The current wave of successful teacher strikes is a marked change from the recent curtailing of collective bargaining rights, defunding of public education, and recession-era mantra that America’s public schools were failing because of bad teachers. The genesis of this #RedforEd movement in conservative states with weak union protections—such as West Virginia and Oklahoma— is especially remarkable. As the strikes spread across the nation, teachers in California, North Carolina, and Oregon adopted demands that went beyond teacher pay to address essential conditions for student learning. Unions called for lower class sizes and adequate school staff to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students.
Comparable to the efforts that proceeded it, the success and broad public support for the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) strike in California resulted from the adoption of demands that aligned teacher bargaining rights with student needs. UTLA sought an increase in the number of counselors, nurses, and librarians, and a reduction in class size, all measures that directly impact student learning. These demands inspired thousands of students, families, and community members to walk the picket line alongside teachers, and persuaded nearly 80 percent of Angelenos to voice support for the strike.
The resulting collective bargaining agreement secured a full-time nurse in every school, a full-time librarian in each secondary school and a moderate pay increase for teachers. While significant, these gains were curtailed by the union’s inability to obtain adequate increases in school staffing and meaningfully reduce class sizes, all demands that LAUSD maintained it could not meet without facing fiscal insolvency. If these costly student-centered demands are to be met, advocacy must pivot to enacting state-level initiatives that fully fund education and ensure that public schools survive and students thrive.
I. From School Reform to Teacher Strikes: The Policy Context for #RedforEd
a. The Great Recession Era of Blaming Teachers, Curtailing Union Protections and Defunding Public Education
In the decade since the Great Recession, conservatives and education reformers placed blame for student underachievement on school teachers. This critique pits teachers against the young people they serve and posits that students underperform because their teachers are ineffective and unwilling to deliver quality instruction. While recognizing that there are highly qualified teachers in America’s public schools, critics of teacher performance lament that there are “far too many bad apples in the bucket” who are “unmotivated” and “lack … concern for student development.”
Reformers point to powerful unions as the primary cause of ineffective teaching. According to this argument, robust teacher tenure laws and rigorous standards for termination safeguard teachers at the expense of students, particularly those who attend high-need schools where ineffective teachers are often concentrated. Policies such as seniority provisions, prohibitions on merit pay, and inadequate teacher evaluations are seen as obstacles to ensuring that the most qualified teachers serve students with the greatest needs. To curtail these union protections, several state legislatures have placed restrictions on the use of seniority in layoffs, limited teacher tenure, and tied teacher evaluations to student performance. In California, teacher tenure and dismissal laws were challenged and ultimately upheld by the Court of Appeal in Vergara v. State of California, on the basis that they did not violate the equal protection clause of the State constitution.
The United States Supreme Court dealt a forceful blow to the power of teacher and other public-sector unions in Janus v. AFSCME. The Court in Janus overruled the forty-one-year-old precedent from Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that agency fees from non-consenting employees did not violate the First Amendment. The Court reasoned that the service charges levied by the union were only permissible to the extent that they applied to “collective-bargaining, contract administration, and grievance-adjustment purposes.” In the wake of Janus, unions will continue to be required to provide exclusive representation to all employees, but will not receive funding from nonmembers. Consequently, as Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent, public service unions “will lack the resources to effectively perform the responsibilities of an exclusive representation–or in the worst case, to perform them at all.”
Initiatives to defund and privatize public education have compounded the effects of limited union protections. During the Great Recession, states made drastic cuts to education funding that were far worse than anything during the three decades prior. As a result, school districts were forced to substantially increase class size, cancel school days, eliminate pre-school programs, and lay off thousands of teachers. In California, a state that ranks forty-first in per-pupil funding due in large part to Proposition 13—a ballot initiative that cut tax revenue by 60 percent—these funding cuts crippled an already starved system. Districts across the state—including Los Angeles—were forced to lay off thousands of teachers. The rise of charter schools, especially in districts with large percentages of high need students, further strained district budgets. As students have increasingly chosen to leave the traditional public-school system to enroll at one of California’s 1,300 charter schools, districts have been forced to cut programs and close schools.
b. A New Wave of Successful Teachers Strikes
The genesis of teacher strikes in conservative states with low per-pupil expenditures and limited labor protections is remarkable in the wake of the prior era of blaming teachers, curtailing union power, and defunding public education. In fact, the first major strike emerged in a state where public workers do not have the right to strike. In February, 2018, 20,000 teachers representing all fifty-five counties in West Virginia took to the picket line. After nine days, teachers won a 5 percent pay increase for all public employees in the state. The support for the strike extended beyond teachers and their union. Students, parents, bus drivers, and workers from other industries picketed alongside teachers. In turn, teachers agreed to a raise for all public-sector employees. This broad community support was essential to the teachers’ ability to avoid legal sanction and to their ultimate victory. As Professor Kate Andrias pointed out, “strikes are about power. Workers win or lose depending on the breadth and strength of their action, not the law’s sanction.” When workers have the support of their communities and the general public, demands are won and “legal penalties have rarely been imposed.”
