LA teachers union slams California schools plan as 'propagating structural racism'

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Mackenzie Mays
·5 min read
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SACRAMENTO — California's largest local teachers union on Monday slammed the state's new school reopening plan as "a recipe for propagating structural racism" hours after Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic lawmakers unveiled their compromise proposal.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles' strong condemnation is a bad sign for Newsom and Democrats who spent months working to strike a deal on legislation they believe will spur districts to reopen. Los Angeles Unified is the second largest district in the nation with about 600,000 students — and by far the largest in the state with roughly 10 percent of California's public schoolchildren.

"We are being unfairly targeted by people who are not experiencing this disease in the same ways as students and families are in our communities. If this was a rich person's disease, we would've seen a very different response. We would not have the high rates of infections and deaths," UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said at a news conference Monday. "Now educators are asked instead to sacrifice ourselves, the safety of our students and the safety of our schools."

Most of California's schools have now been closed for a year as districts have struggled to negotiate reopening terms with the state's powerful unions. The California Teachers Association praised parts of the plan on Monday, but made clear that local unions have negotiating rights.

UTLA is one of three large city teachers unions that went on strike in 2019 over pre-pandemic working conditions, along with those in Sacramento and Oakland. Its position could sway union members elsewhere — particularly those serving communities of color, which have suffered greater impacts from the disease.

The much anticipated school reopening plan finalized over the weekend does not require schools to open but instead offers $2 billion in financial incentives for those that open before April 1. The proposal offers grants to schools that open transitional kindergarten through second grade by the end of March, as well as at-risk students in all grades. That includes districts in counties that are still in the state's purple tier, with infection rates higher than what teachers unions have said are too unsafe for reopening.

Myart-Cruz on Monday demanded that schools in Los Angeles County remain closed while in the purple tier and until all teachers and staff receive both doses of the vaccine, calling into question how much power the new deal will actually have to compel the state's biggest districts to reopen.

"The fact is that the plan does not supersede our legal right to bargain working conditions with LAUSD and our continued determination to do so," Myart-Cruz said, adding that Newsom and state lawmakers can "increase the political pressure, but they cannot change the science."

Myart-Cruz accused white, wealthy parents of increasing that political pressure and "driving the push behind a rushed return."

UTLA's stance is a far cry from the optimism Newsom and Democrats shared on Monday as they celebrated the deal. When asked if the new school reopening plan has the support of big districts and unions, Newsom said that negotiations were done "in the spirit of collaboration" and included a "bottom-up, not top-down" approach.

"I'm sure you'll find some people that will have strong opinions, but the bottom line is we created a framework that we believe is a consensus," Newsom said. "That consensus doesn't mean everybody is happy. It's part of the negotiations, it's part of the process."

Newsom's push to get shots into the arms of teachers, along with steadily decreasing case rates across the state, has more and more districts moving up their timelines to reopen. California began Monday to designate 10 percent of the state's vaccine doses for teachers and other on-site school staff, speeding up distribution across counties.

California's new school reopening plan "reverts to deeply flawed ideas" in Newsom's December reopening proposal, Myart-Cruz said, by using financial incentives to get schools open.

While the plan offers extra funding to schools willing to reopen to the state's youngest students regardless of local virus case rates, it does not apply pressure on older grades until counties hit the less restrictive red tier. Under the plan, once counties move into the red tier — with daily case rates below 7 per 100,000 residents — schools eligible for the grant funding must open to all elementary grades, plus at least one grade in middle and high school.

The deal speeds up the clock and more strictly ties the grants to in-person instruction than what the Legislature proposed previously. If schools do not open by the end of March, they will start to lose a percentage of money for each day they remain closed starting April 1.

Low-income and Black and brown communities have been disproportionately affected by the disease, facing higher death rates and a more severe economic toll. Some parents of color surveyed in California and beyond have reported that they are less sure about returning to classrooms, citing a distrust in the school system and higher rates of illness.

Los Angeles County's state-adjusted case rate is 12.3 percent, compared to the statewide rate of 15.2 percent.

Myart-Cruz said the plan ignores school communities in low-income ZIP codes in Los Angeles County that have higher case rates than their neighbors. "This would send extra dollars to affluent areas that are able to reopen because of low infection rates, leaving students from low-income communities of color behind," she said Monday. She commended Newsom's set-aside of state vaccines for school staff, but called it "only one piece of the puzzle."

"If we rush now, it will now put everything we have all sacrificed over the past year at risk," she said.

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner did not respond to a request for comment on the state's plan on Monday. Beutner has criticized former iterations of the state's plan and has mostly aligned himself with the union's positions in recent months.

Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who helped lead the legislative proposal, conceded that the legislation cannot by itself force schools open but said he believed a growing cascade of reopenings — combined with an increasing vaccine supply — would encourage large urban districts to act.

“I’m hoping this provides the impetus,” Ting said.

Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.