This week’s three-day walkout by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) in solidarity with LAUSD support-staff workers represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) should rightly be understood as a power-flex, a reminder to Democratic political leaders from their big-labor backers that in the run-up to next year’s contract negotiations teachers will not shy away from using their favorite organizing tactic: keeping school doors locked.
That’s what they did during contract negotiations for six days in January 2019. And in a move whose negative impacts on children will be felt for years to come, the UTLA successfully pressured district leadership to keep school buildings closed for more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Long after private schools and public-school districts in climes considerably less agreeable had opened to full-time in-person schooling, LAUSD. was still subjecting kids to Zoom-school while haggling over the most lavish union concessions in the country.
Teachers wrangled as a price of belated school reopening an extra $500 monthly childcare stipend, mandatory weekly COVID-19 testing of students and staff, outdoor masking, and a 12-and-over student vaccine mandate that was on the verge of expelling an estimated 34,000 kids from classrooms before the punishment was scaled back at the last minute in December 2021.
How have these child-phobic policies affected the performance of public schools? Predictably: LAUSD-run classrooms are facing chronic absenteeism, astounding declines in academic performance, and consecutive-year enrollment drops of 4 percent, 6 percent, and 2 percent. Since education funding is partially tied to enrollment, fewer students mean less money for teaching jobs. As a result, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, in a 2022 interview, described the district’s budget situation as “Armageddon” and “a hurricane of massive proportions.”
The district’s enrollment decrease has been stunning to behold. Twenty years ago, LAUSD peaked at 747,000 K-12 students, almost all taught by the government-managed, union-staffed monopoly. Ten years ago, the district’s enrollment was down to 656,000, of which 567,000 (or 86 percent) were in traditional schools, the rest in independently run charter schools. Now LAUSD-run schools educate just 422,000 students, and charter schools are up to 113,000.
Related: Parents say ‘Enough’ to LAUSD unions
Reduced birthrates, slowed immigration, family-unfriendly housing prices across Southern California, and the state’s stalled population all contribute to the shrinking of the student pool, but as the region’s charter school explosion attests, families that have the option of escaping their residentially assigned unionized schools are increasingly leaving the district.
What makes LAUSD’s post-2002 enrollment cliff-dive not just an advertisement against public sector unionism, but an injustice-generating catastrophe of boneheaded central planning, is that right around 2002, LAUSD embarked on a $20 billion, eminent-domain-abusing school-construction frenzy celebrated at the time by the Los Angeles Times as “the largest public works project in the western United States.”
Hundreds of businesses, more than a thousand affordable housing residents, the historic Ambassador Hotel, and the beloved Hollywood Star Lanes bowling alley (of The Big Lebowski fame) were bulldozed out of the way by the government so it could build largely empty schools. Whole neighborhoods were destroyed to educate children who no longer exist.
You might think that UTLA would be a tad more shy about once again closing down LAUSD’s badly performing, increasingly unpopular institutions.
That is, if you haven’t been paying attention to teachers’ unions over the past three years.
At every level, from Los Angeles to San Diego, Chicago to the District of Columbia, the powerful and overwhelmingly Democrat-influencing teachers’ unions have repeatedly squeezed maximal short-term monetary gains at the cost of long-term institutional self-destruction.
The results have been just awful for kids trapped in their neighborhood public schools.
I’m sure it must be fun performing line-dancing videos in the rain in front of your closed workplace on a weekday. But those schools are going to keep on closing wherever families have the option of escaping institutional governance by public sector union.
Teachers may well be striking themselves out of a job.
Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason magazine and Reason.com.