The recent strike by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), which started on Jan. 14 and ended on Jan. 22 when a tentative deal was struck, was the latest in a series of teacher strikes that has spread across the country since the winter of 2018. Sparked by low pay, rising healthcare costs and budget cuts, the first was the successful West Virginia wildcat strike, which secured a five percent pay raise from a conservative state government and was hailed as the “the single most important labor victory in the US since at least the early 1970s” by Eric Blanc in Jacobin.
Strikes by teachers and staff in Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky and North Carolina followed. Some members of the media labeled the sudden upsurge in labor stoppages “the Red-State Revolt” since many took place in Republican-controlled states.
This characterization of the strikes is incomplete. Teachers were striking over specific demands that have not been met for decades by both Republican and Democratic legislators. Further, the term “Red-State Revolt” does not include the UTLA strike, which took place in a liberal city in one of the most liberal states in the U.S.
The 30,000 LA teachers participating — a force larger than in either the West Virginia or Oklahoma strikes — walked out after failing to reach an agreement with the LA Unified School District (LAUSD). Unlike previous teachers’ strikes, UTLA made its opposition to charter school expansion a centerpiece of its campaign.
In the last two decades, LAUSD — like many school systems in liberal cities across the country — has aken part in the charter school “experiment.” In theory, charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, are intended to increase choice for low-income students, but research shows that charter schools lead to wasted spending, racial re-segregation and instability for the very students they are supposed to serve.
Fundamentally, the push to close public schools and open charter schools is an agenda of privatization. Charter schools are often used as instruments by the billionaires behind “education management corporations” to take taxpayer money rightfully meant for public schools as profit for themselves. The recent Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) scandal here in Ohio — where the for-profit online charter defrauded taxpayers of millions of dollars and then left 12,000 students without a school when it folded last winter — is just one example.
While privatization of public schools and antagonism to organized labor might seem antithetical to the professed beliefs of Democratic politicians, charter school advocates have made significant inroads into many Democratic strongholds. For example, in a privatization bonanza following Hurricane Katrina, every public school in New Orleans was converted to charter.
By making its first strike in 30 years about privatization, UTLA has the potential to push the Democratic Party toward being an uncompromising defender of public education and help end the charter school industry’s grip on the party.
There is already evidence that this is happening. Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, released a statement in support of the striking teachers. Similarly, the potential or already-declared 2020 presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have demonstrated their backing for UTLA. However, the vast majority of the Senate Democratic Caucus, including likely 2020 candidate and notorious charter school proponent Cory Booker, remained silent when asked by The Intercept to comment on the strike.
Since the Obama administration, liberal education “reformers” (read: charter school and voucher system boosters) have enjoyed years as the leading Democratic voices on education as the power of unions has declined. But with the re-emergence of labor militancy in the education sector coupled with Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos — a major sponsor of school privatization in her home state of Michigan — as Secretary of Education, defenders of public schools and unionized teachers must take this opportunity to go on the offensive and rein charter schools back into their place: a limited and experimental role within school districts that should remain overwhelmingly in public hands.
Nick Becker ’22 is an undeclared major from Pittsburgh, Penn. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.