Public school teachers participating in a city-wide strike trudged through the pouring rain in Downtown Los Angeles Monday. They demanded that district officials address overwhelming concerns over poor educational facilities—including large class sizes and an absence of support staff like school nurses and librarians—and low wages for teachers. But many teachers were thinking beyond their own plight: They expect that their demonstration will also inspire public educators across the country, many of whom face similar struggles.
"We are out here in Downtown L.A. marching with thousands of people in the pouring rain," says Allison Kochakji, who teaches a special education class at a public elementary school in Reseda. "It's really, truly a movement at this point."
Los Angeles is the second-largest school district in the nation, with more than 600,000 students in over 1,000 schools. The strike—the first in three decades—affects more than 30,000 teachers and staff. It follows close to two years of failed negotiations for a new contract for educators.
The demonstrations also come amid months of similar actions by teachers working in districts from coast to coast who are demanding better resources for public schools from state and federal authorities. Critics point out that, in budget cuts, public schools are frequently the first to take a hit and that teachers, many of whom do not earn enough to live in their own school districts, frequently spend their own earnings to make up for an absence of basic materials for the children they teach. "I'm willing to continue to make sacrifices," Kochakji says. "I already spend so much money out-of-pocket for my students anyway."
Teachers also cite large class sizes as a concern—especially because Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner has refused to cap special and general education classes. At some high schools, teachers have classes of as many as 50 students, Kochakji says.
"It definitely feels like they don't care," she adds. "The big problem is the superintendent has no experience in education. He has a no idea what we're going through. I love my students, that's why I'm here—to advocate for them." (A LAUSD spokesperson refused to comment on Beutner's experience, instead directing Pacific Standard to a series of online press releases.)
Kochakji's concerns are also about pay and other funding for classes. Striking "is definitely a huge sacrifice for me financially. We already don't make very much. I do live pretty much paycheck to paycheck," she says.
Many of the teachers are flanked by parents who support them in their battle against what they charge is the city's neglectful posture toward its public schools.
One woman, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, says she was keeping her children, who attend a San Fernando Valley public school, home "out of respect and support for the teachers."
In a phone call with media outlets sponsored by the teacher's union on Saturday, parents said that school officials had threatened to go after them for truancy if they did not bring their children to school—where volunteers, substitutes, and other support staff are expected to watch children until the strike ends. (Demonstration organizers with Union Teachers Los Angeles were not immediately available to comment.)
Kochakji promises that, although she does not know how long it will take, she will continue to demonstrate for better schools, regardless of the weather. "Rain or shine, we're here," she says.
Organizers across the country expect the L.A. strike to have far-reaching impacts. Teachers with similar concerns are already taking to the streets across the country, following months of failed negotiations with school districts and ensuing demonstrations aiming to awaken city officials to the needs of their youth.
In New York, members of the United Federation of Teachers advocacy group wore red to school on Monday, in solidarity with the demonstrations on the West Coast. "Their demands are simple, but necessary: a 6.5 percent raise retroactive to July 1st, 2016; more school counselors, nurses, and librarians; smaller class sizes; a reduction in standardized testing; and regulations on charter school growth," a UFT spokesman writes in an email. "The school district has failed to meet those demands despite $2 billion in reserves."
And in Denver, public school teachers are gearing up for a potential strike amid fraught meetings with school district officials over funding for teachers and school facilities.
"Right now, we're still far apart in terms of proposals. There's been some movement as of last week, but we're not in agreement yet," says Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. "The main areas of disagreement are around the salary structure."
L.A. teachers are "fighting for many of the same things that all educators are fighting about," such as funding and class sizes," Roman says. "Just like our L.A. fellow teachers, we are also fighting for better compensation so we can attract and retain educators in Colorado."
Beginning on Tuesday, negotiations between Roman's team and the school district will resume. "Our contract expires Friday. As a result of that, we'll vote Saturday to decide on an agreement or to strike," he says.
Just how long and how far the L.A. teachers strike will go remains to be seen, but what's certain is that teachers remain unfazed by the discomfort of picketing in inclement weather.