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Why Los Angeles Teachers Are Striking

Cristina Spano for NPR

Updated Monday, Jan. 14, at 10:31 a.m. ET.

Teachers in Los Angeles, the nation's second largest school district, began a strike on Monday. It's the first time the city has seen a teacher strike in nearly 30 years, and roughly 480,000 public school students will be affected.

The union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has been holding out, primarily, for the district to reduce class sizes and hire more nurses, librarians and counselors, all of whom the union also represents. District leaders say they don't have the money to pay for the level of changes the union wants.

In August, 98 percent of union's more than 30,000 members voted to authorize a strike. But California law requires certain steps be taken before teachers can stop working, among them state mediation and fact-finding.

What a strike would mean for parents

LA Unified School District officials say schools will remain open for the same hours, offering the same before- and after-school programs.

About 81 percent of LA public school students rely on the district's free- or reduced-price meals, and schools will continue to serve those as well.

The district also says students who attend school during a strike will continue to receive instruction from "qualified L.A. Unified staff," including administrators — though it remains to be seen how the district will fulfill this promise.

United Teachers Los Angeles recently criticized the district's decision to hire about 400 substitute teachers, calling the move "illegal."

Still, district officials concede attendance is likely to plummet. Since the state funds schools based on how many students actually show up each day, even a short strike would be costly to the district.

Many LA parents plan to keep their children home in the event of a strike, some in a show of solidarity with the union, some because of uncertainty around how their kids will be supervised in the teachers' absence. For many of those parents, child care could pose a challenge.

The issues at stake

Negotiations between the district and United Teachers Los Angeles started inearly 2017. Since then, contract talks have dragged on with little progress. Union members have been working without a contract for more than a year. There have been several hurdles to establishing a new agreement:

District finances. The two sides don't agree on how much money the district has available to spend on teacher demands. District leaders have said the union's proposals could "bankrupt" the school system, and they say they're not being hyperbolic. But union leaders don't buy these grim forecasts, saying none of the recent projections of the school district's financial collapse have come true.

The district has nearly $2 billion in the bank, and the union wants those funds spent on its contract demands. The district says it needs to put that money toward regular operations in order to avoid insolvency. And in fact, on Wednesday, the Los Angeles County Office of Education announced it had assigned a "team of fiscal experts" to work with LAUSD, a sign that the county is concerned about the district's finances.

Another development came Thursday, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a proposed budget that included more funding for public education. The district increased its offer to the union following the Democratic governor's announcement. The but the union rejected that offer on Friday.

Class sizes. The union wants to remove contract language that allows district officials to increase class sizes in order to save money. (After all, more students per classroom means less need to hire teachers.) In recent years, the district has unilaterally raised some class sizes to as high as 46 students, surpassing the 39-student limit spelled out in the last teacher contract.

School district leaders have offered to get rid of this language, but union leaders doubt the sincerity of the offer, in part, because the district has proposed a replacement provision that they feel would be worse.

On Friday, district officials offered to spend $130 million on class size reduction.

But union officials want more ambitious (and costly) reductions to class sizes and special education teachers' caseloads. The district says it can't afford to do more.

Staffing levels. Some LA public schools operate without full-time librarians or nurses. The union wants to change that; it's calling for a full-time nurse for every school and a full-time librarian for every middle and high school. The union has also called for hiring a raft of new counselors, deans and social workers, all of whom the union also represents.

The district's $130 million class-size-reduction package includes funding for more nurses and counselors. LAUSD also offered to guarantee library services at every middle school and add an additional counselor at every high school. On Friday, county government leaders said they could pitch in $10 million of mental health funding, which would help pay for full-time nursing services at every elementary school, according to the district. But that money would only last a year, which union officials consider a major flaw.

The union believes the district can do far more. In July, LAUSD estimated that accepting all of the union's staffing demands could cost several hundreds of millions of dollars.

Teacher pay. The two sides aren't far apart on salary, but the union is still hoping for a 6.5 percent raise — including back pay to July 2016. The district is offering a package of raises totaling 6 percent, but with back pay going back only as far as July 2017, when the teachers' last contract expired.

Copyright 2019 KPCC

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools forKPLU.