Roxana Dueñas, a 34-year-old ethnic-studies teacher at a high school in Eastside L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, says her own background as an LAUSD student whose working-class parents immigrated from Mexico was a driving force behind her decision to pursue the profession. “I see myself in my students in both the literal and metaphorical sense,” she says, noting that her sister and cousins attend the school at which she teaches. (Roxana Dueñas and Rodolfo Dueñas are not related.)
This kind of synergy is rare in public education. Despite the growing emphasis in recent decades on racial inequality in the country’s school system, the share of educators of color has hardly budged, growing just a few percentage points over the past three decades, according to an analysis by the Albert Shanker Institute. Research shows that the problem isn’t uneven recruitment of educators but rather uneven attrition: Teachers of color leave the profession at a higher rate than their white counterparts—a trend that’s particularly pronounced among black educators, whose share of the teaching force has declined. According to the Shanker Institute report, teachers of color tend to be concentrated in urban schools serving high-poverty, minority communities, where the working conditions—often, a limited say in decision making and a lack of professional autonomy in the classroom—eventually burn them out. This is one force driving the teacher shortages seen in parts of the country.
The Shanker Institute report highlights Los Angeles as an outlier, because so many of its teachers are Latino. Following nine cities—including Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.—over a decade, the report found that despite significant upticks in the Latino-student population, the share of Latino educators overall grew modestly at best but generally remained stable. Los Angeles was the only city that saw a sizable uptick in the share of Latino educators. In fact, turnover rates were lowest for LAUSD’s Latino teachers—with three in 10 of them leaving the profession after three years, compared with four in 10 of their white, black, and Asian counterparts.
But Monday’s walkout demonstrates that LAUSD may not keep up these retention rates for long. Not only have LAUSD’s teachers been working without a contract for more than a year, they argue that they’ve also struggled with a decade of budget cuts that have chipped away at school resources and made it nearly impossible to serve their students adequately. Some classes now have as many as 46 students, surpassing the 39-student limit the teachers’ previous contract stipulated. Meanwhile, many LAUSD schools lack full-time librarians and nurses.
“You’re working in these conditions committed to the students because you get satisfaction knowing you’re making a difference,” says Martha Infante Thorpe, a 48-year-old social-studies teacher who’s joining the strike. Infante Thorpe taught at a high school in South Central L.A. for more than two decades but recently moved and now teaches at a school in a middle-class community, a transition that’s exposed her to just how uneven public-school resources can be. “Then you come to this point when you realize that people are taking advantage of your kind and altruistic nature.”
Of course, while the teachers’ union argues that it is striking to improve conditions for the students, the walkout is leaving many vulnerable kids without a reliable place to go during the day. Schools remain open, serving meals to eligible children and offering before- and after-school programs, and relying on volunteers, substitute teachers, and non-district education employees to offer some semblance of instruction and extracurricular support to students who do show up. But it’s unclear how many will, and either way, the strike is likely creating immense stress for hundreds of thousands of low-income LAUSD parents, many of whom don’t speak English, as they scramble to figure out what child-care options are available in a sprawling city where traffic congestion is rampant and public transportation can be unreliable. The kids, also, could be missing out on valuable learning opportunities that teachers may not have time to revisit once they return to the classrooms; the ad hoc classes being offered to the children who do attend can only go so far.
Some observers challenge the premise that race—and, namely, Latino identity—is a key force behind the strike’s narrative. Critics such as Jeanne Allen, who founded and oversees the Center for Education Reform, which advocates for charter schools, chalks the walkout up to the latest desperate attempt by a teachers’ union to retain its control over a school system amid declining public support for collective bargaining and in the aftermath of a recent Supreme Court decision that limits unions’ fundraising abilities. Janelle Erickson, a spokeswoman for LAUSD, pointed to United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl as the mastermind behind the uprising, citing a speech he made back in 2016 to suggest it’s been more than two years in the making. That most of L.A.’s teachers are people of color, many of whom relate to the students they teach, is noteworthy but coincidental, the thinking goes. Caputo-Pearl’s campaign against charter schools and other forms of “privatization” in education, Erickson argued in an email, is the driving force behind this walkout.
None of the classroom teachers whom I spoke with even mentioned Caputo-Pearl, however, and few of them talked about charter schools. Instead, when asked how their own background may have informed their take on the strike, almost every LAUSD teacher I interviewed used the word “personal.” For many if not most of the middle-aged Latino LAUSD educators today, teaching emerged as one of the few entry points into the middle class, according to Maria Brenes, the executive director of InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit aimed at enhancing the lives of youth in Eastside L.A. The cost of living in Los Angeles has soared in recent years, leaving many middle-class families, let alone those who rely on a teachers’ salary, unable to afford to buy a home.
But several striking teachers told me that better pay is a relatively low priority for them. Rodolfo Dueñas, for example, says he’s fighting to ensure that the aloof, uninspiring public schooling he received doesn’t repeat itself.
As a teacher in LAUSD today, “it’s almost like you’re looking at your little brother, your little sister, and you’re reliving the traumas of education in the past,” he says. “And you’re like, ‘Dang! Some of these things are still happening.’ It’s almost like you’re fighting for something you wish you could’ve fought for when you were in school.” He doesn’t recall his school doing anything to support him when his siblings were killed; he says no one asked him if he wanted to talk, let alone offered counseling. While LAUSD today offers much more mental-health support to kids than it did in Dueñas’s days, it’s far from enough, he argues. Absent a counselor at school, “they at least have someone like me who they can connect with,” he says, “but I’m not a professional, I’m not trained. I’m still trying to deal with my own trauma.”
Some teachers told me that they’re striking to set an example for their students, so students can recognize their own agency to change things. By striking, Roxana Dueñas says she’s modeling for her students the values that she’d wished she’d learned in school. “I think even our young people have learned to accept and normalize your condition,” she says. Her mission is to inspire her students to question the status quo, to ask: “‘Why is this happening? Why should we accept it?’”