'Our Armageddon': Los Angeles teachers strike in nation's 2nd largest school district

Lindsay Schnell and Chris Woodyard

LOS ANGELES — The wave of teacher strikes that has rocked education for the last 11 months reached a crescendo early Monday, as educators in the nation’s second-largest school district took to the streets of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Unified School District, where the strike affects half a million students at more than 900 schools, is opting to keep its doors open this week as teachers protest outside. The 34,000 educators are rallying for better pay, smaller classes, fewer standardized tests, charter school regulation and more counselors, librarians and nurses.

Teachers braved the early-morning darkness and pouring rain at Colfax Charter Elementary this morning, chanting: “Education is a right! That is why we have to fight!” “Hey hey! Ho ho! We’re fighting to keep class size low!” They passed out red ponchos, donning the color that has become synonymous with the teachers' labor movement.

One teacher, an art instructor who is not a member of the teachers union, crossed the picket line and walked into school, crying.

More than 400 substitute teachers are expected to cross picket lines to help corral students in what likely will be one of the most unusual days in students’ academic careers.

Most students in the district come from low-income families, and some parents aren't clued into the strike or can't afford to find back-up child care for their children. The district has promised to supervise children, but circulated plans include holding them in auditoriums or circulating worksheets.

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At Colfax Charter, about 60 children — roughly 10 percent of the usual enrollment — entered the school despite the protests and were directed into the auditorium. About half of them were wearing red. One boy stopped on his way in, turning to see the teachers picketing. "What's going on?" he asked.

A short while later, a few parents walked back into the school and emerged with their children. They weren't OK with the auditorium set up, they said.

At John Marshall High School in the city’s Los Feliz district, a throng of about 50 teachers toting umbrellas and picket signs gathered outside the main entrance.

Educators in the nationÕs second-largest school district took to the streets of Los Angeles Monday morning. Los Angeles Unified School District, where the strike affects half a million students at more than 900 schools, is opting to keep its doors open this week as teachers protest outside. The 34,000 educators are rallying for better pay, smaller classes, less standardized testing, charter school regulation and more counselors, librarians and nurses.

For special education teacher Mike Finn, the top issue is class-size. He says the 46 students that he has in one composition class is unmanageable.

“I have watched class sizes go up and up,“ he said. He said when it comes to preparing students for college, “everybody’s talking class size.”

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Los Angeles teachers have not gone on strike since 1989. That walkout lasted nine days. 

Scott Mandel, a teacher with 34 years in the school district, was teaching sixth grade during the ’89 strike. Last week, he wrote an open letter to his fellow teachers, trying to buoy spirits while injecting a dose of reality. 

“This isn’t just a protest on the streets, passing out flyers,” wrote Mandel, who now teaches Film, Arts and Media at Pacoima Middle School. “You need to think about the ramifications of what you’re about to do. You need to think about the reasons you’re out there on the line. And you should be a little scared.” 

Teachers plan to picket in front of their schools this morning, then hop on public transit to head downtown for a rally. They are expected to be joined by supportive community members, including parents toting doughnuts and coffee, and even some students.

A few Marshall High students joined the protest rather than going inside.

“I cannot stress how important this strike is to me,” said Lola Babich, 15, a sophomore, to the crowd. “Teachers are the most important people in my life.”

With 45 kids in a classroom, she said in an interview, “it is so hard to focus.”

Jenna Schwartz, a mother of two students in LA schools, planned to bring 10-year-old Zoe and 8-year-old Oliver to the demonstration at Colfax Charter Elementary in Valley Village, where Zoe attends fifth grade.

“I don’t view this as a political rally,” she said. “I view it as a rally for their future. And what better way to teach our children to fight for themselves than to include them in discussions about their future?” 

Students show support for teachers at a rally in Woodland Hills, Calif. Unless LAUSD and United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents 31,000 educators in Southern California, can come to an agreement on a contract, teachers across the district will strike on Monday.

For Mandel and his fellow educators, “this is our Armageddon.” 

LAUSD has left teachers with no other option but to walk out, he said. He views the district’s declaration that it cannot offer teachers any better contract option as a strategic decision.

The district has offered teachers a pay raise, but has ignored many of their other demands. The schools have nearly $2 billion in reserves, which teachers want the district to spend.

Administrators say the nearly $2 billion in reserves is already pledged to a variety of causes, including raises for cafeteria workers and bus drivers. If it met every union demand, the district says, it would go bankrupt – which isn’t just bad business, but illegal. 

“This move on the part of the district is a union-busting, public-school-busting move,” Mandel said. “It is the ultimate game of chicken.” 

Teachers, he vowed, aren’t going to swerve first. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Our Armageddon': Los Angeles teachers strike in nation's 2nd largest school district