LA Teachers Are Mad About Charter School Growth. Why Won’t Democrats Acknowledge That?

As national Democrats voice support for LA teachers, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the first to acknowledge the strike is partially about charter schools.

Thousands of teachers march in the rain through Los Angeles, California on January 14, 2019, on the first day of the first teachers strike in 30 years targeting the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). - Teachers of the LAUSD, the second largest public school district in the US, are striking for smaller class size, better school funding and higher teacher pay. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of teachers march in the rain through Los Angeles, Calif., on the first day of the teachers strike targeting the Los Angeles Unified School District on Jan. 14, 2019. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

In the first major strike since the U.S. Supreme Court struck a blow to public-sector unions last June, more than 30,000 Los Angeles public school teachers took to the rainy streets Monday to launch the LA teachers union’s first labor stoppage in 30 years. It’s the seventh major teacher protest over the last year, but unlike their counterparts in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, the Los Angeles teachers are not striking against austere Republican state legislatures. Rather, they are striking against the policies of their Democratic-controlled school district, city, and state, and are framing their efforts as a fight for the future of public education.

As the strike enters its second day, the Los Angeles Unified School District is keeping schools open for students to attend, including regularly scheduled morning and after-school programs, and meal service. District officials also authorized spending $3 million to find substitute instructors, offering to pay them substantially more than K-12 substitutes normally earn. Still, roughly 360,000 students were absent from the nation’s second-largest school district on Monday, as families pulled their children from school in support of the striking teachers or to shield them from the chaos of an understaffed school.

Negotiations between the district and the teachers have dragged slowly since April 2017 and collapsed last month over demands to reduce class size and hire more teachers, nurses, counselors, and librarians. United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl says it’s not unusual for class size to exceed 45 students in middle and high school, and for there to be 25 to 35 students per elementary school class.

But perhaps more notably, the teachers are also striking against school privatization. In December, the union called for a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. Los Angeles has 224 charter schools, more than any other city in the country. On Tuesday, the union plans to protest outside the offices of the California Charter Schools Association, the politically powerful lobbying arm of charters in the state.

The Democratic Party has long straddled an awkward political balancing act between the charter school and labor movements.

The centrality of opposition to charter school growth in the LA protests has put many Democrats in an uncomfortable position. The Democratic Party has long straddled an awkward political balancing act between the charter school and labor movements, which both fund Democratic candidates but war with each other. Today, with people across the country focused on the LA teachers, most Democratic lawmakers have stayed silent, and even those who have weighed in have mostly avoided commenting on the union’s opposition to charter school growth.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was the first Democratic congressional legislator to acknowledge that the teachers are striking over school privatization, joined by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., on Tuesday afternoon. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tweeted last week in support of the striking teachers and linked to a Jacobin article about school privatization, but he did not mention it explicitly in his statement. (Sanders has spoken out about school privatization before, including last year when Puerto Rico announced its plans to open charter schools in the wake of Hurricane Maria.)

The Intercept reached out to all 47 members of the Senate Democratic caucus to ask if they wanted to weigh in on the LA teachers strike and the demands that teachers are striking over. All Democratic senators were also asked to clarify their general views on charter school growth.

Only seven of them responded.

A spokesperson for Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., referred The Intercept to a tweet Harris posted on Monday in support of the striking teachers, and said the senator is “particularly concerned with expansions of for-profit charter schools and believes all charter schools need transparency and accountability.” In September, California legislators passed a ban on for-profit charters in the state.

Harris’s spokesperson also pointed to a probe that Harris launched as state attorney general into a for-profit charter school company that ran virtual charter schools in California. Harris alleged at the time that the charter chain used false advertising, inflated its student attendance numbers to collect extra state funds, and saddled the virtual schools with debt. The charter company settled with the state in 2016 for $168.5 million.

Martina McLennan, a spokesperson for Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., responded with a statement that did not directly address the LA strike:

Senator Merkley fully supports teachers’ right to use collective bargaining to fight for fairer wages and better schools. He’s seen up close the disturbing trend of disinvestment in public education and growing class sizes: His children attended the same public schools he did, but faced much larger class sizes and fewer elective options. We’re a wealthier nation than we were 40 years ago, so there’s no excuse for our public schools to be more poorly funded, or to offer less to low-income and working families. That’s why Senator Merkley plans to introduce legislation soon that would present a national plan for reinvesting in public education and reducing class sizes across America.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown’s statement also did not directly address the strike. “I support the rights of all workers to join together and fight for better working conditions,” he said. “But it’s shameful that American teachers have to fight so hard just to get the basic supports they need to serve their students. We need to do better as a country investing in public education and public school teachers.”

Saloni Sharma, a spokesperson for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., referred The Intercept to a tweet Warren posted on Monday in support of the striking teachers. She also added that the senator believes rapid charter school expansion can pose a threat to the financial health of traditional public schools, which is why Warren opposed a ballot measure in 2016 that would have allowed up to 12 new charters to open in Massachusetts per year. “While she generally shares the concerns voiced by LA teachers on this and other issues, she can’t really speak to the charters’ specific impact on LA schools — the LA teachers are the best experts on that,” Sharma said. “We should listen to them.”

