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LAUSD Will Not Solve Teacher Shortage Without Paying Fair Salaries

LAUSD allowed the UTLA contract to expire last week, while proposing a ban on teacher strikes. Gina Gray, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles, writes that LAUSD must pay teachers fair wages.

UTLA Teachers are striking in 2019, holding signs. There is a woman in a red shirt and red hat leading a line of other teachers. Her sign reads: "Make a difference. #value teachers #be the change#
UTLA Teachers Striking in 2019 | Photo provided by UTLA

In 2017, I spent my first year in the classroom teaching high school English with 40+ students in each class. During this time, I was also a new teacher, which meant an abysmal salary that neither kept up with the cost of living in LA nor California. Teaching was my calling — but a calling doesn’t always pay the bills.

Two years later, 34,000 educators went on strike and won class size reduction. My roster shrunk from 42 to 30 students. The attention and activities I was able to give to students, coupled with one on one learning, was transformative and left my colleagues, students, and I feeling supported. It showed how collective action helps us make gains for our students and families. Unfortunately, these changes weren’t enough for a profession that has been systemically underpaid. Through a pandemic and now record high inflation, I’ve witnessed the most dedicated teachers leave the schools and students they love in droves.

Right now, the working class is feeling the pressures of our failing economy. Everyday, public school teachers see our students and their families buried under the skyrocketing cost of living in LA. Our students’ families are being forced out of our district and our city as they can no longer afford to live in the LAUSD neighborhoods. The foundational support students need for success — secure housing, healthy food, time with family, and access to physical and mental health services — are disappearing.

LA teachers have had enough. Last Thursday, on June 30, our contract expired with the district and we are ready to fight for our kids and livelihoods by demanding the wraparound social, housing, and educational services our students need.

In May 2022, we began our first bargaining session with LAUSD and demanded increased staffing of educators in schools to meet student needs, a 20% salary increase over two years for all UTLA members, and an investment in community schools to start rebuilding neglected neighborhoods struggling to recover from the pandemic.

LAUSD listened as educators, parents, students, and community members shared the proposals we had developed together. But to our dismay, the district ignored the requests and made only a few counter proposals, which included a rejection of any improvements to working conditions for adult education teachers. The district also shared a union-busting proposal to limit and prevent all concerted actions by UTLA, including a prohibition on sympathy strikes in support of other underpaid education workers. LAUSD allowed the contract to expire, and we’ve had no positive movement in our negotiations. It’s beginning to feel like deja vu.

The solution is right in our face. Everyone knows how you attract and retain talent in any industry — good pay, working conditions, and benefits. But with educators, this basic fact is ignored and it’s disheartening.

Teachers already make about 20% less than other professionals with similar education and experience, and many are struggling to pay the bills with the U.S. inflation rate accelerating to 8.5% as of March 2022. To be clear, teachers don’t expect to make millions; we do expect to be properly compensated and to be able to afford to live in the area where we teach without second jobs that leave us little time to focus on the needs of our students or families.

In Los Angeles, we’re projected to lose about 7% of educators in LAUSD by the end of this school year, which will short staff our schools and impact our learning environments. In Houston, teachers were experiencing similar retention issues and organized to win an 11% salary increase. Today the starting salary of a Houston teacher, $61,500, is higher than that of a first year LAUSD teacher — even though cost of living is a fraction of what it is here in LA.

This is a hard pill to swallow for the 26,556 LAUSD teachers who understand teaching as our calling, but work in a city where our calling doesn’t cover our rent. It’s time for real, tangible solutions to benefit students and teachers.

Every student deserves full access to the resources necessary to build successful and thriving lives. Their teachers deserve to earn a dignified wage so that they can live in and fully serve the communities they teach in. Transformation of our district is possible when educators and communities are given the respect of having our voices included in solutions. Recognizing our community and professional expertise is how we will ensure LAUSD educates the most supported, and thus successful, students in the country.

Gina Gray is a social justice educator, high school English teacher, and member of UTLA.