Helaine Olen: The Resistance comes to Los Angeles

Actor, musician and activist, Steven Van Zandt supports striking teachers on the picket in front of Hamilton High School in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. School administrators urged the union to resume bargaining as tens of thousands of teachers planned to walk picket lines for a third day Wednesday. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Last year, teachers in red states including West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona took part in strikes, refusing to return to work until they were offered pay raises and better working conditions. They received a wave of resistance love. In West Virginia, the typical teacher earned $45,000. In Oklahoma, a decade of tax cuts resulted in four-day school weeks and crumbling textbooks. Good on them for calling Republican state governments out on their all-but-starvation of resources for the next generation!

But anyone who thought this was a red-state-bad, blue-state-good issue wasn't paying enough attention. As teachers in Los Angeles strike for their fourth day, many of the same concerns are emerging as flash points. Think of it this way: Many of the issues that motivate the resistance to President Donald Trump are now coming to California, one of the beating-heart centers of that the resistance.

If California were an independent nation, it would have the sixth-largest economy in the world. But the Golden State has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the United States. Los Angeles is little different. Hollywood stars and Silicon Beach denizens possess untold wealth, but more than 80 percent of children attending school in the Los Angeles Unified School District are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. About three-quarters of the students are Latino. Conditions in the schools themselves can be dismal. There are reports of high school classes with up to 49 students, where students need to stand because there aren't enough desks to go around, something that would prompt Acela-corridor suburban parents to march on their local city hall. These conditions are not new, but they take on added resonance in the age of Trump, when tolerating such discrepancies carries more than a whiff of hypocrisy for many liberals. Are you really a progressive if you vote for Democratic candidates but don't effectively address the United States' growing economic divides and how they impact children?

California kicked off the nation's anti-tax wave by passing Proposition 13 in 1978. Since then, the state has gone from being one of the nation's top spenders on education to the near-bottom of the rankings, after accounting for the state's cost of living. A typical Los Angeles school district teacher earns about $75,000 annually, which sounds not so bad until you take into account the region's back-breaking housing expenses. The teachers are seeking a raise, but they want more than that. They want smaller classes, and they also want the district to commit to hiring more librarians, social workers and nurses to work with their students, many of whom need the help.

Los Angeles school Superintendent Austin Beutner, who took over the district last year after a successful business career but one that gave him no particular background or expertise in education, says the district can't afford much of this. He's angry at pretty much everyone and not doing a particularly good job of hiding it. In the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, he called out his educators for not being good enough at math to figure out the district's dire finances. (Pro tip: If you are seeking to convince workers you are on their side, the Journal's op-ed page is not the place to go.)

In The New York Times, he reminded everyone that his mother was a public school teacher and that much of the problem resides in the state legislature, which should, “Come up with green.” He says teachers are ignoring reality and worsening the plight of students by costing the district $15 million a day by refusing to return to their jobs. No doubt compounding things from his vantage point: So far, polls show most in the city appear to be backing the teachers, though whether they would continue to do so if a tax increase is needed to pay for all of this or the strike drags on for weeks is another issue entirely.

It’s not hard to understand Beutner’s frustration. Los Angeles school superintendents come and go so fast, it’s all but impossible to keep track of them. Still, it’s also hard not to see Beutner’s comments as yet another instance in the United States' ongoing dumping on workers, as well as the belief that women — who make up about 75 percent of all teachers — should be expected to sacrifice and put up with almost anything. Why should it be the teachers' responsibility to ensure the financial viability of the district? It’s easy to understand how a teacher, faced with several dozen students, many of whom are living in poverty, and a classroom desperately in need of repair, would decide to walk off the job. The appeal is certainly growing. Teachers in Oakland are now planning a sick-out on Friday, the second in just over a month. They are also talking about striking. Vive la teacher resistance, blue-state edition.

Helaine Olen

Helaine Olen is a contributor to Post Opinions and the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.” Her work has appeared in Slate, the Nation, the New York Times, the Atlantic and many other publications. She serves on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.