Emboldened by the victory in West Virginia, teacher strikes spread to Arizona, California, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington. As strikes progressed from winter 2018 to spring 2019, unions adopted increasingly student-centered and community-supported demands that proved essential to their success. Whereas the initial teacher strike in West Virginia emphasized teacher pay, the most recent strike in Oregon focused exclusively on increased school funding. Oregon teachers ultimately won two billion dollars for class-size reduction, early childhood education, initiatives to increase graduation rates, reading levels, and attendance, along with funding for career technical education. During the intervening months, teachers in states such as North Carolina picketed to increase funding for classroom supplies, school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, and nurses in addition to demands for increased pay.
In California, close to 80 percent of Angelenos supported the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) strike for reduced class sizes and “fully staffed” schools. In direct contrast to the narrative advanced by reformers and critics of teacher unions, teachers walked off the job primarily to improve conditions for student learning. Students, parents and community members picketed alongside teachers holding signs that read “Stand with LA Teachers! Teachers Fight for Student Rights!” After six days, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) agreed to a full-time nurse in every school, a full-time teacher librarian in every secondary school, modest decreases in the counselor and teacher-student ratios, and a pay increase for teachers. Comparable to strikes that preceded it, UTLA’s success was attributable to its student-centered demands and broad-based community support.
II. Limitations of the UTLA Collective Bargaining Agreement
The centrality of student-focused and community-supported demands to the strike’s platform, however, did not translate to a substantial shift in the learning environment. Beyond essential increases in nurses and librarians, the UTLA collective bargaining agreement fell short on class sizes and increasing school counselors and school support personnel. LAUSD agreed to eliminate a section of the bargaining agreement that had permitted the district to unilaterally increase class sizes pursuant to statutory and program changes or state funding limitations. However, the new agreement capped English and math classes at a whopping thirty-nine students, a number that makes effective teaching—even for the most qualified teachers—extremely difficult.
LAUSD maintained it would not remain fiscally solvent if it were required to fund the necessary learning environment reforms from its local resources. Whereas class-size reduction and an additional school support person for every 400 students would have cost the district $275 million and $227 million respectively, additional counselors, librarians, and a nurse in every school only cost $91 million. The district asserted that while it could increase the number of counselors, librarians, and nurses, it was unable to meaningfully reduce class sizes due to inadequate per-pupil funding, the increasing cost of teacher pensions and declining enrollment. LAUSD expressed concern that the increased but still insufficient per-pupil funding provided through the 2014 Local Control Funding Formula will diminish as student enrollment in Los Angeles County is projected to decrease by 161,200 over the next nine years due to the growing number of LAUSD students—now one in five—who attend charter schools.
III: Beyond Strikes: The Need to Increase State Funding and Keep Public Schools Public
In order to solidify the gains achieved by the #RedforEd movement and make meaningful progress toward creating learning conditions that support the academic, social, and emotional needs of students, states must fully fund public schools. Increased state funding is necessary to meet essential student-centered and community-supported collective bargaining demands, especially in school districts with the greatest needs. Towards this end, advocacy must pivot to state level initiatives that both increase per-pupil funding and limit the financial strain created by charter schools. As the recent defeat of Measure EE—a Los Angeles ballot initiative to increase per-pupil funding—demonstrates, community support for a teacher strike does not necessarily translate into a willingness to increase local taxes. Nor should the responsibility for ample funding for public education rest on local districts as this will undoubtedly result in further disparities between school districts.
Recent efforts in California such as the Schools and Communities First initiative, a 2020 California ballot measure that would limit Proposition 13 to residential, small business, and agricultural properties, and raise a projected $11 billion from property taxes on commercial properties is an important step this is direction. As is AB 1505, an agreement reached between the California Teachers Association and California Charter Schools Association and signed into law by the California governor, that enables school districts to consider the financial and academic impacts of a charter school’s approval, and force closure when a charter is financially unsound or fails to serve all student populations. Advocacy that builds upon the success of recent strikes and garners support for measures such as these is essential to the realization of fully funded public schools where students thrive.
