2008 is calling, and it wants its class-size numbers back

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Why Section 1.5 is a potential strike issue. 

By Daniel Barnhart, UTLA Secondary Vice President

Class Size Matters

“1.5 It is recognized that the class size restrictions of this Article may not be achieved due to circumstances such as state funding limitations, changes in the student integration or other programs, or statutory changes...”

It’s not hyperbole to say that the future of public education in Los Angeles may depend on whether we get rid of that sentence in our contract. This is the dreaded “Section 1.5” of the class-size article in our contract, and the story of the future of this sentence is one of profound importance.

What this one sentence has meant is that the district alone can unilaterally determine on an annual basis class sizes across all K-12 schools.

This is the “out”— the escape clause, if you will—that undermines every other

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effort to get the district to guarantee reasonable class sizes, caseloads, and staffing ratios. If the district wants to shortchange our students, this one sentence has given them the excuse to override every other part of the contract on class size. But the significance of this sentence is not confined to just the number of students you might have to find seats for on any given day; its effect is far reaching.

 

Section 1.5 & layoffs

Do you remember 2009? The district decided to raise class size in every district school, effectively rewriting the norms across the board. This meant pink slips for a whole generation of newer teachers, and the perverse term “subbing in your own classroom” was added to the LAUSD lexicon.

Did the union have a chance to bargain those numbers, or take a legal job action to protect our students learning conditions? No, all the union could do at that time was figure out how many furlough days we would put up with to save our sisters and brothers. I remember those times, and we are not going back. The corrupt, billionaire-backed school board uses Section 1.5 as the key to threaten and inflict mass layoffs, whenever they think they can get away with it. We have to take that key out of their hands.

 

$200 million = 2,000 more teachers

The class-size numbers that are in the rest of the class-size article, Article 18, are roughly those that were in place back in 2008. They would be a significant improvement over what we have now. The district says that returning to the class-size numbers of 2008 would cost roughly $200 million, which is less than 12% of their unprecedented cash reserves of $1.8

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billion (unprecedented, because they’ve never had a reserve that big). Let’s assume that that is roughly the right amount of money to be talking about.  By investing that amount of the unprecedented reserve, the district could hire 2,000 more teachers to work in our upper grade, middle, and high schools. Students would get more attention, and our members would get some reprieve from the burnout and hopelessness of being told to get all students to graduate, when you often can’t even get all students a desk.

 

2,000 classrooms = fewer charter co-locations

If the district was forced to hire 2,000 more teachers, they would need 2,000 more classrooms. And when those 2,000 more classrooms are needed and occupied by LAUSD teachers, that would mean 2,000 fewer classrooms would be available for charter co-location attempts under Prop. 39. The surest defense against the threat of invasive, Prop. 39 co-locations is to make sure every classroom is filled. 

While the Great Recession set LAUSD teachers and students back, did unregulated charter growth stop or even slow down? No, because higher class sizes have systematically cleared the way for invasive charters to take root, in what appears to be rent-free (or at least rent-cheap) classroom space that used to have LAUSD teachers and students there. This is one of the unspoken reasons why the CCSA-backed school board refuses to consider getting rid of Section 1.5; it would make life tougher for their partners in Prop. 39 co-locations. And if we can’t change Prop. 39 through our contract, we can at least make sure our contract doesn’t aid and abet Prop. 39 invasions.

 

2,000 more teachers = pressure to improve charter teaching conditions

There is another reason that getting rid of 1.5 would make life more difficult for the privatizers who have nested on the 24th floor of Beaudry. If the district suddenly has to hire 2,000 more teachers, where will they come from? By and large, when UTLA represents charter educators (which we do to the tune of 900 members) the pay, benefits, and working conditions in those independent charter schools improve, or at least get benchmarked against what we in LAUSD get. But most charter educators are not represented by a union and have markedly worse pay, worse benefits, and if you can believe it, worse working conditions and voice in their workplace. Corporate charter schools have a Human Resources challenge of continually having to replace the educators they burn out in one to two years of teaching under often intense, contradictory, and completely unsustainable conditions. These schools often go through teachers like a kindergarten class goes through Kleenex.

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Given the chance to earn better pay, solid health benefits, and the chance to get professional respect through a union, it’s safe to say that many charter school educators would want to come teach in LAUSD, making charters’ HR problem worse.

 

 

2,000 more teachers = A bigger UTLA

Before the massive layoffs and class-size increases of the Great Recession, UTLA had roughly 47,000 members. Now we have 35,000. In some ways we are stronger, more connected, more ready to take action, with a union staff that has focus, expertise, and skills that we didn’t always get to see a decade ago. But the core strength of our union isn’t the Area reps, union staff, or the UTLA officers who are working tirelessly to build our union’s capacity. Our real strength is our membership, our readiness to take action together, and our willingness to connect deeply with our communities. And our numbers make a difference. Getting rid of 1.5 would lead to a bigger UTLA, with the potential for even greater strength. And Monica Garcia, Nick Melvoin, and Austin Beutner, no matter how often they claim to be progressive Democrats, do not want to have to deal with a bigger, stronger, UTLA.

Section 1.5 is about far more than class size; it’s about the future of public education, whether unregulated charter growth will be stopped, about whether teaching will be a unionized profession or not, and whether increases in class size will instead become decreases in class size. That one sentence is at the core of our struggle, and getting rid of it may be worth striking for.