LOS ANGELES (CN) – After the large rallies and marches in the rain over the last week, Los Angeles educators returned to their classrooms Wednesday – putting an end to a six-day teachers’ strike where more than 30,000 union members seized on a groundswell of support for public education at the nation’s second largest school district.
Teachers, librarians, counselors and other staff walked out of classrooms Jan. 14, seeking more nurses, librarians, counselors, better pay, reductions in class size and more oversight over charter schools within the district. They received some of those in the final contract which was voted on by union members on Tuesday.
“A vast supermajority are voting yes for the agreement we made with LAUSD therefore ending the strike and heading back to school tomorrow,” said United Teachers of Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl.
Rallies across Los Angeles garnered national attention and a group of teachers dancing on the picket lines received a boost on social media from freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“These LA teachers striking against privatization + demanding smaller classrooms/more support for their students is a whole 2019 mood,” Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, said.
On Tuesday, teachers in Denver approved a strike vote over stalled contract negotiations over pay. The walkout would be the first strike in 25 years for the Denver public school district, affecting 70,000 students and 5,300 teachers.
Back in California, Oakland teachers staged an unauthorized walkout and will vote next week on whether to strike over class size reductions and teacher turnover. The Oakland teachers’ union also seeks a 12 percent pay increase over the next three years.
But in Los Angeles, union leaders said their strike was not based solely on pay raises for educators, who received a 6 percent increase. The new contract also guarantees reductions in class size and the hiring of 300 nurses over the next three years.
The school district said the strike cost $22 to $24 million in per diem student funding from the state, and teachers went without pay for the duration of the walkout.
Still, some parents felt that the school district ignored special education, which received small concessions like two days a year for special education staff to review compliance reports and caseload reductions.
Tiffany Gardner, a mother of two LAUSD students, said special education families were ignored. Gardner’s 10-year-old son Isaiah was born with a chromosome abnormality and while he performs at his grade level, he has a full-time nurse while at school.
Gardner said when her son arrived at his elementary school the staff seemed overwhelmed. But after a week out, she has no choice but to return her son to the classroom.
“Isaiah has to go back to school,” said Gardner. “I tell my friends that it feels like we got left out.”
The first day back to school was both a relief and a celebration for parents at Lorena Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights.
The school shares its property and resources with a charter school. Union representatives said the terms of the new contract provide more oversight on charter schools, which critics say have been a big drain on school funding.
But for parent Martha Gonzalez, whose two children attend the public school, the strike was about keeping what special education funding was in place at Lorena Street and fighting for a school nurse who is available throughout the week.
“They don’t get to pick and choose what days they get sick,” said Gonzalez.
The school has used its own budget to make up for funding shortages that would ideally be paid for by the school district.
“That budgeted money could be going to so many other things at the school,” said Gonzalez, who was joined by a crowd of parents, teachers and union organizers outside the elementary school after a regular school day Wednesday.
Her six-year-old daughter Samantha Iniguez, a first grader, said she was glad to be back in school. When asked if she understood why there was a strike she nodded her head and then hugged her mother.
“She’s shy but she was on the picket lines. And the day we didn’t come she asked if she could come back to school,” said Gonzalez.
School counselor Kathleen Bond from City of Angels Independent Study School said the strike brought attention to education in a new way. After 18 years in the public-school system as an educator, Bond says she returned to school after one of the nation’s largest teachers’ strike feeling like a new reality has landed at LA Unified.
“For a minute, I’m not going to lie, I thought that education’s value was declining. But the strike brought that to a point where it couldn’t be ignored,” said Bond in an interview. “It needed to happen.”
The new contract adds another 17 counselors for the district, bringing the caseload ratio to 500 to 1. It’s not ideal but the fact that rumors of cuts turned into more hires is a step in the right direction, said Bond.
Bond is grateful to be back at work and to have confirmation from the public that education is valued in a way that will bring out swells of people into the pouring rain.
“It seemed like nobody cared about education before, that teachers were looked at as inefficient or not doing all that they could,” said Bond. “Now I know that’s not the case. I feel blessed to be where I am.”