New threats facing LA schools

December 2, 2009

David Rapkin, a member of the United Teachers Los Angeles board of directors, looks at how budget cuts and charter school operators are carving up the country's second-biggest school district.

IN HER groundbreaking book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the process whereby capitalist vultures circle patiently, waiting for a crisis to lay waste to another public institution so that they can slash and privatize the wounded or dying animal.

Klein calls these predators and scavengers "disaster capitalists"--and our public education system is one of their favorite targets. And while the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is by no means dead, the crisis is upon us. We are reeling, and the vultures are beginning to land and eat us alive.

A California tax system that obscenely benefits corporations and the super-rich, combined with a national and international economic crisis, has resulted in an LAUSD budget shortfall for this year of almost $500 million. This comes on the heels of last year's catastrophe, when we took deep cuts, and lost more than 2,000 teachers and thousands of other school employees. Class sizes ballooned. Our kids and communities, especially communities of color, are in deep trouble.

Protesting budget cuts and layoffs in the LA schools
Protesting budget cuts and layoffs in the LA schools

But as budgetary hammer-blow after blow is falling on pre-K through 12th grade public education in Los Angeles, the disaster capitalists are moving in with their charter management organizations and privatization schemes.

Enter the so-called "school choice motion," passed last summer by the LAUSD Board of Education. Under this plan, 12 existing public schools, said to be "failing" under the federal No Child Left Behind law, and 24 new schools have been put up for bid by the LAUSD. Teachers, parents and other community members find ourselves forced to "compete" for our own schools against independent charter schools and other private entities.

And that's just the beginning of a process that aims to put 250 of our schools on the block for takeover by charter school operators and others.

Many of the charter schools have very close ties to district bureaucrats or the school board itself, the very people who are going to be deciding who "wins" this supposedly fair process. And those who aren't on the take locally are mostly funded by foundations run by the likes of Wal-Mart.

THE LA teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), and our allies are now caught fighting on a constantly shifting terrain. One month or week or day, we're fighting budget cuts; the next day or minute, we're trying to keep our neighborhood schools from "going charter."

And while the battles are local, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, among others, is promoting the forces of privatization through lies, bribery and coercion. In order to accumulate "points" to compete for $4.3 billion in federal grants for K-12 education, states must tear down legislative barriers to charter schools, and school districts must impose merit pay on teachers by tying their salaries to test scores and other measures of student performance.

Some national union leaders, like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, are all too willing to play nice. How else to get Bill and Melinda Gates to help fund the union's own "reform" projects?

But blood money has its price, and in this case, some national leaders are lying with dogs--and giving their rank-and-file members the fleas. Collaborate with management and the city fathers, we are told. Keep labor peace, and maybe we can allow you to look for some spare change on our mansion floors.

Here at home, our superintendent, Ramon Cortines, not a particularly hard-line charter supporter, but a very staunch fiscal conservative, has given all school workers an ultimatum: Give up a 12 percent pay cut, and throw in another four unpaid days for a total of a 14 percent cut, or we will lay off teachers, nurses, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and many more workers who are absolutely necessary to educate our children. Oh, and by the way, reform your schools immediately, or we will have to give them away to charter operators. So not only do we face deeper cuts than we ever imagined, now, we're told, we have to "reform or die."

The superintendent's threats in this regard are worth digesting. Here's a sample, taken from a letter to school employees' unions:

Without your shared commitment, this district will see layoffs of more than 7,500 to 8,500 personnel, which will result in more than 14,000 employees being noticed for possible reduction in force.

To maintain current staffing and service for 2010-2011, we will need every employee to take a 12 percent salary reduction (1 percent = $40 million). Otherwise, we are looking at one in five employees who will be informed that they may lose their job.

We need to submit a balanced budget by December 8, 2009. We are ready to meet at the bargaining table to negotiate compensation reductions for many district employees. Otherwise, the layoffs will commence on July 1, 2010.

We ask that each union provide the equivalent of four furlough days in 2010 (1 furlough day = $15 million). We applaud SEIU [Service Employees International Union] for working to lead the way by coming to the table as a shared partner.

All this begs a question: How are we supposed to reform our schools, a task that if taken seriously would require a vast increase in resources, if LA schools are going to be cut to the bone?

WHETHER IT'S a grand conspiracy or not, we know we're being set up to fail. The crisis creates precisely the conditions that the charters and their supporters need. Already, they're saying loudly, "See, we gave them their chance, and teachers and communities have messed up the schools. Public schools don't work. Now it's our turn."

Unfortunately, the budget cutters also have allies in labor's camp. The superintendent's thanks to SEIU above refers to a side deal that SEIU Local 99's backward leadership made to give up unpaid furlough days without a fight. Sadly, many of Local 99's members were barely paying their bills even before this latest round of cuts.

This two-pronged attack is taking countless real victims. Julie Van Winkle, a prominent UTLA activist in last year's fight against layoffs, and herself now a laid-off teacher substituting day to day to stay above water, described to me some of the costs as she experiences them:

If Cortines' proposed cuts go into effect next school year, the results will be devastating to entire school communities.

For newer teachers, the cuts would be especially painful. I was one of about 2,000 teachers who lost their jobs last year, and Cortines is now threatening to lay off more workers this year than he did last year.

For me, being laid off threw my life completely off balance. As an experienced teacher with an exemplary classroom, I felt confident in my career and decided that I wanted to buy a house. Just after I completed the paperwork for my loan last March, I received my RIF notice. Since then, I've been using the money I had saved to pay bills and other expenses.

Perhaps even more upsetting than the financial strains that I was feeling was the emotional aspect of being laid off. I knew that I was a good teacher, and I knew that many schools like mine have extremely overcrowded classrooms. It was frustrating to have to do substitute work at different schools every day.

Who will suffer the most from these cuts? The students, of course. They will be packed into classrooms with more and more students, with fewer and fewer resources.

Also, students in lower-income areas will feel the effects of these cuts the most. Low-income, inner-city schools are more difficult to staff and have higher teacher turnover rates. Consequently, their staffs tend to be less experienced. Thus, when the teachers are laid off, schools in low-income areas will lose more teachers and undergo much more drastic changes.

Luckily for all of us, fighters like Julie are not giving up. From a demonstration at next week's school board meeting to parent forums and community walks, press conferences and leafleting, UTLA and our allies are standing up.

We have made alliances with the University of California and California State University students, workers and faculty who made March 4 a day of action to defend public education. And we are proudly demanding real reforms for our schools at the same time that we challenge the fake "reform" giveaway that threatens us every bit as much as the cuts.

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