OPINION: New LAUSD contract benefits students in the long term

The United Teachers of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District reached a settlement Tuesday, after nearly a full day of negotiation, ending a two-year-long contract dispute and a weeklong strike. The new contract has secured many of the demands made by Los Angeles public school teachers. It will gradually reduce class sizes by a rate of one student a year for two years and then two students in the third year. It will also allow schools to hire more full-time support staff. These benefits not only outweigh the short-term costs of a strike but also facilitate public schools’ capacities to prepare students for college.

It is true that the strike’s timing impacted the college applications process for many LAUSD students.  The majority of college application deadlines, however, had already passed by the time the strike began; the initial deadline for California State Universities and Universities of California was Nov. 30. Though receiving guidance on the USC application, which was due during the strike, was nearly impossible without the ability to consult teachers or counselors, last-minute revisions hardly improve an applicant’s qualifications.

Complications caused by the LAUSD strike, while incredibly inconvenient, are highly unlikely to make or break a college application. Additionally, USC Admission announced that students with late recommendation letters or transcripts would not be penalized, so long as their application was sent in on time.

The institutional barriers addressed by the strike have a far greater impact on a student’s admission prospects. Class size alone is significant, as it determines the amount of individual attention each student receives. Los Angeles science teacher Michele Levin told NPR last week that the benefits of smaller classes meant she would be able to return parents’ phone calls and grade fewer papers each night.

When teachers are responsible for fewer students, they are more likely to deliver thorough feedback, increase student participation and communicate regularly with students and their parents. This results in an enhanced learning experience that grants students the academic momentum necessary to thrive at the college level. This is a much-needed benefit; on average, only 20 percent high school students meet LAUSD’s college readiness standards in English Language Arts and only 7 percent meet standards in Mathematics.

Smaller class sizes are especially necessary given the demographics of the district. The Tennessee Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio experiment, the most influential study on class size reduction, found that “minority and low-income students show even greater gains when placed in small classes in the primary grades.” Given that over 90 percent of LAUSD students are racial minorities and 84 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, the contract settlement’s new class sizes are a promising step forward.

Most importantly, the new contract staggers the decreases in class-size caps over a period of three years, preventing the pitfalls that accompany immediate change. Reducing class sizes naturally requires schools to hire more teachers. If demand for teachers becomes too high, LAUSD would be forced to rely on inexperienced hires, who often lack certification and postgraduate education. A gradual plan allows prospective teachers more time to receive adequate qualifications and training, increasing the likelihood that LAUSD students receive competent instruction.

Another benefit of the new contract is increased support staff, such as nurses, counselors and psychologists. According to a LAUSD News release, the district pledged to hire 300 more full-time nurses and 77 more middle and high school counselors over the next two years, meeting UTLA demands for a “full-time nurse at every school five days a week.”

Under the new contract, teachers will no longer be the only ones available to help students with broken bones, fevers or other health issues well beyond their expertise. It is impossible to effectively cover content and provide medical aid simultaneously, and providing qualified medical assistance not only ensures that student health needs are being met but also allows teachers to devote their full efforts to teaching.

The new contract’s provisions promise to facilitate effective instruction, whether through lowering class sizes or by providing support staff. However, these commitments are tentative and dependent on LAUSD receiving new funding, whether it be through a parcel tax or increased state or federal funding. It is incumbent on California voters to show up and vote for these measures to ensure that LAUSD students continue to have a fighting chance at accessing higher education.