“This is a Struggle to Save Public Education”

Arlene Inouye

The teachers strike wave has reached Los Angeles: teachers there recently voted overwhelmingly to strike. They are fighting against school privatization, wage and benefit cuts, and the nationwide project to dismantle public education.

David McNew / Getty Images

Interview by
Eric Blanc

The education strike wave initiated by West Virginia’s wildcat has reached the coasts. Teachers in Washington and Pennsylvania have walked off the job to demand better wages and better schools. And in late August, tens of thousands of educators overwhelmingly authorized a strike in Los Angeles, the second-largest school district in the country.

Jacobin’s Eric Blanc sat down with Arlene Inouye, Secretary of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), to discuss LA’s looming education showdown.

Eric Blanc

Last spring, journalists and liberal politicians tried to paint the education strikes as “red state” rebellions directed only against Republicans. Would you agree that the recent work stoppages across Washington and the threat of a strike in Los Angeles show that the Democratic Party is no less responsible for the crisis of public education?

Arlene Inouye

It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a red state or a blue state, we’re facing the same attacks on public education. Corporate Democrats are getting money from the same billionaires and corporations as the Republicans, so essentially all public educators in this country are targets.

California is a deep blue state and our schools have drastically deteriorated. It’s actually astonishing when you think about it: Our state is the fifth richest economy in the world, but we’re forty-third out of fifty in the US when it comes to per-pupil spending. And our class sizes are the forty-eighth largest in the country.

It really pains me to see what’s happened over the years. I’ve seen these cuts with my own eyes and have three generations of my family attending LAUSD schools. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I remember in the sixties when our schools were at the top in per-pupil spending. Over the years, so many crucial programs like auto mechanics, home economics, drivers education, music, art, drafting, and more have been eliminated from the curriculum because of the funding cuts and because standardized testing has become so prominent.

We have the money in California for an amazing school system — we have the most billionaires of any state in the country. But we also have the most inequality.

Prop 13 [a regressive 1978 cap on property taxes] is a big part of the reason why our schools are defunded. We’ve been ripped off. The rich have stolen billions through corporate tax loopholes, well over $5 billion a year. And the corporate Democrats have taken the lead in promoting the charter school model and therefore supporting the privatization of our schools.

Governor Brown has brought a more equitable funding model for public schools, but he hasn’t taken action to stop charters — in fact, he has two charter schools of his own. And California has one of the worst charter laws in the country.

Our problems in a blue state like California aren’t just about funding cuts. The cost of living here in LA is astronomical; lots of our teachers won’t ever be able to afford to buy a home. Since 2008, the cost of living in LA has increased by 27 percent. Just last Wednesday I was talking to a union member who has three jobs, but he still can’t find an affordable home with his new wife.

And all the over-testing in recent years has taken away from teaching a full curriculum. We need less testing and more teaching, because LA students receive literally one hundred tests from TK [transitional kindergarten] through the sixth grade — and most of these are not state mandated.

Eric Blanc

Los Angeles is the city with the highest number of charter school students in the whole country. Can you talk about this privatization drive and what UTLA is doing to combat it?

Arlene Inouye

The first thing to note is that there are different types of charter schools in Los Angeles, and we have unionized charter school educators in LA. I want to speak about the independent unregulated LA charters, which make up the majority of the 279 charter schools in LA and roughly 24 percent of all LAUSD students.  There has been a coordinated, well-financed, and determined campaign by a small group of billionaires who funnel their money (free of taxation) to groups such as the California Charter School Association to promote a business model for schools, hire minimally trained teachers from Teach for America, or other instant-teacher certification programs, and undermine and eliminate locally elected school boards.

Public education is one of the last institutions in this country that hasn’t been fully privatized. About ninety percent of students in the country still go to public schools, so there’s huge potential for businesses to open the market and eventually start direct profit making. First, the politicians intentionally defund our schools, then they demonize educators, and then they say that so-called “school choice” is the only solution. Every year, LAUSD loses $600 million to charters.

Even though most of the charters are (for now) officially non-profits, they’re already making big profits for their corporate backers, through money-making ventures like real estate transactions, building contracts, and school supplies. We’re talking about huge conflicts of interests, with little-to-no governmental oversight.

This process has gone further in Los Angeles than in almost every other part of the country. Charters have grown by 287 percent in LA since 2008, and student enrollment in the district has dropped by about 100,000. Due to the 1992 California Charter School law, independent charter schools have been able to take so-called unused space in our public schools and set up their charters beside the public school (a process called co-location).

In many cases, this is a form of segregation. With the charter school often having more resources, not being held up to the same standards in the California Education Code, choosing the students they want enrolled, and leaving the students needing more services in the public school, it’s not an accident that our public schools have a higher percentage of students with severe disabilities.

