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The Learning Curve: What the L.A. and Oakland Teachers Strikes Won’t Solve

When teachers strike against their districts for raises and smaller class sizes, they are often striking for money the districts don’t have.

Thousands of teachers, students and union allies marched through downtown Los Angeles ahead of a strike. / Image via Shutterstock

First Banning Unified, then Los Angeles – and as of Thursday, Oakland teachers are on strike. The sight of workers walking out of their jobs, setting up picket lines and demanding justice by any means necessary is intoxicating. People can make change.

I hate to sprinkle any doubt on such an inspiring image, but I do have one question: Are California teachers bringing the fight to the right doorstep?

In West Virginia, teachers went on strike all across the state, instead of in just one school district. And that seemingly small detail is actually very important. Last year, West Virginia teachers, whose pay ranked 48th in the nation, went on strike for higher pay. Earlier this week, they went on strike to block charter schools and private school vouchers.

California teachers also want higher pay, smaller class sizes and to curb charter school growth. But instead of fighting with Gov. Gavin Newsom or the state Legislature, California teachers are taking up the fight with their local school districts. And in a way, that doesn’t totally make sense.

The state, for the most part, controls how much money local school districts get. The state is also the final decision-making authority on charter schools. Look at Los Angeles: Part of the final deal included the local board of education agreeing to make a resolution that called for a cap on charter schools. That resolution is nothing more than a piece of paper. The L.A. Unified Board of Education has no authority to implement a cap.

Still, the resolution had some impact. Newsom asked for a study on the impact of charters and that they face stricter transparency regulations.

But the money is going to be a much, much bigger problem. Consider this paradox: School funding (from the state) has risen exponentially in the past seven years. And yet, many districts are severely short on cash. They’re having to make cuts year after year. That’s because the majority of increased state spending was designed to make up for post-recession austerity. And in the last seven years school district’s rising costs, for special education and mandated pension payments, have washed out increased revenue.

L.A. Unified is, again, a perfect example. The district ultimately relented on the teachers’ demands of a 6 percent pay bump. But the district is squeezed for cash and has virtually no power to increase its own revenue. So where will the money come from? The district has enough money in reserves to pay for the pay increases for the next two years, officials say. But reserve cash is one-time – rather than recurring – revenue, in the parlance of money people. Raises are recurring.

After the deal, the L.A. County superintendent of schools, who has some oversight authority over L.A. Unified, wrote this, “As we have previously noted, using one-time funding sources, such as reserves, to cover ongoing salary expenditures, is a key indicator of risk for potential insolvency.”

Insolvency? Like, going bust? Yep.

When a district increases its costs, but doesn’t have the money to pay for it, that’s called a structural deficit. And despite massive increases in funding, the number of districts with structural deficits on their books is increasing, an official with the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team recently told me. California schools, though it is not often recognized, appear to be in the middle of a slow-moving funding crisis.

California ranks 40th in per-pupil spending, according the National Education Association, and a recent study contended the state needed to increase funding by $25.6 billion per year to adequately fund education. Those problems must be addressed by Newsom and the Legislature. L.A. Unified has no control over them. Neither does Oakland.

When teachers strike against their districts for raises and smaller class sizes, they are often striking for money the districts don’t have.

VOSD’s Education Coverage

  • In the ongoing Sweetwater saga, we discovered that multiple employees warned at least two top officials about the district’s budget crisis months before it came to light. We also learned one of the top officials retired suddenly during the summer, which counters previous claims by the administration that her retirement was pre-planned.
  • One of the biggest players in the Sweetwater story has been an obscure state agency: the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team. Many South Bay residents struggled to have their questions answered about the extent of the budget crisis and who was responsible for it. The agency, because of its independent nature, has a reputation for exposing difficult truths.
  • Kayla Jimenez wrote about the disturbing rise in teacher misconduct cases in California. The agency that handles the cases was not designed to manage the number of cases it currently deals with, the head of the agency has said. Teachers with a history of misconduct can stay in the classroom longer when the backlog of teacher misconduct cases grows, as she and I previously reported.
  • Jimenez also wrote a piece, which has generated lots of feedback, about how social media has fueled numerous instances of teacher misconduct. Despite multiple examples of teachers inappropriately contacting students on social media, many school districts don’t have a policy in place to address what educators can and can’t do.
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