Dressed in red and raising signs into the air, thousands of teachers filled a downtown Los Angeles park Thursday to demand higher wages and smaller class sizes amid stalled contract negotiations.
"Everybody in this country is watching this struggle," said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers. "It's a fight about the nature of public education. What is public education going to look like?"
The rally was the largest action yet amid an escalating standoff between union and district leaders. United Teachers Los Angeles is demanding an 8.5 percent salary increase, which interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines says the district that teaches more than half a million students cannot provide without significant layoffs.
The union declared an impasse in February and is set to meet with the district and mediators in March. If a resolution still isn't reached, a fact-finding panel will convene. Though it's still several steps away, union officials say they are prepared to strike if necessary.
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl and other union leaders have visited hundreds of schools in recent months, talking to teachers and handing out commitment cards. The cards ask teachers to pledge support for a variety of actions, from leafleting to a strike. About half have been returned so far.
The last major urban school district to strike was Chicago Public Schools in 2012. That contract dispute centered largely on the role of student test scores in teacher evaluations.
The Los Angeles standoff has focused mostly on teacher salaries, class sizes and increasing the number of support staff members like nurses and counselors. The union notes that teachers have gone eight years without a salary increase or cost-of-living adjustment.
Union leaders contend the negotiations highlight an ongoing concern after the Great Recession: While economic conditions have improved, cuts made during the height of the crisis have been disparately restored. They point to new pockets of money that could be used to finance their demands, including the governor's proposed 8 percent budget increase.
Cortines, meanwhile, is projecting a $160 million deficit for the next school year. He is asking every department to reduce its expenses by 8 to 15 percent. In a letter to Caputo-Pearl on Thursday, he also warned that $171 million is at risk if union leaders don't agree to evaluation requirements necessary for the district to comply with its No Child Left Behind waiver.
Congress has been attempting to revamp the George W. Bush-era law.
"We're entering a tough phase because of the significant decline in enrollment, primarily," said Tom Waldman, a spokesman for the district.
There were 677,538 student enrolled in Los Angeles Unified in the 2009-10 school year. In 2013-14, that number had declined to 653,826.
A recent survey by the Schools Superintendents Association found that about half of superintendents described their districts as stable, while nearly four in 10 believe their district's economic situation has gotten worse. But the study concluded that over the last three years, conditions have mostly improved.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said what happens in Los Angeles will have national implications as districts weigh what to prioritize as the economy improves.
"The teachers here are pulling out of their own pockets," she said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday. "They feel the district has not met them halfway."
Kindergarten teacher Maria Arevalos said she spends at least $100 each month on school supplies that aren't provided by the district.
"They expect us to do a lot with a lack of support," she said.
Follow Christine Armario at http://www.twitter.com/cearmario .