LAUSD to Open Schools Amid Much Controversy

With Los Angeles school superintendent Austin Beutner getting ready for his June 30 retirement, and the realization that schools must open full time or lose substantial state funding, the Los Angeles school board and United Teachers of Los Angeles struck a deal last week.

The new school year, which begins on August 16, will be anything but business-as-usual, however. Hygiene theatrics will be ubiquitous, with mandated regular disinfecting of, well, everything. Hand sanitizer will be omnipresent, as will be masks for students, staff, and every other biped who sets foot on a campus…vaccinated or not. And even more ludicrous, the contract stipulates that no teacher shall be displaced during the new school year. So if a school loses students, a teacher cannot be moved to a school that may be short a teacher. Beutner explains that this will benefit kids, insisting, “This continuity at schools will help to reinforce a sense of community while providing the best possible academic foundation for students.”

Continuity? Community? Where were Beutner, the school district, and the teachers union when these values were nowhere to be found during the disastrous school lockdown that lasted over a year?

Additionally, unrelated to the contract, Beutner has decided that the district should go into the real estate biz. Yup, the supe has stated he wants to build “affordable workforce housing” for LAUSD employees. The average teacher pay in Los Angeles is $78,962, and that does not include extravagant health care perks and a budget-busting pension plan, which, together, took up about 13 percent of the general fund in the 1991-92 school year. But in 2021-22 that outlay is estimated to be nearly 40 percent, and is steadily increasing every year. And now he wants to build affordable housing?!

The district has also been confronted with several lawsuits concerning its lockdown modus operandi during the reign of COVID. It is unclear which cases will go forth in light of August’s reopening, but one lawsuit is very much alive. This litigation included the United Teachers of Los Angeles as defendants and does not focus on learning loss, but rather on the psychological damage that’s been done to students. The plaintiffs claim that their children have variously become suicidal, isolated, depressed, addicted, clinically obese, and had their future prosperity needlessly imperiled due to the extended lockdown.

And now, the errant school district is being charged with “systemic racism.” Speak Up, a parent activist group, released the results of a poll last week of 500 L.A. Unified parents about their “educational experiences over the past year.”

Among other things, the poll found that 27 percent of black parents claimed their child’s behavior improved during the pandemic, while only 8 percent said it got worse. While bullying was widespread among children of all races before the pandemic, 40 percent of black parents reported their child had been bullied, the highest among all groups.

The survey also found that nearly two out of three black respondents agreed that “institutional racism is built into our public education system,” while one in three Latino parents and half of white parents felt the same way. 

While the omnipresent and faddish “systemic racism charge” is invariably baseless, it is at least somewhat valid in this case. It is hard to quantify the parents’ behavior and bullying claims, of course, but student outcomes can be measured because they are more objective in nature. According to the most recent scores from NAEP, the “nation’s report card,” just 9 percent of blacks in LAUSD scored proficient, compared to 12 percent of Hispanics and 51 percent of whites. While many factors contribute to a child’s academic success—perhaps the most important of which is a healthy two-parent home—schools obviously play a crucial role. And to that end, the state government with its union-bought-and-paid-for legislators have made laws that give the “systemic racism” charge some heft. 

For example, in 2012’s Vergara v California case, which lost on appeal, the litigants tried to eliminate the union-mandated tenure, seniority and dismissal statutes from the state’s education code. These laws have had a disproportionate effect on the poor and minorities. When teachers lose their jobs due to layoffs, the state education code says that the cuts must be made by seniority. Hence, the last hired is the first fired, with no nod to teacher quality. Typically, the lowest performing schools are the most impacted because they invariably have a much greater percentage of new hires. And the horrendous tenure—or more accurately “permanence”—statute makes teachers a protected class. In fact, it is just about impossible to fire a teacher for poor performance in California. As pointed out during the Vergara trial, 2.2 of the state’s 300,000 teachers (0.0008 percent) are dismissed for unprofessional conduct or unsatisfactory performance in any given year. This compares to the 8 percent of employees in the private sector dismissed annually for cause. While permanence can affect any student in California, parents with means can afford to yank their kids away from a union-protected bad apple and send their kids to private schools, but poor parents don’t have that option.

While the pandemic and California’s response to it have been nothing short of ugly, it may well supply the impetus for some badly needed reform. According to a new California Policy Center poll, when voters were asked if they’d support a ballot initiative establishing Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)—wherein parents who remove their children from public school “receive a portion of the public education dollars intended for their child so they may pay for a variety of educational expenses, from tuition in private schools to tutoring”—a majority said they would. In fact, 54 percent of voters said they’d vote “yes” if given the chance, while only 34 percent said they’d vote “no.” Notably, support among African American and Latino voters was even higher, with 71 percent and 66 percent expressing support, respectively.

Needless to say, UTLA president Cecily Myart-Cruz and other teacher union honchos, who blather on about systemic racism, will fight to kill any school choice measure. Seems that when it comes to educational opportunity, many of the finger-pointers are actually the perpetrators. 

 

About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Photo: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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