ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
More than 30,000 teachers in Los Angeles could strike as soon as Thursday. It's the second-largest school district in the country. Teachers are fighting for a pay raise and for students services like counselors, nurses and librarians. Howard Blume covers education for the LA Times, and he joins us now. Welcome.
HOWARD BLUME: Hi.
SHAPIRO: There have been efforts this week to reach an agreement, and it looks like they've failed. The teachers union even went to court today. So at this point, how likely does a walkout seem?
BLUME: It seems very likely. Actually it seemed kind of likely even before they did their last-ditch negotiations. The teachers union has pretty much assembled an army of enthusiastic, energized strikers. And it's hard to demilitarize at this point in the process. They did have a negotiation session Monday, and they're going to try again tomorrow. But it seems very unlikely that a strike will be prevented.
SHAPIRO: Tell us about the demands that the teachers are making.
BLUME: Well, the teachers want more money, for one thing, but they actually fundamentally present this as a fight for the future of traditional education. I mean, they want...
SHAPIRO: Traditional education versus charter schools.
BLUME: That's right - or what they would call privatization - right? - where corporate interests have more control and where you have more of a business model over education. And they also see this as an extension of the movement around the country because, as NPR reported, there were teacher strikes in many places. In fact, a lot of them were in red states, in places where it was illegal to strike, Republican-dominated states. And now we have this effort, in a way, moving into a liberal state where it is legal to strike. And the issues are a little different but a continuum, they think.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, I want to get into the comparisons nationally. But first tell us about how the school district is responding to those demands from the teachers.
BLUME: Right, and to finish answering your other question, they also want lower class sizes, more librarians, nurses, counselors. And they also want something done, even symbolically, about the growth of charter schools. So they have a range of demands, and the district says it's just too much - A, we can't afford it, and, B, your agenda here is too broad.
SHAPIRO: And how does this potential walkout compare to the actions we saw in, as you mentioned, red states like West Virginia, Arizona, North Carolina and others?
BLUME: Well, one disadvantage that they have in California is that those actions took place - they were targeted at the state legislature, which was the source of funding in those states. And so they were getting right at the source, and in many cases, they were successful in loosening up the coffers where - and there was - it was kind of documented that the funding had been very tight in those states and been held down.
Now, in California, spending on education has increased, although it's debatable whether they've recovered from the Great Recession. And this is not a statewide action. It's the second-largest school district. I mean, there are more students here than in the entire state of West Virginia. But it's still one district. It's not the entire state. So in some ways, it might be more difficult here.
SHAPIRO: We're talking about nearly half a million students. What impact would a strike have on them?
BLUME: Well, the schools will still be open, but there are some 31,000 union members. And recently the district said it had secured 400 substitutes, so that's going to be a problem even though they're offering a much increased substitute pay. They think they can free up 2,000 administrators and managers who are qualified to teach who can move back into the classroom. So they are trying to get substitutes, qualified substitutes, but obviously instruction will be affected.
Now, you know, a lot of families rely on schools for food. There are students who eat three meals a day that are based in their schools. Now, those meals will still be served if those families are willing to cross the picket lines. But obviously it's going to be a big disruption.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, and how likely is it that if a strike happens, it would go on for a while?
BLUME: That's anybody's guess. I mean, the danger here is that it could go on for a while because the gulf in what the two sides are seeking in their proposals is just huge. And it's the visions of education. It isn't just about the proposals. It's about a vision of education going forward.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, and you've talked about some of the preparations that are being made with substitute teachers and so on. What other steps are being taken for this possibility?
BLUME: Well, OK, so they're trying to get substitute teachers. They're also sending the message out to parents to expect it. And actually, even though these messages have certainly gone out, we find that parents know very little about the strike, by and large, or they think it's going to be a very short strike. The - what the schools are trying to emphasize is safety first, and they want the kids come to school.
SHAPIRO: Thank you. That is LA Times education reporter Howard Blume. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.