Table of Contents

    Cover Story
  • Free Why We Should Teach Reconstruction

    By the editors of Rethinking Schools

    Unfortunately, the transformative history of Reconstruction has been buried. First by a racist tale masquerading as history and now under a top-down narrative focused on white elites. It’s long overdue we unearth the groundswell of activity that brought down the slavers of the South and set a new standard for freedom we are still struggling to achieve today.

  • Features
  • Free 40 Acres and a Mule

    Role-playing what Reconstruction could have been

    By Adam Sanchez

    A high school teacher uses a role play so students can imagine life during Reconstruction, the possibilities of the post-Civil War era, and the difficult decisions that Black communities had to wrestle with.

  • Free The School Formerly Known as LeConte

    A debate in Berkeley about the power of a name

    By Lauren Markham

    Across the United States, we are toppling monuments and former heroes. Past icons are rightfully crashing — in esteem and in our public and private spaces — as we begin the overdue process of reckoning with history. Contemporary heroes are being lowered, too. This vogue of name controversies might be seen as a petty preoccupation by detractors, but what could be a more powerful symbol than what we choose to name a school?

  • Free How Should We Sing Happy Birthday?

    Reconsidering classroom birthday celebrations

    By Kerry Elson

    A kindergarten teacher looks at birthday celebrations in her classroom and whether all of her students’ home languages and rituals are being uplifted.

  • Free Women of the Day

    By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

    A high school teacher looks at how a daily activity focusing on the representation of women helped transform her classroom.

  • Free When Showing Up Isn't Showing Up

    By Julia Kirkpatrick

    A language arts teacher describes a school board debate in which she merely showed up, instead of showing up and fighting for communities of color.

  • Special Section: The third edition of The New Teacher book is out now
  • Free Introducing the New, New Teacher Book

    By Linda Christensen, Stan Karp, Bob Peterson, Moé Yonamine

    We need teachers who want to work in a place where human connections matter more than profit. We also wrote this book because we have had days — many days — where our teaching aspirations did not meet the reality of the chaos we encountered. We have experienced those late afternoons crying-alone-in-the-classroom kind of days when a lesson failed or we felt like our students hosted a party in the room and we were the uninvited guests. We wrote this book hoping it might offer solace and comfort on those long days when young teachers wonder if they are cut out to be a teacher at all.

  • Free Honor Their Names

    By Linda Christensen

    Students’ names are the first thing teachers know about the young people who enter our classrooms; they can signal country of origin, gender, language. Students’ names provide the first moment when a teacher can demonstrate their warmth and humanity, their commitment to seeing and welcoming students’ languages and cultures into the classroom.

  • Departments Free
  • Our House Is on Fire — Time to Teach Climate Justice

    Column: Earth, Justice, and Our Classrooms

    By Bill Bigelow
  • Education Action
  • 'Billionaires Can't Teach Our Kids'

    Why the Los Angeles teachers' strike was historic

    By Eric Blanc
  • Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action

    An uprising for racial justice in education

    By Jesse Hagopian
  • Children Deserve Classrooms, Not Cages

    A “Teach-In for Freedom” is organized by Teachers Against Child Detention.

    By Kurt Ostrow
  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.

'Billionaires Can't Teach Our Kids'

Why the Los Angeles teachers' strike was historic
'Billionaires Can't Teach Our Kids'

Joe Brusky

Los Angeles wasn’t just another teachers’ strike. Of course, many of its components were similar to the work stoppages we’ve seen sweep the nation since West Virginia: seas of educators in red; joyous picket lines filled with music and dancing; strong female teacher leaders; an outpouring of support from parents and students; and major contract wins.

But the victorious January 2019 work stoppage in Los Angeles has three key particularities that make it a turning point in the nationwide battle to save public education.

1) Los Angeles Was a Blue State Strike
All last year, media pundits and liberal politicians attempted to frame the strikes as red state revolts. Educator dissatisfaction was supposedly limited to Republican-dominated regions where teacher pay ranked lowest in the nation.

