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Why Los Angeles teachers are on strike, for the first time in decades

Tens of thousands of teachers in Los Angeles went on strike Monday after months-long contract negotiations stalled. It’s the first strike in that huge school district, which extends 700 square miles, in three decades. Special correspondent Mary MacCarthy talks to Judy Woodruff about the teachers’ demands for more staff and higher pay and how schools, students and parents are reacting.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More than half-a-million students and their parents were dealing with the first day of a huge teachers strike in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a district that is 700 square miles and stretches well beyond the city limits.

    It's the first strike there in three decades.

    And as special correspondent Mary MacCarthy tells us, there are some big dividing lines between the union and the district.

    It's the focus tonight of our weekly education segment, Making the Grade.

  • Mary MacCarthy:

    Braving the driving rain, thousands of teachers descended on Los Angeles City Hall with a list of demands. Across the city, there were other, smaller protests, like this one outside of Magnolia Avenue Elementary School in Central L.A.

    Second-grade teacher Carmen Chavez said the teachers are fighting for fair compensation.

  • Carmen Chavez:

    We are not being greedy. We're being caring. No other union in this district is fighting for the rights of children to have the proper education. We are.

  • Mary MacCarthy:

    She is one of thousands of teachers across the Los Angeles Unified School District that walked out today. They're protesting pay and class size, among other issues in the nation's second largest school district.

  • Carmen Chavez:

    I'm optimistic that the public is with us, and that they know that we care for the children and we're here to provide a better education.

  • Mary MacCarthy:

    The school district and the teachers union, which represents some 30,000 teachers, have been in contract negotiations for 21 months. Late last week, those talks stalled, prompting the strike.

    Schools were open today, but with far fewer substitute teachers and school administrators filling in. The union's president said today the teachers are striking in the interest of students.

  • Alex Caputo-Pearl:

    Do we starve our public neighborhood schools, so that they are cut and privatized?

  • Woman:

    No!

  • Alex Caputo-Pearl:

    Or do we reinvest in our neighborhood public schools for our students and for a thriving city?

  • Mary MacCarthy:

    On Friday, the union rejected the school district's latest offer of a salary increase of 6 percent spread over the first two years of a new contract. It wants an instant 6.5 percent pay increase that applies retroactively for the past fiscal year.

    The school district offered to reduce class size by two students, but the teachers want significantly smaller class sizes. Class sizes can average above 30 or even 40 students as kids move into higher grades. The school district also said it would add 1,200 new teachers, counselors, nurses, and librarians to schools, but the union said it wants more nurses, librarians and counselors to fully staff all district schools.

    School District Superintendent Austin Beutner says he believes the two parties can make a deal, even though they are at an impasse.

  • Austin Beutner:

    We would encourage them, we urge them to resume bargaining with us anytime, anywhere, 24/7. We'd like to resolve this.

  • Mary MacCarthy:

    Another key point of contention is how to deal with charter schools. Beutner is seen as more open to a greater expansion of charter schools. But the union wants a hard cap on charters, arguing that they are adversely affecting other public schools.

  • Mario Valenzuela:

    Those that are not that good, those that are oversaturating our community and we are fighting, we are actually competing as a business for students. That's not appropriate.

  • Mary MacCarthy:

    Some parents still brought their children into school. But, across the city, many parents and students said they support the teachers' efforts.

  • Nicole Moguel:

    Our teachers need our support, the students' support. And they need to know that we're on their side.

  • Mary MacCarthy:

    The Los Angeles strike is part of a series of strikes that have taken place nationwide in the past two years. But most of those walkouts took place in red states, while today's strike is unique in solidly Democratic California.

    Teachers say they expect to continue striking tomorrow and potentially further into the week — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mary, thank you. And we can see them in the background right there where you are.

    You are reporting about what they're asking for. We understand they're saying that their workload is just too much. Fill us in a little bit more on what they mean by that.

  • Mary MacCarthy:

    So, speaking to teachers on the picket line throughout the day is the same thing I have heard from them reporting on the lead-up to the strike over the past few months. They are saying there's simply not enough staff, so whether that's enough teachers to keep class sizes a little bit smaller or enough support staff, like nurses, librarians, counselors, psychologists, coaches, all those things that make up the community of the school staff.

    Just to give a couple examples about Los Angeles public schools, many schools here only have a nurse one day a week. They only have a librarian one week out of every two weeks. So those are the types of things that the teachers, the union is calling for.

    The district, in response, has said they will agree to boost staff, but the union response to that is, they haven't agreed to add enough staff. And like on all the issues, they hit a point where it led to the strike.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mary, what about parents? With so many students affected, how are they handling this, how are they coping with it? And which side are they on?

  • Mary MacCarthy:

    As you can imagine, it's a bit of a logistical nightmare, a city now facing about half-a-million students who are faced with, well, should we go to school or not?

    The official line of the direct is that schools are open. That's over 900 school campuses. They are staffed by administrators and some other temporary staff who have been brought in. In most cases, classes will not be held. Students will be supervised in auditoriums, maybe watching movies.

    The majority of parents that I have spoken to today and leading up to this said they wouldn't send their students to school because they saw that as crossing the picket line. Of course, many parents, however, don't have a choice. They're working parents in a district that is majority low-income families.

    At this particular school in Central Los Angeles, 400 out of 900 students did show up today. So, close to half of the students did show up, according to the principal. He said the day did go smoothly, despite being understaffed and the additional challenges of a rain day.

    But I would expect those numbers to vary widely across the district. At another school, in a more affluent neighborhood in West Los Angeles, the turnout rate at an elementary school was just 13 percent.

    We don't have official numbers, but largely parent support for the strike. But some parents simply do have to send their kids to school while they get to their jobs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right. Well, it's clearly going on, and we will see how long it goes.

    Mary MacCarthy, thank you.

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