As more than 30,000 educators and supporters prepared Monday to protest the Los Angeles school district's overcrowded classrooms, low teacher salaries, and refusal to hire sufficient support staff, observers noted how the lines being drawn reflect divisions within the Democratic Party regarding education policies: corporate-backed privatization versus strengthening public schools.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attacked teachers across the country for going on strike last year over their chronically low wages, claiming Oklahoma teachers were allowing "adult disagreements" to get in the way of "serving the students"—ignoring the fact that educators there walked out of classrooms last April largely because funding cuts had left schoolchildren with dilapidated textbooks and insufficient supplies.
But the fight over the future of education and teachers' rights in Los Angeles is revealing rifts among Democrats and progressives, with former Education Secretary Arne Duncan also expressing support for the school district while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stands firmly on the side of the educators.
I stand in solidarity w/ @UTLAnow teachers in their fight for fair pay, smaller classroom sizes & stipends for materials and supplies. Teaching is one of the most valuable and indispensable professions. We need to treat educators with respect and dignity.https://t.co/NKrqvxXO3e
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 9, 2019
Sanders has vocally supported other teachers' strikes in recent months, expressing solidarity with educators in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arizona last year as demands for fair wages and sufficient resources spread through several states.
Meanwhile, Duncan, President Barack Obama's education secretary and a charter school proponent, released a statement over the weekend saying Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) "is spending half a billion dollars more each year than it brings in and is headed toward insolvency in about two years if nothing changes… It simply does not have the money to fund UTLA's demands."
LAUSD posted the comments on its Twitter account along with the claim, "The community agrees: a strike will hurt our kids."
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As Common Dreams reported last week, the demands that the teachers' union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), has made of the district include a 6.5 percent raise, the hiring off more educators to ensure smaller class sizes, and more nurses, counselors, and librarians to support L.A.'s 600,000 public school students.
Supporters of the teachers have noted that L.A. school superintendent Austin Beutner, a Democrat, has a background in hedge fund management and investment banking rather than education, and that it shows in his proposal to divide the district into 32 "networks" to create a "leaner, more efficient" school system.
"Beutner, a former investment banker, is working on a major plan to restructure the district into 32 “networks"...Critics have charged that he is seeking to bust the teachers union and privatize the district by moving toward the “portfolio” model."https://t.co/HIoe4uuiuf
— Rachel Levy (@RachelAnneLevy) December 14, 2018
That’s right: A hedge fund manager was put in charge of the school district and is dividing it up like a private equity sale. This strategy was used to decimate public ed in Detroit & New Orleans — and @AustinLASchools has built a team to do that in LA. https://t.co/I8q0WQV74X
— DSA Los Angeles (@DSA_LosAngeles) January 8, 2019
Duncan's support for the school district, which in fact has nearly $2 billion in a reserve that teachers say it should use to fund salary increases and new hires, including nurses and counselors, is indicative of establishment Democrats' harmful alignment with corporate interests—while traditionally Democratic teachers' unions are finding themselves supported mainly by progressives.
"Nearly every leader in this fight is a Democrat, with the two sides representing larger fissures within the Democratic Party about the future of public education," wrote Rebecca Klein at the Huffington Post. "What happens with this teachers strike could set the stage for how these issues play out in the 2020 election and beyond."
"The choice is very clear," wrote Nikhil Goyal, author of "Schools on Trial," on Twitter. "You can be on the side of teachers or you can be on the side of Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, and those who want to privatize and undermine public education. We need a clean break with the Duncan-DeVos agenda."