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utla teachers strike

LAUSD teachers, retired teachers and parents gather signs outside Venice High School to show their support for a teachers' strike. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Hollywood paints a rather simple picture of strikes. There are good guys and bad guys. Workers and non-workers.

But the imminent teacher’s strike here in LA is complicated. For one thing, it’s a public service union. So the owners are a complicated notion. The boss of public school teachers are we the people, taxpayers: Us. And yet across the table from the bargaining teachers is “Los Angeles Unified School District”. LAUSD is a public agency bargaining on behalf of: Us. Or at least it’s supposed to be. The current Superintendent is not an educator, he’s a professional money manager, expert in finessing trickeries of the stock market. His business is to leverage money to make more of it.

There’s a lot that is confusing about the layout of this strike. For one thing, public employees are set against public servants. That leaves the public stuck in the middle: Us.

So there’s a lot that is confusing about the layout of this strike. For one thing, public employees are set against public servants. That leaves the public stuck in the middle: Us.

As if it were proper to envision this as a black-white setup, what we have here is (group M (“management”)) folks negotiating with taxpayer’s money against (group W (“workers”)) those hired by we the taxpayers. Taking orders from Group M is an intervening, quasi-management group: school administrators – Principals, District Brass, Administrative support-staff. Their hands are not directly on the purse strings – that would be the bailiwick of elected school board members who vote on a potential contract, and their appointed Superintendent (hedge fund one-time whiz kid Beutner) who negotiates it.

But administrators are not LA's teachers union members (they have their own union: AALA). Many, though not all, administrators come up from teacher-land – or at least once did. As of late, many have been trained through a different trajectory, the Eli Broad Institute. Gates has put his thumb on the scale, too. There is an ideological management factory out there which it’s hard not to feel paranoid about. There is a concerted effort to train Public-Private Education PartnershipsakaPrivatize Education”.

There are two interleaved groups on the “W” side: Parents and Students. Parents are at least adults, and able to express their voice. Students are almost universally within a PK-12 system, under-age. And while they are the constituency arguably most impacted by this strike, theirs is the voice least well heard.

For example among older, high school aged students, one perspective on class size is that of the “frazzled teacher” at the front of the room. The emotional toll of interacting with someone stressed and nominally in charge of an out-of-control situation, is draining. And that’s before getting to the purported purpose of the system: to learn and teach. Teachers with over-full classrooms are not just asked to manage too many pupils, this inflated group size will just plain statistically, be composed of more especially difficult-to-control and teach students. And the time that must be devoted to the “squeakiest wheels” because it is so excessive, drains relatively more time from the less-needy kids, a double-whammy of time and attention-deprivation for the rest of the class.

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So outsized class sizes are harder to teach, composed of more diverse groups of students, and result in increasingly less time available for the middle range of kids due to the larger number of, and more time-intensive needs, of outliers.

Hence, “frazzled” teachers. Whom in upper level classrooms also have homework to plan and correct. Doubling the size of a classroom doubles the amount of homework to be corrected. Six classes of 25 students who submit, say, a weekly English writing assignment, makes for 150 papers a week to grade. What happens when that number is doubled? Students’ devoted, hard work, is overlooked, disrespected, neglected. Not only do they miss out on the explicit, pedagogically necessary feedback of corrections, they receive instead a message of disregard and unimportance.

It may never be the intention of the teacher, or the system, to convey this. But by assigning teachers functionally physically impossible workloads, that is the message that trickles down – forced by the administration, with teachers the innocent vector and students’ learning and self-esteem the collateral damage. That is some of the fallout on older students in the PK-12 system. Theirs is a voice and experience that is being inadequately heard.

Younger kids have a rather different collateral damage. Where their personal relationship to the teacher is so important, being part of a classroom from which the teacher explicitly departs is extremely nerve-wracking. Feelings of own personal self-worth, doubt, importance, fault are all magnified. Even when they hear explicitly that this is not their fault, many will understand the conflict to be personal, directed at them and potentially to have been avoided by them. They will be unable to dissociate “adult agendas” from their own. And they may bear the association as a burden.

Kids of all ages from 4 to 18 will face a bigger political question of whether to “cross a picket line”. While parents weigh the potential incremental damage to their own kid’s school’s budget from loss of Average Daily Attendance (ADA) money, against the long-term effect of staffing all schools properly with teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses among others, kids have somehow to navigate a world of contingent attendance. Drilled into them the administratively-self-serving mantra of “100% attendance” long ago, they suddenly face a moral dilemma that belies the unwaivering rectitude assigned that rule. In the age of shock doctrine education reform and testing hysteria, has come a political battle-cry that all kids should attend school always, even when sick, even when family duty calls, even when honors or accolades call them elsewhere.

Older kids as emerging moral beings must begin to design this decision independently from their parents. And the resulting “opinion gap” is a stress with incumbent consequences they must bear personally. They must straddle a moral field that encompasses the relationship with their teacher, their school, their friends, their families, their personal dreams and desires. Some students have been threatened with punishment from truancy, with poor grades to diminished GPA and college opportunities, to lost graduation privileges or failure to graduate altogether. The UTLA president has promised to fight “100% at the back” of any students or parents or families who face retaliation for supporting the strike. Pertinent legislation assures that a “valid excuse” will mitigate truancy, but discretion over that definition is Group M’s and they have been clear about asserting a strict, narrow, fealty to financial demands in mandating student’s “100% attendance”. Which incidentally belies all that former pedagogical justification, since there is little chance that students sitting in the school during a strike will actually learn or be taught anything.

Student’s needs and perspective are the least-articulated to the public (though parents will be better-acquainted with kids’ burden). But kids disproportionately bear the brunt of collateral damage when elephants fight. Like the two prostitutes before Kong Solomon, true kinship and care is revealed by willingness to defer to the child’s need. The District has been pimping our children for political gain for long enough.

Citizens across LA, the nation and even beyond, really are “#StrikeReady”. Even while understanding this is a battle it does no one proud to be fighting. There should be no need to fight for the basic democratic right of adequate education for all. To paraphrase Reverand Martin Luther King Jr: Depriving education for some challenges the civil rights of all: shame upon our Republic.

sara-roos

Sara Roos
RedQueenInLA

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