Privatization serves corporate interests and is about control. They don’t want young people these days to have critical thinking skills and to challenge authority. The big picture is that corporations would love to control the minds of our kids so that they don’t resist the authoritarianism that pervades this society.

Given the years of attacks on public schools, it’s understandable why some parents are looking to the charter model. But that’s why we’ve put forward community schools an alternative to privatization.

Community schools are fully resourced, they have the flexibility to develop a full and engaging curriculum, they include parents, and they provide wrap-around services. We’re calling for $25 million to be put towards community schools. And all the research shows that student achievement really rises in these types of schools, unlike with charters, where the statistics don’t actually show any significant improvement.

Parents are now starting to see what’s going on. Not that long ago, in 2012, most teachers would ask me “Why do people hate us so much?” They didn’t know about the privatizing forces — like Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, and Walmart’s Walton family — driving this agenda.  But now public support is starting to swing in our direction, just like it is for unions generally. People here have become aware of who these billionaires are and what they’re doing to undermine public education.

Eric Blanc

But it’s going to be a big battle, right? If I understand correctly, the charter lobby spent a record-breaking $13 million in the 2017 school board elections in order to elect a pro-privatization majority.

Arlene Inouye

That’s right. And the new school board appointed billionaire Austin Beutner as superintendent. Our members see Beutner as a real Wall Street villain. He’s a hedge fund manager who has spent literally zero time inside the classroom. And now he’s brought on Rebecca Kockler, who helped lead the privatization of New Orleans education, and former Newark superintendent Cami Anderson. These are some real pro-privatization ideologues, but their appointments have clarified what’s really going on and it’s helped our members stay united.

With Beutner in charge, all of a sudden everything is about the money. He recently hired a firm to put out a report called “Hard Choices” — it’s a bank investor’s approach. He’s only looking at how to save money and how to privatize. Beutner’s report says our health care is 44 percent too expensive and our wages are 17 percent too high. Yet LAUSD has a $1.86 billion dollar reserve that far outpaces other school districts, and LAUSD consistently projects a deficit that never happens.

The fact is that LAUSD hoards money while claiming to be broke and it systematically over-budgets for such things as books and supplies. (For example, LAUSD claimed it would spend $774 million but ended up spending only $358 million.)

While Beutner is trying to make cuts off the back of educators, we’re fighting to save public education. So educators here got insulted, infuriated really, when they heard him announce that we don’t care about the kids, but that he does.

If we continue on our same trajectory, the district will be unsustainable in about three years. So our members now understand what’s at stake. We need a raise, but it’s not just about the salary. One thing I always tell people at the school sites: “What good is a salary if you don’t have a job next year because of lay offs and school closures?

We’re fighting to make public education sustainable by putting checks and balances on the charter schools. And we’re really informing the public about charter mismanagement, how charters are taking money from public education, and how there’s no real accountability.

This is a struggle to save public education; the existence of public education in our city is on the line. If we don’t stand up for our students, who will?

Eric Blanc

Currently, contract negotiations are at an impasse. What are your main demands?

Arlene Inouye

We’ve been very clear from the beginning that our contract demands are broad and comprehensive for a diverse membership of teachers (K-12, early education, adult education), substitutes and Health and Human Service Professionals (counselors, nurses, therapists, etc.). But they also reflect our vision for well-funded schools that our students deserve, fighting for educational justice, and parent engagement.

In February, we won a battle to prevent the district from imposing cuts to our health care. After that, we have focused on classroom conditions. Our working conditions are our student learning conditions.  This contract fight is not just about educators, it’s also about our students and communities.

Initially, we were actually a little concerned about whether our members would be motivated enough about all other issues. But it turned out that our members are now more organized and mobilized than we’ve ever seen.

Our demands aren’t just about fair wages, but also classroom conditions. A key issue is class size. California is already almost the worst in the country, and things are even worse in LA: it’s not uncommon to see classes of thirty-seven students in elementary or forty to fifty in secondary schools. That’s why we’re demanding an end to Article XVIII, Section 1.5 in our contract, which says that the district can ignore class size caps by stating there’s economic uncertainty.

There are a wide range of issues like this. For example, we don’t have a nurse in every school five days a week, which is a basic health and safety issue. We need more counselors to support our students, many of whom suffer from trauma. Our district is 90 percent students of color and 85 percent live in poverty; we also have a high percent of English language learners and special education students. So many of our demands are for providing the support these students need.

We made a strategic decision to include broader classroom demands. When union officers visited hundreds of schools, we had conversations with our members about why this was necessary and how we build a broader movement with families and communities.

Along those lines, we’ve also raised broader “common good” demands such as the establishment of a teacher training program; more green space in schools; an end to the discriminatory security wanding of students, which made students of color feel criminalized; housing possibilities in LAUSD; free bus passes for LA students; and the establishment of an immigrant defense fund to pay for undocumented parents’ legal costs.