Mason Stocksill, Strong Majority of Los Angeles County Residents Supports Teachers’ Strike, LMUSurvey Finds, LMU Newsroom (Jan. 15, 2019),https://newsroom.lmu.edu/2019/01/15/strong-majority-los-angeles-county-residents-supports-teachers-strike-lmu-survey-finds/[https://perma.cc/K8BL-M64U].
Liana Heitin, States Continue Push to Toughen Teacher Policies, EdWeek(July 12, 2011),https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/07/13/36teacher.h30.html[https://perma.cc/Y5MQ-HA4D]. In the first half of 2011 alone, eight states tied teacher evaluation to student achievement, seven states placed additional conditions on teacher tenure, and five states limited the role of seniority in layoff decisions.
John Wildermuth, Big Change in California’s Proposition 13 Could be Headed to the Ballot, S.F. Chronicle(Aug. 14, 2018), https://www.sfchronicle.com/politics/article/Big-change-in-California-s-Proposition-13-could-13155927.php[https://perma.cc/TAU8-Y862]. Passed in 1978 by 63 percent of the vote, Proposition 13 limited reassessment of residential and commercial property to when it is sold and capped tax increases at two percent a year. The result was a sixty-percent decline in California tax revenue.
Louis Freedberg, California’s School Funding Flaws Make it Difficult for Districts to Meet Teacher Demands,EdSource(Feb. 19, 2019), https://edsource.org/2019/californias-school-funding-flaws-make-it-more-difficult-for-districts-to-meet-teacher-demands/608824[https://perma.cc/R6SV-4ETG].
John Fensterwald, Governor, Lawmakers Agree on New Controls on California Charter Schools,EdSource (Aug. 29, 2019), https://edsource.org/2019/governor-lawmakers-agree-on-new-controls-on-california-charter-schools/616877[https://perma.cc/CVN7-TZGU].
Ariella Plachta, LAUSD Teachers May Go on Strike This Week for the First Time Since 1989:Here’s What You Need to Know, L.A. Daily News(Jan 6, 2019, 7:00 AM), https://www.dailynews.com/2019/01/06/lausd-teachers-may-go-on-strike-this-week-for-the-first-time-since-1989-heres-what-you-need-to-know/[https://perma.cc/6DNZ-9WVU].
Jess Bidgood, West Virginia Raises Teachers’ Pay to End Statewide Strike,N.Y. Times(Mar.6, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/06/us/west-virginia-teachers-strike-deal.html[https://perma.cc/XD6M-995B]. Unlike many of the strikes that followed it, this initial strike in West Virginia occurred prior to the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Janus.
In April 2018 and September 2018, Oklahoma and Washington teachers, respectively won a raise for teachers and support staff. Dana Goldstein & Elizabeth Dias, Oklahoma Teachers End Walkout After Winning Raises and Additional Funding, N.Y. Times (Apr. 12, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/12/us/oklahoma-teachers-strike.html[https://perma.cc/Q5W6-WCPG];Sally Ho, Strike Ending for Last Washington Teachers Still Picketing, Seattle Times(Sept. 17, 2018, 7:00 P.M.), https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/education/with-deal-reached-in-tumwater-all-washington-teacher-contract-conflicts-settled/[https://perma.cc/W6N4-B8Y5]. In April 2018, Kentucky teachers took to the picket lines to maintain their current teacher pension and increase funding for education. Bruce Schreiner & Adam Beam, Teachers in Kentucky Claim Victory as Republicans Reject GOP Governor’s Veto, Chi. Trib.(Apr. 14, 2018), https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-kentucky-teacher-strike-20180414-story.html[https://perma.cc/66NQ-YMC5]. In May 2018, Arizona teachers went on strike demanding a 20 percent pay increase, raises for support staff, a plan for experience-based pay increases and the restoration of one billion in school funding. According to a union spokesperson the strike is “not just about the teachers, it’s about the support staff, the crossing guards and the bus drivers.” Joseph Flaherty, The Teachers Won, Phoenix New Times(May 8, 2018), https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/the-teachers-won-how-arizonas-strike-unfolded-10403354[https://perma.cc/2CUG-DGE5]. In January 2019, Virginia teachers took to the picket lines to bolster support staff, increase funding for school facilities, improve programs for recruitment and retention of teachers, and increase teacher pay. Debbie Truong, Virginia Teachers Plan to Leave Their Classrooms for a Day in March, Wash. Post(Jan. 27, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/virginia-teachers-plan-to-leave-their-classrooms-for-a-day-and-march/2019/01/27/1f95c370-1ffd-11e9-8b59-0a28f2191131_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9dfdf7982026. In February 2019, Oakland and West Virginia teachers took to the streets to demand charter school