By Jennifer King
As an LAUSD elementary school teacher, I have found the tangible campus gains from the teachers strike in January to be disappointing. But the strike did accomplish one very important thing. It brought much-needed attention to the consequences of chronic public school under-funding.
As we walked the picket line, teachers felt more supported and more empowered than we have in decades. Many students and their parents joined us at protests and on the picket lines, calling for more funding for our schools. It is clear that the community appreciates us and strongly supports teachers, as well as more investment in our schools.
Increasing funding for education is only part of the picture, though. Teachers, we too need to consider agreeing to some changes. The reality is that district healthcare and pension costs currently take up close to 30 percent of the LAUSD annual budget. That number is projected to rise to 50 percent by the year 2031. Not only are these costs unsustainable, but every dollar that covers these expenses is taken from the same pot that funds our salaries and our schools.
As union members we need to ask our union leadership to begin exploring cost-saving options, and we need to demand that we be included as active and informed participants in this conversation.
I’m excited to see the governor’s increased investment in public education and his emphasis on early childhood education, which is long overdue. While the proposed budget is a strong step in the right direction, it is simply not enough to solve our long-term budget problems at Los Angeles Unified and give our kids and fellow teachers what they truly deserve – including higher pay and lower class sizes.
Last week, my elementary school received its budget for the 2019-2020 school year. I am happy to report that our upper-grade magnet class sizes will be reduced by two students per classroom. But with a decrease from 34 to 32 students in the fourth and fifth grade, class sizes are still much too large.
As a classroom teacher, I cannot emphasize just how much class size matters, especially with new curricular demands on teachers, as well as students, who are coming of age in this fast-paced technological era. A study by the Brookings Institution found that students who learned in a classroom of 15 students “increased their student achievement by an amount equivalent to about three additional months of schooling four years later,” than students who were educated in a classroom with seven additional students. And my classroom has not 22 students, but 29.
In addition to class size reduction, the post-strike teachers contract agreement promised to increase nurses and librarians. Funding for our nursing staff remains the same: one nurse one day per week, and we are actually facing losing our librarian. The district funded a library aide at our school for two-and-a-half days per week this year. Next year, the district is asking that we fund that same library aide out of what is now our smaller school budget. We are unlikely to have enough funds to pay her salary next year.
California public schools have been underfunded for more than 40 years, since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. With our diverse student population and our large percentage of English Language Learners, California faces some of the biggest education challenges in the nation. Nevertheless California remains 41st in national per pupil spending when adjusted for cost of living and has some of the largest class sizes in the nation. California spends about half as much per student as New York. Given California’s size and our wealth, it is time we demand that our education system be adequately funded.
In Sacramento, we must demand that our representatives develop a funding model that significantly increases per-pupil spending for the long term, not just during this economic windfall, with a Governor who has his priorities straight. Prop 13 “split roll” reform, which would tax big-business commercial property owners more, while leaving Prop 13 in place for homeowners, is heading to the statewide ballot in 2020. Just as we did during the strike, we need to organize a grassroots effort to help pass this reform. Let’s make some noise!
Here in Los Angeles, Superintendent Austin Beutner and the LAUSD School Board have put a parcel tax measure on the June ballot. If passed by two-thirds of L.A. voters, Measure EE could provide an additional $500 million annually to L.A. public schools for the next 12 years. The proposed revenue measure would cost the average Los Angeles household $288 per year. Teachers and parents need to work together to build community support and get out the vote in support of Measure EE, which would have a huge and lasting impact on our Los Angeles schools.
Despite the groundswell of support during the strike, some members of the public remain wary of passing a parcel tax, fearing the revenue generated could go straight to pensions and free lifetime healthcare, rather than to the classroom. Making some necessary changes to bring our benefits in line with those of other school districts could go a long way toward establishing good will with voters who are concerned about LAUSD spending new funds responsibly.
If we can generate more revenue and agree to necessary changes to our benefits plans, working teachers and students will benefit. For example, when it comes to future employees, we could trade free lifetime health benefits for more pay up front.
Imagine starting teacher salaries at $80,000, with opportunities to move quickly up the pay scale. We are some of the hardest working members in our community, and it is time we get paid what we deserve. Higher salaries would bring renewed respect and could help put a stop to the teacher shortage, drawing competitive, qualified young people to the teaching profession. It’s time to commit to reasonable changes in an unsustainable benefits system for future employees, including employee contributions to our health care plans and common sense pension reform. Let’s use that money to pay teachers what they’re worth immediately, rather than delaying rewards until teachers have put in 30 years of service.
Teaching is both a challenging and rewarding profession. Public support for what we do and for more funding makes this a very exciting time to be an educator. The promised investments from Sacramento are a good beginning. Teachers, parents and community members, let’s join together to make the most of this opportunity to make California the best education system in the nation.
— Jennifer King has spent a decade working as an LAUSD teacher, and she is the parent of two children who attended LAUSD magnet schools in the San Fernando Valley. She spent her early career working on women’s and children’s political issues at the state level and in Washington, D.C.