Unfortunately, we had to ultimately remove the “common good” issues from the contract negotiations, because the district claimed these were outside the legal scope of bargaining and threatened to file an Unfair Labor Practice against us. But we’re still committed to fighting for these demands.

The district is trying to make it seem like this is all about wages, and even on this issue they’re putting out a lot of misinformation. For example, they’ve claimed that they’ve offered us a 6 percent raise, while in fact they’ve officially only made a 2 percent proposal.

Eric Blanc

Three weeks ago, UTLA members voted to authorize a strike – 98 percent of educators voted in favor and there was an 83 percent turnout. Particularly in a district as large as Los Angeles, it must have taken a huge amount of work to make something like that happen. Can you explain to our readers how this organizing drive began and developed?

Arlene Inouye

In order to understand how we got to the present, we need to go back to 2014 when our union shifted to a new approach that is member driven, organized, and focused on fighting for the schools that LA students deserve.  Some of the changes made include the following:

— Focusing on visiting schools and communicating with members;

— Changing the culture of UTLA by engaging and developing leadership and reshaping our governance structure and meetings;

— Creating staffing positions that were needed to carry out our goals (strategic researcher, organizing director, political director) and revamping existing positions;

— Overhauling our database to be an effective tool for organizing with accurate information for assessment and tracking;

— Developing our parent and community outreach;

— Organizing escalating actions;

— Connecting all parts of the work to our vision for the schools LA students deserve.

The first major action we did was to get a 10 percent raise — we hadn’t had a pay increase in eight years. Then in 2015 and 2016, we organized a successful organizing drive to increase union dues by 30 percent.

We were truthful and direct with our members: we said that these resources were needed to defeat the huge political threats against public education in LA. Eighty-two percent voted in favor — that was the real turning point in the internal union dynamic.

And because we’re such a huge union, we’ve known that a lot of escalating actions were needed to build up momentum. This has ranged from leafleting parents, to worksite actions, to a citywide rally.

We built up our internal structures and instituted Contract Action Teams at the school site with the goal of having an educational leader communicating with every ten members. The Contract Action Teams are crucial for getting information out to the members and for getting information back.

Today we have over 800 chapter chairs (site representatives), which is the largest number we’ve ever had covering almost every school in LAUSD. Plus we have more itinerant and substitutes rising up in leadership. And even after Janus, our membership is growing because people want to be part of a union that is democratic and fights back in a way that is smart and effective. Ninety six percent of LAUSD educators are now UTLA members — the highest percentage of membership since UTLA was founded in 1970.

We’ve also put significant resources into parent and student organizing, we’ve mutually supported each other in our common concerns. Similarly, UTLA has worked with student groups including Students Deserve. We helped organize a big forum with them and others around Black Lives Matter and now they’re organizing students to support teachers in a potential strike. We’ve also fought around immigration issues and supporting our undocumented students.

Eric Blanc

I imagine that the strike wave since West Virginia has also helped galvanize educators in LA.

Arlene Inouye

Definitely, those actions in other states really changed the mentality here about striking. I do a lot of site visits to schools and most teachers I spoke with thought that those struggles were amazing, even if they didn’t know all the details. A strike requires taking a risk, but when our members saw that other educators went on illegal strikes and won, it made a big impact. And they saw that the other strikes weren’t just about salaries: they were also about saving public education.

We’ve really emphasized the importance of the national movement. On May 24 this year, we organized a mass rally of 15,000 educators in downtown Los Angeles — and we had a speaker from Arizona come share with our members. To further build our strike preparedness, we recently made a video about the teacher rebellions that was used for our core training at our leadership conference and given out to school site chapter leaders. At our Leadership Conference, we also brought in union leaders from Arizona and Puerto Rico to talk about the lessons of their strikes — most people I spoke with said it was one of the highlights of the conference.

Our members began to see that there’s something about a strike that’s so empowering. You put yourself out there, but it’s not only you. You’re linked and connected to your brothers and sisters who are also taking that same risk — because it’s only together that we can leverage our power and actually have a voice.

Strikes make the union and the public education movement stronger. They change people, they change the union, and they can change the future.

Eric Blanc

At the same time, the legal context in California is pretty different than it was in a state like West Virginia or Arizona. How has this affected your organizing?

Arlene Inouye

Because we have collective bargaining agreement in California, we’re bound by the legal process and its timeline. This means that we don’t have full control about the timing. We have to move through mediation and fact finding before the district can offer their “last, best, and final” offer. Only then could UTLA take a legal job action, including a strike. Though we called impasse in early August, the district refused to schedule a mediation session until fifty-six days later.

The positive side is that this delay will give us more opportunities to deepen our members’ confidence and build broader parent, community, labor and national alliances. We’ll use this additional time to build the collective power necessary to win. And our members are responding to the challenge — they’re inspired about making history in Los Angeles.