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Commentary: Why my child will attend school during a UTLA teacher strike

Evelyn Alemán | January 3, 2019

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The line of teachers picketing at an elementary school near downtown L.A. in May of 1989 spanned across the façade of the building and main points of entry. My boyfriend and I (now husband) were both college students at nearby Cal State L.A. and teachers’ aides (TA’s) at the school. Until then, we were both considering a career in education. We came from the area and had first-hand knowledge of the many challenges faced by the mostly low-income immigrant families served by the school: poverty, gang and gun violence, a drug epidemic, AIDS, and hopelessness… If there were ever an opportunity for a better future in this community, it would undoubtedly be achieved through education — the great equalizer.

On the first day of the nine-day strike and throughout its duration, we arrived on campus to blocked entrances, yelling, heckling of everyone and anyone who crossed the picket line. Parents were distressed, afraid, and anxious. Many worked long hours and shifts that were unforgiving to no-shows because of problems in inner-city public schools. The experience brought disruption and anxiety to an already-vulnerable student population and its families.

Although the strike lasted a little over a week, its effects were felt much longer – and its impact damaging to school relationships. Teachers who didn’t participate in the strike were isolated and given the cold shoulder by colleagues. For months, some chose to eat in their classrooms – alone. When I asked one of the teachers I worked for at the time why she’d chosen to break the line, she said that her children needed her more in the classroom than outside on the picket line. It was a decision she paid for, dearly.

My boyfriend and I were torn, because although we agreed with the strike in principle, we simply didn’t feel that it was in the best interest of the kids. We felt then, as we do now, that there must have been a better way to resolve issues between the union and the school district.

What I learned from that experience is that violence gets us nowhere, and a strike – more than an act of dissension is combative. In a recent L.A. Daily News article, Alex Caputo-Pearl, head of the UTLA, said members “are energized by the stand we’re taking after years of taking punches to the gut and the jaw.” The words evoked violent imagery of a boxing match or back alley fight rather than an effort to find the best possible solution to avert a strike that will impact the education of hundreds of thousands of young Los Angelenos. This concerns me.

Mr. Caputo-Pearl also encouraged parents to keep their children at home or join the picket line, which in my opinion defies all logic. LAUSD is strapped for cash, if kids don’t attend school, then the district loses more money, which means it can’t hire new teachers, librarians, counselors, nurses OR reduce class size.

The UTLA says the district can dip into its reserves to meet union concessions. But I ask, why dip into reserves given L.A. Unified’s current financial vulnerability when the UTLA wields a great deal of power in Sacramento, and we have a billionaire superintendent who can equally weigh-in on an ask for more funding for education from our State leadership? It’s also important to note that Vivian Ekchian, the current deputy superintendent, and a former labor negotiator for the district, who was supported by the union for superintendent has called the effort to build capacity together a “joint responsibility.”

Beyond this, an argument over finances and a diminishing student population usually devolves into the free rein given to charter schools. As a parent of a child who attends an affiliated unionized L.A. Unified school, I ask that we move beyond this distracting unproductive argument toward one that meets the bottom line for parents – that of offering a high-quality education for children in our public schools. Again, this will require a willingness and genuine openness on all sides to roll up sleeves and get to work toward improving educational outcomes and increasing resources. Parents and students can and should be a part of this effort.

Just as in 1989, our communities are today faced with some new and old external challenges resulting from recent wildfires in the West San Fernando Valley, armed-shootings, displacement, homelessness, a drug epidemic, harsh federal immigration policies that do more harm than good, and more. The one constant factor that brings stability to the lives of children and their families is knowing that there is a safe place waiting for them in a classroom, that there is the promise of a warm meal at school, and that their education may hold the promise of a brighter future. A strike will create further instability.

On January 10th, I will send my child to school and into the classroom, because I too agree on everything teachers are asking for, which the District says it would like to offer were it not for its current financial circumstances. I will send her to school to ensure that her attendance counts, so that the district continues to receive money for student attendance to pay for all resources she receives, including instruction. I will send her to school because I firmly believe that a strike is not the answer, and that resources, time and energy are better spent working in collaboration to make an ask for further funding from Sacramento. I will send her to school because at 14-years-old my child and all of the children in the district can’t afford to lose a day of instruction. Lastly, I will send her to school because this is an opportunity to teach my child that lessons about social justice begin in the classroom.

Evelyn Alemán is a parent and student advocate and mother of a freshman attending a local L.A. Unified high school.

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