, or 20 percent of those then authorized in the state, with exclusionary policies, including academic requirements and language tests. “The media, grown adults, with a straight face say the charters are outperforming traditional public schools,” the teacher continued. “As a teacher, I can give you whichever test scores you want if I can choose students.”
In 2016, the union commissioned a fiscal impact study on the effect of charters on district finances. It estimated annual lost revenue at $55.6 million, assuming a decline of about 6,200 students per year. The district envisions enrollment declines of fifteen thousand students per year, and the administrators and consultants at LA Unified have worked hard at using this assumption to frame an impending debt crisis. “We’re facing a fiscal cliff,” Superintendent Beutner said in September. “It’s not theoretical and it’s not debatable. If nothing changes, we are headed for insolvency in the next two to three years.” Because they have existed for decades, teachers in district schools have accumulated greater retirement and health benefits than offered by many of the charter management organizations; not coincidentally, these are the schools covered under the UTLA contract, and their teachers’ pensions the primary liability the district wants to write down. Should that fail and the district become insolvent, Beutner explains, “a fiscal adviser will be appointed by the state and we’ll no longer have local control over our schools.” This has been the standard play in other urban districts, from Detroit and Philadelphia to New Orleans and Newark. Schools will close, pensions will be lost. By conjuring the specter of emergency management, the district is creating its own version of it.
There is an upside, from the financial perspective. District schools represent a portfolio of at least $5 billion in capital assets, with untapped “revenue generating potential,” as Beutner himself discovered co-chairing the LA Unified Advisory Task Force. That group issued a series of public reports between December 2017 and June 2018 framing the condition of the district, and it was from this perch that he was appointed superintendent in May, a year after a $10 million election campaign secured a majority of seats of the LA Unified Board of Education in favor of the continuing charterization of the district. The Task Force position drew profitably on Beutner’s prior experience as a private-equity manager, an investment banker, and the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. In its real estate report, for example, the Task Force found “the District lacks a comprehensive strategy to manage [its] properties and utilize each asset at its highest and best use.” Since it was “facing a structural budget deficit which threatens its long-term financial sustainability,” the district needed “to do more to use limited public funding as effectively and efficiently as possible, reduce costs, and develop new sources of revenue.” The Task Force recommended the district “quickly obtain a third-party evaluation and analysis of its real estate portfolio” with an eye to “relevant criteria” such as “revenue generating potential, current and potential liabilities, development potential.”
What seems so nakedly orchestrated about the “fiscal crisis” framing is that the charter schools don’t pay for themselves either. Over the same fifteen years during which the district entered its enrollment decline, it alone issued $67.2 million in general obligation bonds earmarked for charter construction and received at least another $13.9 million in federal bonds. As the UTLA’s 2016 independent fiscal impact study found, “The annual oversight revenue collected from charter schools does not cover the annual budget of the Charter Schools Division.” Since 2001, when it was established by Democratic governor Gray Davis, the California Charter School Facility Grant Program has issued over $430 million dollars in the state. In 2017 alone, the California School Finance Authority, the state body that organizes debt financing for education, issued $283,366,000 in school bonds making up 72 percent of the charter school facilities financing in the state that year. Yet the implication that a budget crisis will exist in district schools in the future is that debt financing or state money won’t be available, even though both have been widely available for charter schools.
It is in this context that the UTLA is insisting a collective-bargaining agreement assume the roles abdicated by LA Unified and by the city, of social guardian and intransigent junior planner of an integral institution to city life. The union’s “best and final offer” before the last-minute bargaining extension, delivered to the district late July, gives some indication of the conditions boiling beneath the dispute. It includes explicit staffing ratios: every school must employ at least one nurse; middle and high schools must employ at least one librarian; for every five hundred students, the district must employ at least one social worker, dean, or counselor (“Restorative Justice Advisor”). Agreed staffing ratios have long been common in the contract. Yet in managing the city’s public education, LA Unified has jealously guarded its power to suspend what it calls “class size restrictions” in the case of “state funding limitations.” In the contract negotiated in 2015, for example, the official class-size maximums in high schools designated Predominantly Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Other Non-Anglo (PHBAO) was thirty-nine students per class. During the past three years the district has raised the maximum to forty-six students per class. The maximum in Desegregated Magnet schools is thirty-seven. In other words, the standards are explicitly racialized.
