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How the Debate Over Charter Schools Is Fueling the Los Angeles Teacher Strike

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More than 30,000 Los Angeles teachers began a strike on Monday for the first time in 30 years due to failed negotiations over school funding, pay raises and classroom sizes. But as they’ve mobilized, teachers have also focused on the growth of charter schools as a central issue in the nation’s second-largest school district.

At a press conference Wednesday night following another day of negotiations, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) President Alex Caputo-Pearl accused district leaders of wanting “to starve our schools in order to justify cuts and justify handing more schools over to privately run charter schools.”

He called for a cap on charter school growth, including it on a list of issues that, while not on the bargaining table now, “absolutely shape the direction of public education in Los Angeles.”

Los Angeles schools Superintendent Austin Beutner has said previously that the contract dispute should not be seen as a referendum on charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. And he has called claims that he wants to privatize the school district “baseless.” But the issue has become a focal point in the debate over the future of Los Angeles schools, as union leaders accuse Beutner and the city’s Board of Education of favoring charter schools over traditional public schools.

About one in five Los Angeles students now attend charter schools, and charter school enrollment has continued to grow in the past decade as overall enrollment in the district has declined. The city now has more charter schools and more charter school students than any other school system in the country, the Los Angeles Times reported. Most charter school employees are not unionized.

Meanwhile, charter school advocates have been gaining ground in the city. In 2017, outside spending on campaigns for two school board seats topped $14 million in what was described as “the most expensive school board race in U.S. history” — an election that pitted teachers unions against wealthy charter school backers, resulting in a pro-charter majority on the board.

Union leaders and other charter school critics argue that such schools have drawn resources from traditional public schools, contributing to the district’s current challenges. A report commissioned by the union in 2016 estimated that traditional public schools lose more than $500 million every year to charter schools. Critics also point to data showing that charter schools enroll smaller percentages of students with disabilities, students from low-income families and English-language learners.

“Right now, we have a glut of charter schools. We have many charter schools that are under-enrolled. We have charter schools that are in totally inadequate facilities, and very little oversight. The union is raising some valid concerns about the proliferation of charters,” says Pedro Noguera, education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and the director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools.

“You’ve had big philanthropists, like Eli Broad and the former Mayor Richard Riordan who’ve been spending lots of money trying to elect pro-charter school board members and support charter schools. I think the union is still under attack from that, and they see this effort as being their way to respond.”

Nick Melvoin — vice president of the Los Angeles Board of Education and one of the pro-charter candidates who was elected in 2017 — has warned that a strike will be harmful and said he supports some of the teachers’ demands, but thinks protests should be aimed at Sacramento, where state lawmakers control much of the education budget.

“The teacher strikes around the country have all been aimed at state capitals. That’s where we need to be going collectively,” he said in an interview with Fox 11 this month. “Let’s join forces and advocate for increased funding. And not just the funding, but the other issues that teachers have been talking about recently, including … charter schools. It’s the state law that governs charter schools, the state law that governs space with charters.”

Teachers union demands include a 6.5% pay raise, smaller class sizes and funding to hire more nurses and counselors. Last week, the district offered 6% pay raises and $130 million toward reduced class sizes and new hires, but UTLA leaders have continued to call on the district to tap into its $1.8 billion in reserve funding. Beutner has said the district is approaching insolvency and using the reserve funds would bankrupt it. On Wednesday, the district announced it was hiring a team of fiscal experts to help stabilize finances.

California spent $11,495 per student in 2016 — an increase from the level that made the state 41st in the U.S. in per-pupil spending in 2015-16, according to an analysis by the California Budget & Policy Center, which adjusted for cost-of-living differences.

“We would like smaller class sizes. We would like more nurses, counselors and librarians,” Beutner said in an interview with Fox 11 last week. “We just can’t afford that. It’s not that we don’t want it, we just can’t afford it.”

The strike, which was originally scheduled to begin Thursday, was postponed until Monday amid legal questions, but a judge ruled Thursday that there was no reason to delay the strike.

“Los Angeles Unified is willing to work around the clock to avoid a strike that will harm the students, families and communities most in need,” the district said in a statement.

The planned strike comes nearly a year after teachers in West Virginia kicked off a wave of walkouts in states across the country, from Kentucky to Oklahoma to Arizona.

The stakes are just as high. The Los Angeles Unified School District enrolls more than 640,000 students — nearly equal to the number of public school students in the entire state of Oklahoma and more than twice the number of students enrolled across West Virginia. And concerns about the strike’s effect on students are more pronounced in a district where more than 16,000 students are homeless and about 400,000 qualify for free or reduced-price meals served at school.

The district is keeping schools open during the strike, hiring about 400 substitutes to fill in for about 30,000 teachers — a move criticized by union leaders, who have asked parents to support the strike by keeping children out of school. Due to a state funding model that allocates money based on student attendance, the district also stands to lose millions during a strike, depending on how many students stay home and how long it lasts.

Lois Weiner, a consultant on teacher union reform who is supportive of the Los Angeles strike, says she thinks other unions, especially in urban school districts, could follow the lead of UTLA when it comes to connecting difficult teaching conditions to charter school expansion.

“If there is a strike in Los Angeles, you will absolutely see more walkouts,” she says. “The only question is how and when.”

Aurora Mireles, a kindergarten teacher at Rowan Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, says she hopes the strike raises awareness about the state of public education in the city. She will be striking along with her husband, a second grade teacher in the district, and she moved the school supplies she has personally purchased out of her classroom last week in preparation, fearing that Lego sets, math tools and toys might get lost or broken under a substitute’s supervision.

“I’m hoping that testing will get lessened and that we receive a pay raise,” says Mireles, who has been teaching for 25 years and makes about $80,000 because of her National Board Certification. “But for many teachers, including me, it’s more than the pay raise. It’s also the class size, the lack of resources and the oversight of these charter schools.”

“Do we still believe in funding public education across the board — from the kinder level and preschool level all the way to the university level?” she says. “Or have we given up?”

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com