On Tuesday, January 22, the United Teachers Los Angeles ended their six-day strike when members voted overwhelming for a new three-year contract. The teachers will get a 6 percent raise to teach smaller classes, and get their school district to hire hundreds of new nurses, counselors, and librarians. Teachers will also have more say in school structure: a union rep must now be part of the decision to “co-locate” charter schools in district buildings, and teachers must vote on whether or not their schools convert to magnets and have access to training on the new specialty curriculum. While UTLA and the Los Angeles Unified School District kept a number of issues open—special education models may change, the legislature needs to cap the number of charter schools, and test reductions are still being planned—the district definitively gave up its emergency powers to increase class sizes. After a year and a half of saying no to UTLA’s demands, the LAUSD finally said yes, but the district also warned that its current surplus of nearly $2 billion will not last.
L.A. teachers will be under increasing pressure to fund the reforms they won when the district’s reserves run out. To meet that challenge, the teachers plan to do what so many before have tried and failed to do: raise California property taxes. In order to avoid a confrontation with homeowners who benefit from the state’s infamous Proposition 13 property tax constitutional amendment, California teachers are asking businesses to pay more for schools. When he announced a temporary agreement earlier this week, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl offered his union’s support for a 2020 ballot measure to split the property tax roll, assessing commercial and industrial property at current market value while continuing to value residential property in relationship to its price at purchase, however long ago that was.
Teachers have long practiced tax politics. UTLA’s strategy returns to the pioneering nineteenth-century Chicago teachers’ campaign to force big businesses to pay their fair share of property taxes. In other moments and places, teachers campaigned for federal and state aid instead. During the Great Depression, when farmers and homeowners stopped paying their property taxes too, teachers searched for replacement funds, but their organizations, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, disagreed over whether they should come from state taxes on income or sales. During the 1950s, liberals considered making federal oil lands off the coast of California a national school fund—a proposal echoed by Oklahoma and West Virginia teachers currently arguing for excise taxes on fossil fuels. While the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 increased federal aid, schooling was still unequal, and teachers again asked reluctant urban voters to float bonds and renew levies. At the same time, community groups demanded more authority over spending.
These enduring tensions over the control of public money created a fiscal crisis in California during the 1970s. The 1971 Serrano California court case declared that school discrimination based on parental wealth was unconstitutional, temporarily shifting school taxes away from local property. While the U.S. Supreme Court overturned this legal precedent, California teachers still made gains at this time, winning the right to collectively bargain in 1975. But by then, California was in the midst of a full-blown tax revolt, culminating in Prop 13, the 1978 ballot measure that cut property tax rates, slowed the rise of assessed property values, and imposed supermajority voting requirements for future tax increases. Schools lost half of their local property tax base, and the state struggled to make up the difference. While few states had cut property taxes by the end of the decade, many copied California’s model constitutional amendment to limit government spending, the majority of which went to public education, whether funded by income, sales, or property taxes.
Advocates for limits on government’s capacity to tax had battled the “education lobby” for years. A half decade earlier, L.A. teachers had effectively campaigned against them. In 1973, they playfully warned football fans with a “Trick or Treat” Halloween flyer that tax limitation would end high-school games, helping push voters to reject an amendment to restrict taxation in a contentious special election that Lou Cannon, Governor Ronald Reagan’s biographer, considered Reagan’s biggest political defeat. But by the end of a decade of stagnating growth and inflating prices, advocates of tax reduction like Milton Friedman found more success in declaring teachers a “special interest” who, like other public employees, could not be trusted to spend in the public interest. California car-salesman-turned-political-operative Paul Gann put it more crudely: he claimed, based on an anonymous newspaper column he attributed to a teacher, that educators did not discuss “educating” with each other but instead “the brats and won’t it be nice to get rid of them and what kind of clothes you’re going to wear next year or next week.”
The difference in how the press covers the L.A. teachers today is stark. Reporters celebrate them for bargaining for the common good. The concessions they won reflect broad-based community concerns: an immigration attorney on staff, and a hotline, exemptions from security searches of students, more green spaces. Now, UTLA, one of the first teachers’ union locals to affiliate with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, is uniquely positioned to build a new coalition of school tax voters across class and ideological lines. The teachers were joined by paraprofessionals and custodians who struck in solidarity, along with unionized firefighters, nurses, dockworkers, cashiers, cooks, and housekeepers who “adopted” schools to support on the picket line. Meanwhile, teachers at a growing number of charter schools have unionized; teachers at the Accelerated Schools in L.A. are on strike right now. Charter school teachers who once resisted joining (or were pressured not to join) the labor movement in lobbying for general school funds now face a decision about whether to push for higher taxes on their billionaire backers.
Trump’s 2017 federal tax cuts included caps on state and local tax deductions, with the aim of restricting the budgetary discretion of states with higher tax rates. The move was a continuation of nearly half a century of conservative anti-tax politics, starting with California’s failed 1973 tax limitation, to constrain state fiscal decisions. But tax revolts end. Teachers today are showing what democracy in school finance could look like. By asking voters to set taxes through ballot propositions, teachers are working in a long tradition of direct democracy. It takes the power of both people and money to run these campaigns, and teachers have shown they have enough of both to win big fights.
Conservatives had hoped the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus decision invalidating mandatory “fair share” fees for public employees would weaken union political power. They want to stop campaigns like the California teachers’ proposition to increase revenue from property taxes on businesses. For now, they appear to have been out-organized by UTLA. The strike has fostered broad support for public teachers’ vision of democracy in education, and the taxes to pay for it.
Kelly Goodman is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale University where she researches the political economy of American school finance.