Commentary: L.A.’s Teachers Union May Soon Go Out on Strike. They Should Think About the Children and Not Make Them Collateral Damage

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This article was produced in partnership with LA School Report.

With talks between United Teachers Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District at a tense impasse and teachers voting overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, there’s one group caught in the middle that’s largely been left out of the discussion: L.A.’s kids.

A strike would have a dramatic impact on the kids and families of Los Angeles, where 84 percent of students are from low-income families that rely on schools to provide two free or reduced-priced meals a day.

As the adults fight over salaries and district finances, there’s a simple fact that should not be forgotten or discounted: LAUSD kids would be deprived of an education during a strike. They are the innocent victims of these adult battles.

Last year, 70 percent of LAUSD students failed to meet state academic standards in math, and 60 percent failed to meet standards in English. Only 56 percent of LAUSD kids graduated eligible to even apply to a state four-year college. Clearly, our students cannot afford to lose more school days during a strike and fall even farther behind.

Nor can we ignore the burden on families. How will parents ensure their kids are safe during a strike? Will parents have to take time off of work and lose wages to care for their kids? That would be a huge imposition on the families of Los Angeles.

Parents and kids love their teachers and want them to be well compensated. The average LAUSD teacher salary is $75,000 and rises to $110,000 with benefits, including free lifetime health care for teachers and spouses. However, the cost of employee pensions and health care is taking up an increasing portion of the education budget every year and will eat up 50 percent of the funding by the time this year’s kindergartners graduate.

Most parents agree that California schools are underfunded, and we need more money for smaller class sizes, nurses, and librarians — and to fund the promises made to retirees.

Given the current occupant of the White House, his education secretary, and their frightening proposals to arm our educators, it’s perfectly understandable that teachers are in a fighting mood. I think we all are. But teachers and parents must join together to take that fight to those who actually have the power to increase funding: state lawmakers and the governor.

Strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, where average teacher salaries stalled at $45,000, were statewide job actions that led to more state funding. A local strike in Los Angeles will not have the same effect. In fact, the California legislature just adjourned for the year on the same day the union authorized the strike. Lawmakers won’t be around to act even if they wanted to get involved.

LAUSD has budgeted in 6 percent raises for teachers, the same raises it is giving its other employees, whose unions have managed to finalize deals without a strike. But the district does not have enough money for those raises and the union’s other demands, totaling nearly $3 billion.

LAUSD is required by law to stay within its budget or risk state receivership. If that occurs, as it did in nearby Inglewood, draconian cuts will surely follow. Class sizes will increase even more. Teacher salaries and benefits may be cut. We will have fewer nurses, librarians, and counselors. And the exodus of families fleeing LAUSD will accelerate. Just the threat of a strike is already prompting some parents to make contingency plans to move their children out of LAUSD schools midyear.

It’s unfortunate that parents have had no voice in these contract talks, because the negotiations have a direct impact on how their kids are educated. The union’s demands, for instance, would curb the number of new magnet schools, which are popular and successful options within LAUSD. With long waiting lists at many LAUSD magnets, parents clearly want more quality magnet options, not fewer.

But no one is listening to families, and that’s part of the problem. Kids don’t have a union, and parents who represent kids’ interests have no seat at the negotiating table. Their only power is to walk away, and 12,000 students a year are doing just that — and taking their state education funding with them.

Kids and families should not be an afterthought in labor talks. In fact, families would make the best natural allies for teachers in their fight for more state education funding, if we could all come together and collaborate to put the interests of kids first at LAUSD.

So before calling a local strike that will do nothing to stem enrollment loss or increase education funding, we urge union leaders to please think about the kids. Students have done nothing wrong, but they are the ones who will pay the biggest price for a strike. Kids’ futures should never be collateral damage in this war between adults.

Katie Braude, executive director of the grassroots parent advocacy organization Speak UP, spent six years serving on the Board of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which oversees LAUSD’s budget.

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