Competing visions for public education

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By Alex Caputo-Pearl, UTLA President

I am so proud to be a member of UTLA and very fortunate to be visiting so many schools every week, talking with hundreds of our members and parent leaders connected to them. As we fight for the Schools Our Students Deserve and to Give Our Kids a Chance, I have never seen and felt this kind of positive energy or resolve among our members.

Natalia Ulmer at Marquez Learning Complex is leading a group of new chapter chairs at the small schools on that campus, with a powerful across-the-whole-building collectivity. Yesenia Hernandez, recently having transferred from the Eastside to Nava Business and Technology Middle School in Central Area, immediately stepped up to help the chapter chair, Michael West, at Nava. Tom Van Sciver, Shea Shanks, and their co-workers at Sharp Elementary in the Valley are doing weekly actions, sometimes neighborhood walks, sometimes going to nearby schools to connect with other UTLA members, sometimes going to forums to confront School Board members, other times making homemade billboards outside their school. Adelaida Alcantar, Claudia Garcia, and their co-workers at Lawson Elementary organized an early-morning site visit with me that included fantastic parent leaders who are getting more and more involved in the campaign.

Our members and parents are leading powerfully. These leaders, and all of us, are focusing on six essential tasks as we continue to seek an agreement with the district, but prepare to strike if necessary:

Save Saturday, December 15 for a major historic march for public education. More information below.

Sign the “We Will Strike If We Have To” strike commit forms and help your chapter chair ensure that you have 100% sign-on at your school or work site.

Wear your “Ask Me Why I Am Ready to Strike” button to school every day.

Build your Parent Support List at your school, get it to UTLA, and also use it at your school to set up small group meetings with parents.

Go on neighborhood walks with your co-workers and parents to distribute “I Stand With LA Educators” window signs.

Get three to five neighborhood institutions around your school to sign the organizational support form for the Give Our Kids a Chance campaign.

Beutner hired to accelerate downsizing

Our members understand that we will continue making every attempt to reach an agreement. But, we also understand that we are in a battle between Austin Beutner’s vision to downsize the public school district and our vision to reinvest in the public school district—commonsense reinvestment using LAUSD’s historically large $1.86 billion reserve, the books and supplies slush fund, respect for educators on working condition issues, and state action for more support for public education.

Our members understand that Beutner is attempting to accelerate trends that have been aggressively chipping away at public schools and our profession for many years, and we’re sick and tired of it. He’s attempting to accelerate corporate charter growth and its race to the bottom in learning and working conditions, accelerate the driving down of real wages, and accelerate the craziness of trying to learn and teach in environments with less and less staff and more and more students in classrooms and on caseloads.

The charter industry that bought the LAUSD School Board in the most expensive school board race in U.S. history sees this as their crystallized moment of opportunity to have an investment banker, with a charter majority on the board, starve our students, attack our jobs and healthcare, break our union, and privatize our schools.

Our members understand that now is the time to say “enough is enough”—or Beutner and the board will keep on coming back for another pound of flesh every year in a downsizing plan that includes layoffs, school closures, cuts to services, and healthcare cuts.

Despite these challenges, our members are profoundly optimistic. I am so moved by this every day. There is a resolve and a seriousness, for sure—combined with an absolutely inspiring optimism. Our bargaining proposals represent a vision of what our students and public education system need not only to survive, but to thrive: to attract families and increase enrollment, to attract and retain educators, to have schools as vibrant centers in the community, to foundationally improve life in Los Angeles. It is inspiring to fight for what is right, and our members feel it.

The facts behind fact-finding

Over three lengthy mediation sessions in late September and October, the district offered virtually nothing new in writing, after 18 months of largely not responding to our proposals at all. At that point, the state mediators decided that we were still at a deadlock and sent us to fact-finding. We will likely receive the fact-finding report in early December. Over that period, between now and into December, we can and will continue to attempt to reach an agreement, with our broad-based, member-led bargaining team of classroom- and school-based educators in the lead.

We should be clear, though. The fact-finding panel is not finding new facts—truthfully, the name of the panel is a bit of a misnomer. The panel will have a UTLA appointee, a district appointee, and a state-appointed “neutral” member. They will hold a hearing to listen to our side and the district’s side and will prepare a report and recommended settlement. State-appointed “neutrals” are often traditional and bureaucratic in their views, so we should have no illusions that we will get an affirmation of everything we’re saying, or an out-of-the-box, visionary proposal to come to an agreement. We will hope for that, but we will have no illusions.

If we are not able to reach an agreement based on the fact-finding panel’s recommended settlement, the district can impose its last, best, and final offer, and we can strike.

Growing power: The plan for November and December

Beutner’s unconscionable 56-day delay in mediation over August and September was meant to disorient and slow us. It did neither. We used the delay to build power—and we will do the same as we go through the approximately 30-day fact-finding process. Whether we like it or not, and whether we believe U.S. labor law was set up to help unions or not (I don’t believe it was), it is important that we continue to follow the legal bargaining process.