Los Angeles has made it clear that the problems facing public school educators and students — including high class size, underfunding, over-testing, low wages, and privatization — are no less deep in cities and states run by the Democratic Party. In fact, the number of charter schools doubled under the Obama administration and privatization has generally gone furthest in blue states.

To win its strike, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) had to directly confront powerful forces within the Democratic Party, including billionaire investor-turned-superintendent Austin Beutner. In so doing, UTLA has inspired educators across the nation to follow suit: Denver just won their strike and, at the time this piece was written, Oakland teachers were also striking and a walkout loomed in Sacramento.

This surge of workplace actions will continue to heighten the contradictions between the Democratic Party’s base and its corporate-bought leadership. Nothing less than unqualified support for all educators’ demands — including a moratorium on charters, tax hikes on the rich, and the legalization of public sector strikes — should be demanded of every Democratic contender for president.

2) Los Angeles Was the Best Organized Strike in Decades Although last year’s explosive walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona caught the powers that be by surprise, Los Angeles teachers were forced to confront a powerful, determined, and well-funded opponent. It was no easy task to defeat Beutner’s coterie of billionaire privatizers, who had recently captured the city’s schools with the explicit goal of radically dismantling and downsizing the second-largest school district in the country.

Faced with such enemies, and situated in a geographically sprawling city, educators in Los Angeles could not have won the huge gains that they did without having first cohered themselves into a powerfully organized structure. It’s to the immense credit of UTLA’s elected leadership and staff that they initiated one of the most intense, and most successful, labor organizing drives in generations.

Anybody interested in how to revitalize the labor movement should take detailed notes on the UTLA leadership’s four years of systematic organizing that culminated in January’s strike. Some of their key initiatives included: organizing a rank-and-file caucus in 2014 to win the union’s leadership; hiring great staff to serve as a scaffolding for rank-and-file empowerment; building deep workplace action teams; consistent organizing with parents, students, and community organizations; foregrounding broad “common good” demands; highlighting the fight for racial justice; and organizing numerous escalating “structure tests” — initiatives like rallies, pledge cards, and strike votes that promote and measure workers’ degree of organization and resolve.

The mechanics of what UTLA did were not new — many of them, for example, were also used to great effect in the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike. Yet the intensely systematic nature of Los Angeles’ organizing, and the depth of the support generated, was unparalleled. 

There’s no need for teachers in other cities to reinvent the wheel: study Los Angeles.

3) Los Angeles Put the Privatizers on the Defensive
For well over two decades, billionaires like Eli Broad, the Walton Family, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings have poured money into privatizing public schools. Behind a veneer of philanthropic rhetoric lies the less noble goal of increasing corporate profits and power. Education is the last great bastion of the public sector in the United States — putting it into private hands would open up trillions in potential revenue and, in the process, drastically lower the political expectations of working people.

“Educational reform” advocates had firm control of the national narrative until very recently. The crisis of public schools, we were incessantly told, was due to recalcitrant teacher unions and the inherent inefficiencies of “big government.”

Last year’s red state strikes shook this story by highlighting the urgency of increasing teacher pay and school funding. But it was not until Los Angeles that unionized educators succeeded in forcing the question of privatization into the center of public discussion. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Los Angeles strike was that virtually all students, teachers, or parents on any picket line could tell you in detail about Broad, Hastings, Beutner, and their nefarious plans for public schools. One of the most popular chants during the strike was “Billionaires can’t teach our kids!”

Under intense pressure from below, both the Los Angeles school board and Gov. Gavin Newsom have now started speaking about the potential for a charter school moratorium in California.

Teachers and their unions should be prepared for a serious counteroffensive from above; corporations are right to be scared of the current upsurge. Reversing austerity and bringing education completely back into the public sphere would set an explosive precedent for other sectors of the economy. In that sense, the fate of urgent projects like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All are inextricably bound with today’s teachers’ strikes. The stakes — for educators and for all working people — could hardly be higher.

A former high school teacher and public education organizer in the Bay Area, Eric Blanc has been covering the educators’ upsurge for Jacobin and The Nation. He is the author of the forthcoming book Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (Verso 2019).