LOS ANGELES — In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest public school system in the United States, there are fewer than 400 nurses serving over a thousand schools distributed across roughly 900 campuses. That means many schools have a nurse on-site only once a week.
“We have no confidentiality in many of our offices,” said Stephanie Yellin-Mednick, a school nurse in the San Fernando Valley. “At one of our schools, the nurse works in a hallway. Or under the stairwell. A closet.” This makes it difficult for nurses to perform basic duties like helping students cope with possible pregnancies, neglect, or child abuse.
“It’s very difficult to deal with child abuse when you have an office full, to try to close the door to talk to a child — let alone if you don’t have a door,” Yellin-Mednick said.
Yellin-Mednick is one of more than 30,000 members of United Teachers Los Angeles who walked off the job Monday to demand better funding for LA’s public schools. In addition to more nurses, counselors, and librarians, UTLA is asking for better pay and smaller class sizes, along with several non-economic demands such as stronger regulations for charter schools.
The school district says meeting all of these demands would force it into bankruptcy, and while it has offered some improvements in funding, UTLA has rejected them as insufficient.
The walkout in LA is the latest in a wave of teachers’ strikes across the country. But whereas most of last year's strikes hit Republican-controlled states, this one is taking place in the largest city in one of the bluest states of all.
That’s because California, in spite of its reputation as a high-tax state, has been chronically underfunding education for decades. California now ranks near the bottom in the country on metrics like per-pupil spending and students enrolled per teacher. Particularly at the high school level, teachers routinely have classes of over 40 students, compared to the national average of 26.
While the union and the school district agree that the root of the immediate funding problem is a lack of resources from the state, many teachers believe the district has no long-term interest in investing in the public schools, and is instead committed to reforming the system with an emphasis on charter schools and other privatization measures.
“Our schools are underfunded, and that’s part of the reason we’re losing some of our students to charter schools, when [parents] should be able to trust that the local, traditional public school can provide a quality, culturally-affirming education,” said Henry Garcia, an elementary school teacher in South Los Angeles. “We’re going on strike to defend the institution that is public education."
This segment originally aired January 14, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.