We are using the time to build power through our narrative. While the corporate media will never be our friend—especially since Beutner was publisher of the LA Times before being superintendent—we have made huge progress in that very corporate media. The $1.86 billion reserve is regularly mentioned in the LA Times and other major outlets now, our full demands (beyond just salary) are regularly mentioned, and in one week alone in October, we had the equivalent of $2 million in publicity for free because we earned stories in the LA Times, NY Times, the international Guardian, KPCC, KCRW, and more. And, in an incredible moment, every TV camera in the city was at the UTLA building for the unveiling of Beutner’s calendar, showing him more likely to be eating at exceedingly expensive restaurants and exclusive clubs than to be visiting schools.

We see our growing power in the media and we will increase that even more during the next weeks of the fact-finding timeline.

We are using the time to build power through member organizing. Members across the city are wearing their strike buttons and signing the “We Will Strike If We Have To” strike commits. A strike is a public act, and we must publicly commit to our co-workers to be on the picket line if we need to. Moreover, we need to sign to publicly commit to our colleagues at every other school across the district to be on the picket line in the event of a strike, because a strike is the ultimate act of solidarity, and we must have no weak links and no weak schools.

This past week, we had vibrant member actions involving hundreds of members:

• At the LAUSD School Board with Reclaim Our Schools LA, a determined crowd of parents and educators attempted to press into the building to hand Beutner an oversized letter with our proposals on it.

• A miles-long gauntlet of members along Firestone Boulevard in South and Southeast LA gained thousands of supportive honks.

• Flash mobs of members in three locations in the Valley took over drive-time in three critical intersections, spreading our message with signs and flyers.

• Alongside parents in East LA, educators called out elected officials who support the building of a mega-KIPP charter school amidst a dense set of existing schools and on land that community members have been asking to be used for affordable housing.

Additionally, we see organic actions by our members everywhere: challenging School Board members publicly at forums, picketing Beutner’s “Reimagine LAUSD” meetings, taking to social media with creative raps, and more.

We see our growing power among our members, and we will increase that even more during the next weeks of the fact-finding timeline.

We are using the time to build power and connection with parents and community. We are seeing parent organizing and connections blossom everywhere, from large parent forums at many schools across the city (such as Los Angeles Elementary and Miles Elementary) to neighborhood walks with parents to give out window signs (including Banning High in Wilmington and schools in Pacoima and Arleta) to parents in East LA directly confronting Monica Garcia and in mid-Wilshire confronting Beutner. Community allies in Reclaim Our Schools LA, meanwhile, are canvassing and flyering 50 school neighborhoods every two weeks, in a massive coordinated outreach effort that moves progressively across the city. All the while, our members are doing the quiet but absolutely essential work of building the Parent Support Lists, gathering parent contact information, and getting that info to UTLA while also using it to build small group parent meetings at their schools.

We see our growing power among parents, and we will increase that even more during the next weeks of the fact-finding timeline.

We are using the time to build power in our relationships with elected officials and political campaigns. Our members are campaigning vigorously through texting, calling, and school-site organizing for Tony Thurmond for state superintendent and against the $24 million dumped behind Marshall Tuck, from the same people who back Beutner’s agenda. Our members and parents, through promoting the issues and actions central to our contract campaign, are shaping the LAUSD School Board District 5 race that will be upon us in March and May. And, we got the fantastic news that the Schools and Communities First initiative, of which UTLA is a key steering committee member, has officially qualified for the November 2020 ballot. It succeeded earlier than expected because the validity rate among the 870,000 signatures that we submitted was so high—a credit to the grassroots community groups and unions leading the effort. This will be the first challenge to the corporate loophole in Proposition 13 in 40 years and would bring $11 billion in new revenue to the state budget.

We see our growing power among elected officials and in political campaigns and we will increase that even more during the next weeks of the fact-finding timeline.

And we are using the time to build power as we organize to a major march for public education in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, December 15. This will either be a celebration and consolidation of an agreement that we can be proud of, or it will be an essential, massive demonstration of our power in the final days available to the district to make an agreement with us before we strike. It will be a march that builds our power no matter what—that fundamentally lifts us in the media narrative, brings us together with parents and community who will march beside us, brings the palpable energy of thousands of educators together with one purpose, and brings us into the history books with a massive turnout in support of public education at this critical moment. Save Saturday, December 15.

Sisters and brothers, we are in this fight for our students, schools, jobs, and profession together, and we are doing incredible organizing work. We are led by people like you, and people like Natalia, Michael, Yesenia, Tom, Shea, Adelaida, and Claudia. Keep up your incredible work with students every day, your incredible work building our power step by step, and we will win this fight together! I am honored to be by your side.