Ryan King, a spokesperson for Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, said his boss “believes that teachers in Nevada, and across the country, should be treated with dignity and paid a living wage for the work they do in educating our kids. The senator believes that Congress must do all it can to support quality public education in America and ensure our nation’s teachers have the resources and support they need to educate students.”

Only two other people responded. Jonathan Kott, a spokesperson for Joe Manchin of West Virginia, declined to comment, saying “we are not weighing in on a local issue in California” and that the senator’s “record on charter schools is well-documented.” (Manchin, who voted against Betsy DeVos’s nomination for education secretary, specifically cited her support for charters and private school vouchers as reasons.) Keith Chu, a spokesperson for Ron Wyden of Oregon, also declined to comment.

Sanders did not respond to a query about his position on charter schools, but he, Warren, and Brown remain the only likely 2020 presidential hopefuls in the Senate who’ve had anything to say about the strike at all. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Cory Booker of New Jersey did not respond to our questions, nor have they publicly commented. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has also stayed notably silent on the teachers strike happening in her own state.

On the House side, Khanna was one of the first to express his solidarity with the striking teachers.

In 2016, Khanna said he sees himself as more independent-minded in terms of supporting charter schools than some other Democrats. The Intercept reached out to Khanna’s office for comment on his current views about charter school growth.

“I have the same position on this as Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers,” said Khanna in response. “I am supportive of the original concept of charters as laboratories of innovation within the public school system and in collaboration with teachers and administrators in the district. That was the vision [former President of the American Federation of Teachers] Albert Shanker had. I am opposed to the expansion of private charters that siphon resources from public schools, that do not have the same standards as public schools, or that exploit their staff and prohibit their employees from forming unions.”

Khanna went further and said that in the context of the LA teachers strike, he “share[s] the concern of the teachers that the district should not have private companies run the charters. These charters are mostly not unionized, and they are not serving students with disability or the children of immigrants who don’t speak English. Charters were never supposed to be a substitute for good public education as they have become in the LA school district.”

On Monday, Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and Pramila Jayapal of Washington state also tweeted in support of the striking teachers, though they did not mention charter schools. Like Ocasio-Cortez and Khanna, they are all members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

On the local level, Reps. Ted Liu, Adam Schiff, Jimmy Gomez, Brad Sherman, and Nanette Barrágan, who represent parts of Los Angeles, voiced support for the striking teachers but did not mention charter schools in their statements.

The Democratic debate over school privatization intensified in 2016, when high-profile candidates like Hillary Clinton affirmed their support for charter schools but also began articulating opposition to for-profit charter schools, a small but politically influential part of the charter movement. That same year, the party included opposition to for-profit charters in its platform for the first time.

The next year, when President Donald Trump named billionaire DeVos to lead the Education Department, liberals who back education reform were put on the defensive. Their school choice rhetoric shared broad similarities with the Trump administration’s, yet charter-supporting Democrats maintained that their vision was different and that they shouldered no blame for the escalating attacks on public education. A Gallup poll released later in 2017 showed a growing partisan divide on charters, with Democratic support standing at 48 percent, down from 61 percent in 2012. (Republican support stayed steady at 62 percent.)

Pro-charter school Democrats have suffered a number of defeats at the ballot box since 2016, including a high-profile ballot measure to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts and an expensive election for state superintendent in California. New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’s November election as Democratic House caucus chair marked a significant win for that wing of the party, as The Intercept reported at the time. Jeffries started his political career in 2006 with the help of the Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER, a political action committee that fundraised for him in his 2012 congressional bid too. But even as DFER cheered Jeffries’s elevation in the ranks of party leadership, his spokesperson, Michael Hardaway, called this reporter to say that he didn’t understand why Jeffries would be linked to DFER and that the congressman is “absolutely not involved with them in any capacity.” In New York, Jeffries has “pretty much stopped talking about charters for the last 2 years (ie post Trump.),” according to New York Times education reporter Eliza Shapiro.

Weighing in on the teachers’ opposition to charter schools comes with the possibility of upsetting powerful donors.

It’s with this skittish context in mind that Democrats’ response to the striking teachers should be understood. While voicing support for teachers and public education is relatively safe territory for any politician, weighing in on the teachers’ opposition to charter schools comes with the possibility of upsetting powerful donors or the growing number of families who enroll their children in the schools. (Charters educate roughly 3.2 million students across the country, and most are concentrated in liberal cities.)

Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, released a statement in support of the teachers on Monday afternoon. “I stand with the Los Angeles teachers marching for the pay, resources, and working conditions they deserve. These educators are responsible for molding our next generation leaders. When they succeed, our children and our country succeed. Like educators across the country, Los Angeles teachers are fighting for the children they teach to have the resources they need to achieve and flourish.”

The DNC’s statement did not mention charters or privatization.

Update: January 15, 2018, 2:16 p.m. 
This piece has been updated to reflect that Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., acknowledged on Tuesday that the Los Angeles public school teachers are striking in part over school privatization. He tweeted about that in the same minute this article was originally published. 

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