Parents wonder if kids are learning amid LA teacher strike

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Kathleen Whitehead vowed to keep her 14-year-old daughter home Tuesday, after the teen reported not learning much the day earlier at a Los Angeles high school staffed by a skeleton crew of substitutes as tens of thousands of teachers walked off the job in the nation's second-largest school district.

Whitehead said she grew "more and more irritated" as the ninth-grader texted that she and her classmates at Reseda High School were "shuffled from one large auditorium to the next" in big groups so they could be looked after by fewer adults.

"It's semi-organized chaos," Whitehead said Monday.

The teen told her mom that some kids huddled around a TV showing Michelle Obama's recent appearance on "Carpool Karaoke," a segment from "The Late Late Show with James Corden," while others browsed the internet for busy-work assignments.

Meanwhile, educators and parents packed streets in pouring rain to march from City Hall to district headquarters, pressing for higher pay and smaller class sizes that school officials say could bankrupt the system with 640,000 students. The rain-slicked streets filled with demonstrators toting umbrellas and picket signs contributed to heavy downtown traffic, but there were no major incidents or arrests.

With no new negotiations planned, union members planned to strike again Tuesday.

Teachers are trying to tap into the "Red for Ed" movement that began last year and won big raises even in states with "right to work" laws that limit the ability to strike. They started in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona and moved to Colorado and Washington state.

But unlike those strikes, which shut down many schools and forced parents to find other care for their kids, all 1,240 K-12 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District were open.

For kids who went to school, bus service was normal, breakfast and lunches were served, and "students are safe and learning," Superintendent Austin Beutner said.

The district has hired hundreds of substitutes to replace educators and staff members who left for picket lines, a move that the teachers union has called irresponsible.

Taehyum Kim sent his two sons to their San Fernando Valley schools so they wouldn't ruin their perfect attendance records. But then he picked them up early after they complained they weren't doing anything except playing chess on iPads.

Only seven of the 24 students in his younger son's third-grade class showed up, Kim said, adding attendance was better at the older boy's middle school.

Neither child brought back any homework. Kim said he's considering keeping both boys home Tuesday, partly to send a message to school officials.

"Because what's the point?" he said. "They're not learning anything and you know that."

Other parents took their children to picket lines.

Peter Spruyt said he and his fifth-grade daughter "got wet and yelled our voices raw" as they joined teachers protesting in the rain for additional staffing at Micheltorena Elementary School. He said he understands parents who sent their kids to school.

"A lot of people have no choice. They have to work, and child care is unaffordable," Spruyt said.

District officials estimated that more than 141,630 students - less than a quarter of the usual daily total - attended 1,240 schools on Monday.

Months of talks between United Teachers Los Angeles, which has about 35,000 members, and the district ended without a deal. Beutner said the district is committed to resolving the contract negotiation as soon as possible and urged the union to resume bargaining.

"We made our last proposal to UTLA on Friday, which was rejected. They walked away from bargaining," the superintendent said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom urged the sides to resume negotiations and end the strike that was "disrupting the lives of too many kids and their families."

The union rejected the district's latest offer to hire nearly 1,200 teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians and reduce class sizes by two students. It also included a previously proposed 6 percent raise over the first two years of a three-year contract. The union wants a 6.5 percent hike at the start of a two-year contract.

Teachers earn between $44,000 and $86,000 a year depending on their education and experience, according to the Los Angeles County Office of Education. The district says the average teacher salary is $75,000, which reflects an older, more experienced workforce.

Teachers want significantly smaller class sizes, which routinely top 30 students, and more staff members for the district's campuses in Los Angeles and all or parts of 31 smaller cities, plus several unincorporated areas.

Brent Smiley, a 23-year district veteran who teaches at Sherman Oaks Center For Enriched Studies, said he's had as many as 42 students in one class and his smallest has 39.

"Struggling to keep them focused can be an impossible task," he said.

The district says the demands run up against an expected half-billion-dollar deficit this budget year and billions that are obligated for pension payments and health coverage for retired teachers.

The union argues that the district is hoarding reserves of $1.8 billion that could be used to fund the pay and staffing hikes. The district said that money is needed to cover retiree benefits and other expenses.

The governor submitted a budget proposal last week that offers money to help pay down the district's pension debt and provide substantial new funding for special education and early education.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.