Tens of thousands of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) went on a strike on Monday, January 14. The same day, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board published an editorial attacking the local teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), and suggesting that teachers are both unrealistic and selfish.
The educators began their strike after months-long contract negotiations with the district failed. Among the union’s demands are smaller class sizes; more support staff such as nurses, librarians, and academic counselors; a 6.5 percent pay raise; and better regulation of charter schools in the district. Class sizes in Los Angeles high schools often exceed 45 students, and almost 80 percent of schools in the district don’t have full-time nurses on staff. And while California is the fifth largest economy in the world, it ranked 40th in the nation in per-pupil spending in 2017. The strike follows a year of educators activism across the country -- teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and Colorado all walked out last year, and many won hard-fought concessions for themselves and their students.
Not everyone is supportive of the teachers’ strike for better funding, however, as The Wall Street Journal proved in a January 14 editorial titled “Unions in La-La Land.” In the piece, the Journal’s editorial board suggested that both the district and the state are so overburdened by paying for teachers’ pensions and health care plans that they could not possibly afford to meet the union’s demands. The editorial noted that the district commands a $1.8 billion reserve -- money that teachers want to see put toward better school resources -- but claimed that the district is “spending about $500 million more each year than its annual revenue,” suggesting that it is creeping “toward insolvency due to unaffordable labor contracts.” The Journal published an op-ed that same day by LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, who similarly claimed that the district would go bankrupt if it attempted to meet union demands and suggested that the real issue inadequate funding from the state government.
Teachers and UTLA representatives have repeatedly explained why they don’t find the argument that there isn’t enough money credible, especially in the face of underfunded and overextended classrooms -- but you won’t read about that in the Journal’s editorial. UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl told CNN that the union is in contact with the governor’s office about the need for more state funding, but he also claimed that the district has “always been wrong in [its] projections” of its monetary reserves size. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Caputo-Pearl wrote, “Three years ago, district officials projected that the 2017-18 reserve would be $105 million. They were off by more than $1.7 billion.” He also noted that over the past five years the district has overestimated its spending on books and other supplies “to the tune of hundreds of millions, meaning more money is available.” It also bears mention that some of the union’s demands wouldn’t cost the district any money -- including reducing standardized testing and giving parents more control over how money is spent at their children's’ schools -- but the Journal’s editorial didn’t address these demands at all.
The editorial also complained that the teachers union campaigned for “soak the wealthy” tax increases to raise money for education that was instead spent on teacher pensions. But while pensions are undoubtedly a big expense for the state, they’re necessary not just as compensation for years of educating students, but as important tools for recruiting new teachers -- a particularly crucial task given the nation’s teacher shortage and the extremely high housing and cost-of-living expenses in California. While the editorial repeated Beutner’s talking point that “schools can’t spend money they don’t have,” it didn’t once mention that Southern California’s inflation rate is at a 10-year high, or that California ranks 47th in student-to-teacher ratio, or that its student-to-counselor ratio is 945:1.
The editorial concluded by criticizing the teachers union for calling for increased regulation of charter schools, claiming that “the union wants to stop” their expansion “lest [they] embarrass the failing results in union-run schools.” While it managed to malign public school teachers, the editorial didn’t find space to mention that charter schools in the district expanded 287 percent between 2005 and 2015 and cost nearly $600 million, money that is drained away from public schools, each year. As Los Angeles public school teacher Adriana Chavira explained, competition from charters -- which operate with less oversight and regulations than traditional public schools -- is draining the public system and leading to lower enrollment, less funding, and fewer resources for students.
The Journal’s assault on the teachers union shouldn’t come as a surprise given the paper’s regular hostility toward unions in general, and teachers unions specifically. But the editorial does a great disservice to the paper’s readers -- not to mention teachers and their students -- by ignoring the sorry state of Los Angeles schools to focus on an anti-union screed.