Los Angeles teachers are planning to go on strike on Jan. 10—but the school district this week asked a federal judge to prevent special education teachers from leaving the classroom. However, on Friday evening, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald S.W. Lew denied the Los Angeles Unified school district's attempt.
To use an analogy from the ongoing partial government shutdown, the district had wanted special education teachers and other employees who provide services to students with special needs to be considered "essential personnel," and blocked from going on strike. Teachers are planning to strike over a contract dispute; they've asked for pay raises, class-size reductions, fewer required tests, and more school nurses, counselors, social workers, and librarians. The district has offered a smaller pay bump and class-size reductions in some schools.
"A strike would be detrimental to students with disabilities and their families, depriving the students of the special-education support and services they rely on each day," said David Holmquist, the general counsel for the Los Angeles Unified school district, in a statement upon filing the request.
The district's statement added: "In the event of a strike, these students' health and safety would be in jeopardy. They could get hurt, hurt themselves, or hurt others."
Los Angeles Unified was asking the court to enforce a 1996 decree that ordered Los Angeles Unified to provide appropriate special education services to students with disabilities. The district had settled with parents and students who said that students with special needs were being deprived of an education.
Protecting Students or 'Hail Mary Pass'?
There are more than 60,000 students with disabilities in the Los Angeles school system. About half of this population is in need of "critical support to maintain their health and safety," according to the district. While schools will remain open during the strike and instruction will be provided by substitutes and administrators, the district has said that school sites might merge or relocate—which could have a negative impact on, among others, visually and hearing-impaired students. Also, there are about 11,500 students with autism in the district, and those students "typically do not handle changes in their schedule well," the district said in the court documents.
While Lew, the federal judge, acknowledged that a strike could "burden" efforts to provide services to students with disabilities, he said the district's request "is a new and independent claim that would inject facts and legal issues that have nothing to do with claims that were settled ... over 15 years ago."
The Los Angeles teachers' union, which had dismissed the district's legal request as a "Hail Mary pass," cheered the judge's decision.
"If [Superintendent Austin] Beutner really cared about special education students, he would have responded to our proposals on special education class-size caps, which would relieve the burden of our overcrowded classrooms and overwhelming caseloads," said United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl, in a statement after the initial court filing. "It is disingenuous to recognize the value of our teachers only in the role they play during a strike while working to undermine them as they seek better working conditions for themselves and learning conditions for their students through the bargaining process."