LA teachers on the march

February 4, 2009

Randy Childs, a member of the United Teachers Los Angeles, reports on the fight to stop the city and state from trying to balance the budget on the backs of teachers.

LOS ANGELES--An estimated 15,000 teachers and supporters converged on downtown Los Angeles on January 29 to protest the severe cuts looming over the city's already underfunded public schools.

The demonstration was organized by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the union representing over 45,000 teachers employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

LAUSD officials are demanding higher class sizes, layoffs and cuts in teacher pay and health benefits in order to close an estimated $500 million deficit. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, just proposed $7 billion in statewide education cuts for next year.

UTLA started the march at LAUSD headquarters and finished outside the Ronald Reagan State Building to symbolize teachers' opposition to cutbacks at both the district and state levels.

The march was UTLA's largest protest action since a citywide one-hour work stoppage last June, which was also organized to protest state budget cuts. This year, UTLA is planning a series of protests, town-hall meetings, work-to-rule "boycotts" and a possible strike over stalled health care and contract negotiations. UTLA has distributed strike handbooks to all members, a sign of the union's increasing recognition that it's going to take a struggle to stop the cuts.

UTLA members march against budget cuts
UTLA members march against budget cuts

"Everything we have gained over the years is in danger now," said UTLA President A.J. Duffy at an organizing meeting two weeks before the march. "The district wants to bury us. Destroy us. We can turn tail and run. We can accept the crumbs they're offering us, or we can fight!"

Speakers at the rally noted that California already ranks 47th among the states in education funding, falling $2,400 per student short of the national average, when cost of living is considered.

"We need progressive taxation," said Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers. "Maybe now that Obama is in the White House, the legislature can grow a backbone!"

The richest Californians pay only 7 percent on average of their total incomes on state and local taxes. The poorest pay 11 percent. This is largely a result of Proposition 13, a 30-year-old ballot initiative that slashed property tax rates for homeowners and big business and also requires a two-third legislative supermajority to pass any tax increase.

Not only is California's tax structure blatantly skewed to favor the rich, but the cuts themselves will be deeper for low-income students. LAUSD, one of the poorest districts in the state, would lose $946 per student if Schwarzenegger's cuts go through. Schools in Palo Alto--home of elite Stanford University--would lose less than $300 per student.

In front of the state building at the end of the march, UTLA Vice President Julie Washington led the crowd in chanting, "Bankers bailed out in the trillions, workers laid off in the millions. They say cut back, we say fight back!"

The January 29 protest was an impressive display of teachers' willingness to fight back in defense of public schools. A great potential exists to connect teachers' and students' immediate demands to the general concerns of every working person facing today's economic crisis.

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