accountability; Oakland teachers additionally sought funding for guidance counselors and nurses, a moratorium on school closures, and a pay increase. Dana Goldstein, West Virginia Teachers Walk Out (Again) and Score a Win in Hours,N.Y. Times(Feb. 19, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/19/us/teachers-strikes.html[https://perma.cc/LXG8-TPDV]; Theresa Harrington, After Seven-Day Strike, Oakland Teachers Approve New Contract, EdSource(Mar. 3, 2019), https://edsource.org/2019/tentative-agreement-reached-in-oakland-unified-teachers-strike/609342[https://perma.cc/NG8Y-HGRM]. The same month, teachers in Denver, Colorado rejected the increasingly student-focused demands of the movement and demanded only an increase in teacher pay. Elizabeth Hernandez et al., Denver Teachers Strike Begins With at Least 2,600 Educators Walking Out; Negotiations Set to Resume Tuesday, Denver Post(Feb. 12, 2019, 1:56 PM), https://www.denverpost.com/2019/02/11/denver-teachers-strike-monday/[https://perma.cc/8KU5-P8HG]. Finally, in May 2019, South Carolina teachers went on strike to increase the number of mental health counselors, obtain a ban on retaliation against teachers for public policy comments, and increase teacher pay. Holly Yan, Thousands of North and South Carolina Teachers Are Protesting—but Not Just for the Reasons You Might Think, CNN(May 1, 2019, 4:46 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/01/us/south-carolina-teachers-protest-may-1/index.html[https://perma.cc/WA9K-4LEX].
Andrias, supra note 22, at 143; Howard Blume & Sonali Kohli, Los Angeles Teachers May Go on Strike Thursday, Wash. Post(Jan. 6, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/los-angeles-teachers-may-go-on-strike-thursday/2019/01/06/99f5d220-120d-11e9-b6ad-9cfd62dbb0a8_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5e715b543f58.
Michael Murphy, Oregon Walkout Results in School Funding Boost, N.Y. Teacher(June 5, 2019), http://www.uft.org/labor-spotlight/oregon-walkout-results-school-funding-boost[https://perma.cc/RT3P-TTQ6]; Rex Santus, The Oregon Teacher Walkout Isn’t About Pay Raises, VICE News(May 8, 2019), https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/evyvxj/the-oregon-teacher-walkout-isnt-about-pay-raises[https://perma.cc/YR62-2QN7].
Martha Waggoner, North Carolina Teachers Will Rally Again in Capital to Press Demands, PBS NewsHour(Apr. 30, 2019, 3:35 PM) https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/north-carolina-teachers-will-rally-again-in-capital-to-press-demands[https://perma.cc/5RLC-22LK]; Yan, supranote 28.
Stockstill, supra note 1. The Loyola Marymount poll found that 53 percent of respondents “strongly support” and 24 percent “somewhat support” UTLA teachers going on strike for their demands. Support was 60 percent or higher “across all demographic categories, including age, ethnicity, income and political affiliation. Among parents with children at home, just 18 percent opposed the walkout.” Id.
 Dennis Romero, Educators Across U.S. Inspired by L.A. Teachers’ Win, NBC News(Jan. 24, 2019, 4:32 AM) https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/educators-across-u-s-inspired-l-teachers-win-n962046[https://perma.cc/VCT4-PBX7] (“'What we are witnessing is not a moment but a movement of and by educators who are fighting for the public schools our students deserve,’ National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement.”).
Jennifer Medina & Dana Goldstein, Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike to End as Deal is Reached, N.Y. Times(Jan 22, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/us/la-teacher-strike-deal.html[https://perma.cc/B7BS-ZCEB]; Our Contract Agreement: What We Won & How it Builds our Future, UTLA https://www.utla.net/sites/default/files/what%20we%20won.pdf(last visited Aug. 6, 2019).
Maria L. La Ganga, Must Reads: Effects of L.A. Teachers’ Strike Ripple Across California and Beyond, L.A. Times(Jan. 27, 2019, 4:00 AM),https://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-me-edu-strike-impact-20190127-story.html[https://perma.cc/87ZC-9GHZ](UCLA Professor John Rogers “the strike brought forth how young people are experiencing education and how we as a society need to develop new structures to ensure that young people have the support they need.”).
Article XVIII, Section 1.5 of the previous UTLA Collective Bargaining Agreement stated that, “It is recognized that the class size restrictions of this Article may not be achieved due to circumstances such as state funding limitations, changes in the student integration or other programs, or statutory changes.”2014-2017 Bargaining Contract, UTLA, https://www.utla.net/resources/2014-17-bargaining-contract[https://perma.cc/JFU6-DFWK].
