Friday, August 7, 2020
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Similar struggles have led to teachers’ strikes

The root causes of the teachers’ strike in the nation’s second-largest school district, despite being in a liberal-leaning state, closely parallel those of other strikes last school year in the entire states of Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and Kentucky, the Associated Press reports.

And those causes are:

  • School funding
  • Teacher pay
  • Student-to-adult ratios
  • Charter schools
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Voxitatis reported last year that teacher pay across the nation never recovered after the Great Recession, and the AP also reported that statistic in this story. The precise situation varies by state—with Illinois teachers earning about as much less, on a cost-adjusted basis, as Maryland teachers earn more than they did in 2000—but the national average for teacher pay has gone down, led by the spiral that was the Great Recession.

As a direct result of that unrecoverable vortex of austerity, school districts have experienced shrinking revenue streams simply because people in their communities have been making less and thus paying less in taxes. But that vortex has also been compounded in several areas, including most notably California, by tax cuts for property owners.

Proposition 13, passed in 1996, allowed voters to decide how they would be taxed. One of the first things voters did was to freeze certain property tax payments at base levels with predefined caps: Even though property values and school district costs continued to go up, those property owners continued to pay the same, artificially low property taxes. Districts had no choice but to cut pay for teachers, covering the first two elements on the list.

They also cut staff, explaining the third element on the list in full. The United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union representing more than 30,000 teachers in the city, said that about 80 percent of the district’s 836 campuses lack a full-time nurse. Many also don’t have enough counselors for the number of students or enough librarians to manage.

The fourth issue is much more complex. Charter schools started out decades ago as little experiments in how to make schools better. Small groups would break off from the main school in order to try out an educational approach that might work with certain groups of students. The idea was to relax regulation and district oversight enough to allow the school to give the new approach, AKA innovation, a fair shake.

But in recent decades, profiteers figured out that charter school laws would allow them to drain even more money out of the public schools, where administrator salaries were often sky high, and provide a narrowly-focused rather than well-rounded education for a larger and more middle group of students.

Charter schools, while being a very good idea for a small group of kids—those who need 1-on-1 learning or who don’t function well in traditional classrooms—weren’t really designed to serve most students who attend our public schools, the majority of whom do just fine with other groups of kids around them in traditional classrooms.

Taking needier students out of traditional classrooms in public schools is good for those kids and good for the students who remain, since teachers won’t have to devote an inordinate amount of time and attention to students with needs that are better met in a non-traditional educational environment. But serving only these small numbers of students wasn’t going to bring in enough money to make operating charter schools profitable. Again, I stress, they weren’t originally designed to turn a profit but to be innovative.

But profiteers, AKA charter school operators, started offering their narrowly-focused educational programs to the masses. And in cities like Los Angeles, where about 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals and many are reading below grade level, at least for English, the masses flocked to the narrow programs certain charter schools could offer.

And with the masses of students went a whole bunch of money to the charter schools. Somehow it seems as though this charter school bubble will burst at some point, but proponents keep pushing for expansion of charter school laws, to the detriment of public school districts, especially those in large cities like Los Angeles, where the vast majority of the kids are just like the kids in any other school, even those in the suburbs.

Families in Los Angeles and other urban areas have lower employment levels, lower income levels, and higher crime rates than their suburban peers, that’s all. The kids aren’t really any different, but the negative effect lower community engagement has on students’ performance in school makes them look like needier students when, in fact, they aren’t and are far better served by better-supported public schools than by charters.

“What you are facing here in Los Angeles is part of the same playbook we’ve seen in place after place, year after year,” the AP quoted American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten as saying while protesting with Los Angeles teachers last month. “Starve the schools to create a crisis, go after teachers, and hand over control to those who want to run schools like a business rather than invest in what our kids need.”

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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