In its contract proposal, UTLA has struck the “state funding limitations” caveat, Section 1.5, from its class-size article, making it easier for teachers to claim class-size violations as contract violations before an independent arbitrator. The change is not trivial. The article stipulates that an arbitration panel “shall have authority . . . to require the assignment of additional teachers” to overcrowded schools. Setting some floor to conditions in the classrooms is the only way to reverse current trends. When the Public Employees Relations Board appointed a three-member fact-finding panel to try and head off the strike in November, the panel’s neutral member David Weinberg wrote: “I agree with the Union argument that lower class sizes are one of the best predictors of successful teaching and student success.” (In response, the district repeated its crisis incantation: “I want to emphasize that it will be important to negotiate safeguards that allow for deviation from the agreed-upon new re-benchmarked figures to ensure sufficient flexibility during times of economic duress,” LAUSD panel member Adam J. Fiss responded mechanically.) But an arbitrator cannot set tax policy. Nor can they set district budgets, or coordinate them with the growth of housing and industry to guarantee that every community has quality classrooms and low student-teacher ratios.
The problem the union faces is that, on its own, it cannot create the type of system it wants. To ensure that a service like education be available at high quality to every family in the population, general standards must be established and monitored across the community. The district and its schools are the only tool suited to this task. Choice is invidious when the underlying options are so poorly distributed. Smaller classes, with student access to serviceable institutions such as libraries, nursing, and counseling, will require action from municipal and state authorities, from the Board of Education, through the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Office of Education, to the Governor’s office and the State Assembly. Fighting the effects of the trends the district has set in motion won’t suffice; the teachers must reverse those trends. Can they do it alone?
“The students understand,” the teacher I spoke with said. “I’ve got in my room right now, thirty-five to forty kids making picket signs.” It was after hours Monday, three days before the expected strike deadline, before negotiations extended through the weekend. I asked him to read a few, and he began to list them, pausing to get the right angle: Stop starving our schools; Second in district size, last in funds; If you’re reading this, fund our schools; Money for jobs and education, not for contracts with corporations. Changing the average number of staff in schools across a district is a brutally political project, as Los Angeles teachers have seen. It is a reflection of the decisions members of a community make about how they will raise each other’s children. The district, enabled by Los Angeles voters, has drawn its line along a fundamental pedagogical variable—how many kids are in the room; how many minutes of a teacher’s time does each student get—and refused to make meaningful commitments to co-determination with teachers and their union. As Vern Gates, the UTLA member of the fact-finding panel concluded, “they do not want improvement.”
There is a final reason to wonder whether the teachers will be alone. When will Governor Gavin Newsom, less than a week on the job, make his hungry debut for power and fame from his new office in Sacramento? He is inheriting a $21.5 billion budget surplus from Jerry Brown. Exhortation for consensus would produce little in this situation; Beutner’s administration will ultimately have to be replaced with one that hopes to grow rather than shrink the district. And Newsom’s past commitment to “academic achievement” has given little reason to expect a turn away from charters. Nevertheless, during the campaign his largest donors were labor—$2.1 million from the building trades, $1.1 million from the California Teachers Association. It has been a generation since a liberal politician has thrown his lot in with labor in the United States, and so it is unthinkable among the labor organizers I know. The outcome of the disagreement in Los Angeles will shape how effectively public school teachers in large urban districts, on their own, can shelter themselves and their students against the national philanthropic and financial headwinds sweeping through the last bastions of universal public services in the United States. On their own, without the city and without the state, they wouldn’t stand a chance. But fighting for something so simple as smaller class sizes, they won’t be on their own.