L.A. UnifiedSch. Dist.,Los Angeles Unified Frequently Asked Questions1–2 (last visited Aug. 6, 2019), https://achieve.lausd.net/cms/lib/CA01000043/Centricity/Domain/978/FAQs%2010-12-18.pdf.
California Public K-12 Graded Enrollment and High School Graduate Projections by County — 2018 Series, CA. Dep’t of Fin. (Jan. 2019),http://www.dof.ca.gov/Forecasting/Demographics/Projections/Public_K-12_Graded_Enrollment/[https://perma.cc/K8LH-UAAD]; Howard Blume & Sonali Kohli, Teachers’ Strike is Over, but LAUSD Still Faces Threats From Charters and Finances,L.A. Times(Jan. 25, 2019, 4:00 AM) https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-edu-lausd-charter-analysis-20190125-story.html[https://perma.cc/G9MY-5JQE]; La Ganga, supra note 36;Kelsey Krausen & Jason Willis, Silent Recession, Why California School Districts Are Underwater Despite Increases in Funding (Apr. 2018), https://www.wested.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/resource-silent-recession-2.pdf[https://perma.cc/J2V6-93VF].
The Local Control Funding Formula, enacted in 2013 by former governor Jerry Brown returned per-pupil funding to pre-recession levels and provided increased supplemental and concentration funding for English learner, foster youth and low-income students.
Howard Blume, L.A. School Tax Measure Defeated, in Blow to Garcetti and Beutner, L.A. Times(June 4, 2019), https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-edu-lausd-parcel-tax-election-20190604-story.html[https://perma.cc/22GF-LDAF].
Id. Only 45 percent of Angelenos supported the measure, a percentage that fell far below the two-thirds majority required to pass and significantly below the 79 percent support for the UTLA strike.
John Wildermuth & Joe Garofoli, Prop. 13 Reform Measure Pushed Aside — Backers Seek New Tax Plan for Businesses. S.F. Chronicle(Aug. 13, 2019, 9:26 PM), https://www.sfchronicle.com/politics/article/Prop-13-reform-measure-shelved-backers-seek-14302391.php[https://perma.cc/L9KU-9FNX].
John Fensterwald, New Era for Charter Schools: Newsom Signs Bill After Intensive Negotiations, EdSource(Oct. 4, 2019, 11:03 AM), https://edsource.org/2019/new-era-for-charter-schools-newsom-signs-bill-with-compromises-he-negotiated/618099[https://perma.cc/U9LF-K8FK].
It is important to recognize the fiscal impact of charter schools on traditional districts. SeeSamuel E. Abrams, Exit, Voice and Charter Schools, 88 Rev. Jur. U.P.R.894, 896 (2019) (discussing “fixed vs. variable costs” and impact of expansion of charter schools on traditional school districts). The significant percentage of students attending charter schools and the powerful political movement behind expansion of California charter schools has impacted UTLA’s organizing approach. See generally Howard Blume,$490 Million Plan Would Put Half of LAUSD Students in Charter Schools, L.A. Times (Sept. 21, 2015, 9:55 PM), https://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-me-lausd-charter-20150922-story.html[https://perma.cc/7E5U-X63E]. Some commentators argued that the effect of charter school enrollment on per-pupil funding represented the underlying conflict of the strike. Glenn Sacks, Charters are the Subtext of this Strike and UTLA is Correct to Stand Against Them, L.A. Daily News (Jan. 16, 2019, 11:40 AM), https://www.dailynews.com/2019/01/13/charters-are-the-subtext-of-this-strike-and-utla-is-correct-to-stand-against-them/[https://perma.cc/5FZW-8G2P]. A shift in the statewide policy landscape on charter schools will support UTLA’s work, but is only one piece in much larger puzzle. Despite the public perception that charter schools universally outperform traditional public schools, roughly 75% of charters perform the same as or worse than their district counterparts. See Ctr. for Res. on Edu. Outcomes, National Charter School Study 2013 57, https://credo.stanford.edu/sites/g/files/sbiybj6481/f/ncss_2013_final_draft.pdf[https://perma.cc/5U2L-HWRC].
For UTLA and similarly situated unions across the state and nation to be truly successful, we must find more nuanced and creative ways to align interests and support traditional public schools. Our schools continue to face deep challenges around traditional metrics of success and fundamental equity issues. If quality issues in traditional public schools go unaddressed, charter schools will continue to be perceived as more successful simply because they represent a departure from the status quo.