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Commentary: With strike, L.A. teachers union came out strong fighting for its members. But who’s fighting for our kids?

Alma V. Marquez | January 28, 2019

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As I watched the Los Angeles teachers strike play out over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been impressed by the strength of the teachers union. It is fiercely committed and stops at nothing to fight for working conditions of the adults it represents — the teachers.

But lost in the conversation is the most important question: Who is sitting at the table to represent what is best for the children?

I have personally experienced the Los Angeles Unified School District at its best and at its worst. When I was growing up, my mom was a teacher’s assistant in the district, where she was proudly represented by the Service Employees International Union. She also helped to guide hundreds of other Latina moms to advocate for their children — knowing firsthand how easy it can be to lose kids in a complicated system.

As a student in the district, I was also able to see the system at its best — while sitting in Mr. Rangell’s English class in sixth grade.

Unfortunately, though, sitting in that English class was the last time I remember learning in my entire K-12 experience. The years that followed gave me a front-row seat to the worst of LAUSD.

All these years later, I can still remember what it felt like to complete 10 classes for credit by simply filling out a packet of worksheets that passed for “learning” in Watts, in the heart of South L.A. Dozens of us, black and brown students, were left to feel stupid and frustrated and to blame ourselves for failing to grasp the material literally being dropped in our laps.

I also remember what it felt like to be one of 4,000 students crammed into a school built for 1,000. I remember feeling unsure if I would graduate until my last day as a senior in high school — even though I was the student body president and had been labeled as gifted. I was not alone. Of the 1,500 who started ninth grade together, only 490 graduated.

We didn’t thrive and blossom in the district — we were lucky to survive our experience. And the consequences continued for so many of my classmates who ended up unprepared for college-level work and faced futures filled with poverty, menial jobs, incarceration, struggles with addiction and even death.

So as I watched the teachers union tenaciously battle for its members’ working conditions and generous pensions, I wondered, why can’t better opportunities for students have a place at the bargaining table?

If we’re going to be answering to the demands of a powerful political force like United Teachers Los Angeles, we need to know what our kids and families are getting out of it.

Can we also demand that more than three out of 10 black or Latino students be prepared to pass their English or math tests? Or that English learners, who make up nearly a quarter of students in the district, see more than zero growth on their scores?

Can we demand that Latino and black students not be two to three times more likely to be taught by the least effective teachers than their white and Asian peers?

Can we demand that students of color receive proper social-emotional support and cultural recognition to avoid being overdisciplined and tracked toward the school-to-prison pipeline?

Can we demand that hundreds of thousands of graduates not be shepherded into remedial college courses because they didn’t get the basic educational foundation they were promised with a diploma?

Of course, it’s important to pay teachers well and give them supportive environments. But telling us that increasing teacher pay and supporting their lifetime benefits will help students is kind of like saying bigger tax breaks for big businesses will trickle down to the rest of us. It doesn’t work that way.

Meanwhile, our collective failure to address the real education crisis happening in the district has real consequences — ones we have been turning a blind eye to for far too long. My mom had the same experience in the 1950s and ’60s that I had in the ’80s and ’90s. The folks who have been sitting at the bargaining tables for so many decades continue to come up with excuses about why kids can’t learn, or why teachers can’t teach them. And things won’t change until someone is held accountable for getting results for our kids.

I know I don’t stand alone in this call for justice. More than 40 Latino leaders signed an open letter calling for a serious commitment to improving schools for our children. I work with dozens of Latina women organized through the La Comadre network who are asking hard questions about how the politics serve our kids.

And yes, our visibility in calling for accountability makes us targets. But as civil rights activist Audre Lorde taught me, my silence will not protect me. Our collective silence will not protect the children.

We need to push now, because change doesn’t come quick or easy. We are just now seeing the arc bend toward justice in criminal justice reform and in the fight for gay rights after decades of pushing the status quo.

The L.A. walkout won’t be the last teacher strike in 2019. Denver teachers are already cued up, as are teachers in Oakland and probably many other places.

But if teachers around the country decide to walk out of the classroom to hold their districts and states accountable for adequate funding for public schools, we need to demand that they also hold themselves accountable for giving our children the high-quality education they’re promised.

Alma V. Marquez, founder of Del Sol Group, has over 25 years of experience in finding solutions to complex problems and a vast network of allies locally and nationally. Before founding Del Sol Group, she was vice president of external and government affairs for Green Dot Public Schools.

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