Why wealthy California couldn't stop the Los Angeles schools from going on strike

Education workers in Los Angeles went on strike this week in a district that saw its second work stoppage in four years.

How does this happen in one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, and in California, a state that's poised to have the world's fourth-largest economy?

Experts point to a range of challenges, including a longstanding inadequate distribution of funds that hasn't reached LA workers in several years, fears that the district could go bankrupt, and an overall lack of support for public education.

This week, a union representing essential workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) went on a three-day walkout that did not immediately lead to a new deal, even after a year of negotiating.

Among its demands, the union wants better pay and benefits and more full-time staffers. Meanwhile, the district said it is offering a generous and "historic proposal." But both sides appear so far apart that Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and her staff have stepped in to negotiate.

Here's what we know as students head back to class Friday:

Who is behind the LAUSD strike?

The short work stoppage was spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99, which represents about 30,000 school employees, including bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria employees, campus security, teaching assistants and special education aides.

The union said the average salary of its members in the district is about $25,000 a year. That's considered "extremely low income" in Los Angeles County for a single-person household, according to federal guidelines.

Teaching and educator salaries are about 20% to 23% less than other college grads nationally and part of a growing trend for over the past 20 to 30 years, said Emma García, a senior researcher for the Learning Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

"It is nothing new," Garcia said. "It's a problem that has been widening over time, and now, with inflation, it will definitely exacerbate the problem."

TALKS STALLED: Los Angeles schools closed as strike begins; negotiations at a standstill

TREAT US AS PROFESSIONALS: Why I'm on strike with other Los Angeles school workers

How does funding for education work?

Striking Los Angeles Unified School District employees picket in front of Monroe High School. More than 60,000 bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria employees, campus security, teaching assistants and educators from the Los Angeles Unified School District are striking from March 21 to 23. They demand a 30% raise and a $2 per hour equity wage increase.
Striking Los Angeles Unified School District employees picket in front of Monroe High School. More than 60,000 bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria employees, campus security, teaching assistants and educators from the Los Angeles Unified School District are striking from March 21 to 23. They demand a 30% raise and a $2 per hour equity wage increase.

About 92% of funding for public education in the United States comes from state and local taxes, and the remaining 8% comes from the federal government, primarily covering programs for low-income students and students with disabilities, said Danielle Farrie, a research director at the Education Law Center based in Newark, New Jersey.

California's public education funding for the 2022-23 school year is roughly $128.6 billion, with a per-pupil spending rate of $22,893, according to the state's education department.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has a $14.8 billion operating budget this year and a reported $5 billion surplus.

Farrie, co-author of Making the Grade, a recent report that examines school funding in each state, said California's funding has slightly improved, going from 43 to 33 out of 50 states graded between 2008 and 2020.

In her report, Farrie gives California a D grade for its level of spending and an F for its funding effort. For example, while California has improved in distributing more money to higher-poverty school districts, the state still needs "significant work" with its overall funding.

"It’s unfortunate. We have expected schools to do so much with so little that it's become the norm," Farrie said. "And with all of the pressures put on teachers and support staff, the monies have not gotten to those essential workers."

Although California has moved up in per-pupil spending, it's still below the national average, said John Affeldt, a managing attorney at Public Advocates, a San Francisco nonprofit that focuses on education, housing and transit equity.

He said there's a mismatch between the need, the wealth and the effort.

"Given that we have among the highest number of low-income students, English language learners in the nation, and are among the lowest math and reading scores nationally, we ought to be a top-five state in education spending," Affeldt said. "And we can get there, given how wealthy our state is."

READY TO MOBILIZE: Los Angeles education workers poised to announce strike that 'likely' would close hundreds of schools

'5-ALARM CRISIS': Teachers are doing their best. But America's schools are hurting.

What does SEIU Local 99 want?

Among its demands, the union is urging the district to tap into its $5 billion in reserves to give its members a 30% raise and a $2-an-hour equity wage increase. In addition, the union wants more staffing by increasing the number of full-time hours available.

It also wants paid days for training and professional development and the ability to cash out their vacation pay. The union also seeks health care benefits for community representatives, teaching assistants and others who work less than four hours a day.

"Their demands do not seem outrageous. These are the essential workers who keep the district running," said Pedro Noguera, dean at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "This is a high-stakes gamble on their part. Their sense of desperation is not made up."

Sensing frustration from the union, Noguera tweeted Wednesday that Bass, the mayor, needed to step in.

Bass said she's now facilitating the negotiations. Blanca Gallegos, a spokeswoman for Local 99, told USA TODAY on Wednesday that she hopes Bass can help the union "find a path past our impasse" with the district.

"Education workers have always been eager to negotiate as long as we are treated with respect and bargained with fairly," Gallegos said. "And with the mayor's leadership, we believe that is possible."

Nicole Gon Ochi, a deputy managing attorney at Public Advocates who lives in Los Angeles and has two children in the district, hopes Bass can help.

"I think the workers' wages are inhumane," Gon Ochi said. "I think the LAUSD has the money, they just are afraid to spend it. They need to be a little more generous with their reserves and might as well put it to good use."

What does the LAUSD want?

The district claims it is offering a 23% recurring raise and a 3% cash bonus on the table "in recognition of the contributions of our support personnel."

LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said this week that the strike was not called "on the basis of economic conditions or compensation demands" but rather due to "allegations of unfair treatment."

Nogeura, of the University of Southern California, said he also understands the district's stance.

"Where is the district going to get the money from? They say they don't have unlimited resources," Nogeura said. "If the district goes bankrupt, then what happens? Will the workers get laid off?

But Affeldt, of Public Advocates, said first the district would have to demonstrate to the county and state that it can balance its budget.

"I can imagine that's their argument – to not go in the red in the next four to five years," Affeldt said. "The district is notoriously opaque in demonstrating how much money it actually has. It's always been very difficult to understand the financial situation of LAUSD."

LAUSD School Board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin said Thursday that she's optimistic a deal will be reached.

"No one wants another strike, especially after these last few days," she told KABC-TV. "The talks are going so well, and I anticipate they will continue to go well. We're going to do everything we can to make sure school is open for the rest of the year."

Families hit hard by school closures

Franklin added Thursday that some students got "a first-hand civics lesson" during three days out of school by picketing alongside their instructors. She said the students will also feel some loss of their parents' income as part of the strike.

"I'm sorry we didn't land an agreement beforehand that would've prevented this, but I'm confident that we are getting closer, and we should get some good news soon," she said.

Farrie, the Education Law Center research director, said California, and Los Angeles for that matter, has the resources to make changes for its school workers.

"The staff deserves to be paid competitive wages; it’s just a matter of political will," Farrie said. "The state has the potential to raise revenues for their schools."

Gon Ochi, of Public Advocates, said she can envision another strike in Los Angeles.

"I think they are so fed up with the treatment they will do whatever it takes to get what they need."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Many wealthy people live in California. LA schools still need funding