Resisting a school catastrophe

Lee Sustar looks at the stakes in the movement to win full and equitable funding for California's public schools.

Demonstrating against education cuts outside the Capitol building in SacramentoDemonstrating against education cuts outside the Capitol building in Sacramento

THE NUMBERS ARE numbing: a $20 billion reduction in state spending on public education in California over the past three years, and the elimination of 30,000 teacher jobs and another 10,000 support positions.

But as the weeklong California Teachers Association (CTA) "State of Emergency" protests culminate in six rallies around the state May 13, a long-term challenge remains--not just to stop the latest cuts, but to overcome the devastating impact that they've already had.

The debate on how to solve the crisis came into the open during the May 9 protests at the Capitol, where the CTA sought to convince four Republican legislators to extend taxes that fall heaviest on the working class--the proposal supported by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. But a number of college students and rank-and-file teachers took up the demand to tax the rich, including 68 people arrested for refusing to vacate the Capitol when ordered to do so by police.

Despite calling for the "occupation" of the Capitol, the CTA was more interested in a traditional lobbying effort supplemented with some activist imagery, rather than the kind of mass protest that shut down the Wisconsin Capitol in February. Where the Wisconsin protesters occupied their Capitol to try to stop anti-union legislation from going through, the CTA was carrying out the new Brown administration's policy in trying to extend regressive taxes rather than push for measures that would make the wealthy pay their share of the crisis.

That wasn't enough for many activists. "We're not just here to lobby. We're here to raise some hell," Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association, said as police prepared to arrest the protesters.

Besides the layoffs, the cuts have resulted in unpaid furlough days for teachers and larger class sizes. According to the CTA, about 1 million students are facing a five-day cut in the current school year, a number that could jump to 10 if the cuts go through.

The earlier rounds of cuts have been devastating to the Los Angeles Unified School District, by far the largest in the state. Sarah Knopp, a teacher at the Youth Opportunities Unlimited alternative high school, described how the cuts have crippled her school, which was designed for students who had difficulties at traditional high schools:

We're losing all but one of our office staff for a school of 350 students--all of whom have higher-than-average needs, because ours is an "alternative" school for kids who have slipped through the cracks, or had attendance or discipline problems, at the larger comprehensive high schools.

What this forces us to do is to use our federal Title I money, which is supposed to provide support like teaching assistants, to hire people who will help us to plug the clerical holes. Only instead of being union workers, they will be making $11 an hour. We already have no psychological support for a very high-needs population living in the most impoverished and violent neighborhood in Los Angeles. We also have no college counselor.

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MANY YOUNGER teachers in LA have gone through the experience of being "RIFed"--that is, they've received a reduction-in-force, or layoff, notification, in the last couple of years.

Many of those RIFs were rescinded--in part because of union concessions on pay raises. But after enduring a pay freeze for several years and an actual pay cut due to furloughs, LA teachers are being threatened with a new round of 4,000 layoffs unless they agree to still more furlough days.

United Teachers Los Angeles is organizing against the cuts, but the RIF letters have already caused fear and confusion among those teachers affected.

"For RIFed teachers, the pressure is on to fight and organize both long and hard to get as many RIFs rescinded as possible, and not accept the unjust cuts and furloughs," said Rebecca Sun, a Roosevelt High School teacher who was laid off in the past but recalled along with all math and science teachers. "At the same time, you hope for a quick and successful end to the uncertainty that hinders many people's ability to plan for the near future."

While cuts in LA grab headlines, school districts in suburbs and smaller cities and towns up and down the state are also reeling. John Green, the recently elected president of the Castro Valley Teachers Association, described the impact of austerity on his school system:

In Castro Valley Unified School District, they dismantled our at-risk intervention program at the middle school and high school levels, eliminated class size reduction for 9th grade English and algebra, cut summer school counseling to about a third, affecting the neediest students. They also raised class sizes in the K-3 level from 20 to 25, laying off a dozen teachers out of a unit of 420.

The cuts also decimated adult education, ended school funding for sports at all grade levels, partly dismantled the district music program, and eliminated 10 percent of district janitors. The certificated staff--teachers, counselors and school nurses--haven't had a raise in four years to base salary. But at the same time, district health care premiums have gone up about 8 percent annually.

Along with the devastating cuts to K-12 education, an all-cuts solution to the budget deficit would hammer higher education. Some 10,000 students could be turned away from the California State University system, and some 400,000 others unable to enroll in community colleges for lack of capacity.

The Republicans in the California legislature argue that the budget crisis can be avoided by tapping the recent surge in state tax revenues to cover the shortfall in education. But the teachers' unions argue that without a permanent fix, the school funding shortfall will re-emerge.

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THE DOWNWARD spiral of K-12 education in California is part of a national trend. According to an American Federation of Teachers spokesperson, some 172,000 public education jobs have been eliminated since 2008--including 99,800 in the last 12 months.

For the corporate "school reform" crowd, the California school budget disaster isn't a crisis, but an opportunity--to bash teachers even harder. Thus, Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, an anti-union group, made the incredible claim that teacher job security is at the root of the budget crisis in that state:

Kill the archaic seniority system. The current system disregards teaching quality in favor of longevity when it comes to making staffing decisions. If we must lose some teachers, why not let the poorest performers go first? Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek says that eliminating just 7 percent of bottom-performing teachers would dramatically improve education outcomes, while saving millions of dollars on salaries. Yes, class sizes would increase somewhat, but children would get better teachers. Not a bad trade. At the same time, we might debunk the small-class-size-is-always-better myth.

The right wing also disputes the figure of a $20 billion cut in California state spending on education since 2008, claiming that federal stimulus dollars compensated for much of the cuts, and that some of the cuts are in fact deferred payments on bills that the state will eventually make good.

But even by the most conservative estimates, California school funding has dropped from a peak of $56.6 billion in the 2007-08 fiscal year to between $49 billion and $50 billion in the last four budget years. And given the mounting social crisis as the result of the recession and weak recovery--California's unemployment rate remains at 12.3 percent--the school cuts have an even greater social impact as children who need support services find them unavailable.

The CTA protests are intended to keep matters from getting even worse. The union is campaigning for an extension of taxes instituted under former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. His successor, Democrat Jerry Brown, is calling on legislators to pass the extension to prevent another $4 billion in cuts to education. If it fails, the cuts will be even more severe. Some 20,000 RIF notices were sent out March 15 by school districts in anticipation of the worst.

The San Francisco Unified School District, which absorbed cuts of $113 million last year, is facing an additional $84 million cut. Fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Adrienne Johnstone, a member of United Educators of San Francisco and former candidate for union president on the Educators for a Democratic Union slate, explained how the cuts will impact her classroom:

My class size will jump from 23 to 33 next year. Our school runs from grades K-8, with only two teacher's aides. We have one administrator, no vice principal and a counselor only two days a week. One of our teacher's aides also works as the lunch server and an after-school teacher, as well as working nights and weekends at Giants games during baseball season to make ends meet. The grants that we used to fill in the holes in our budget are drying up.

We need more resources in our schools during times of unemployment and economic crisis, not fewer. It's getting worse and worse. I was rummaging through the school basement last week to try to find a broken overhead projector to pilfer a light bulb from it, because mine burned out, and we don't have supply money. Is this what I should spend my planning time doing?

I sit in conferences with families and tell them that their child needs extra help because the student can't read and understand fifth grade material. But I have no help to offer them.

Our families can't possibly afford private tutoring for their students, or after-school day care. But all of those extra services have long since been cut from the school. We had to fight to keep our after-school program open for all students last year. It's terrifying to know that somehow it could get worse.

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THE CTA'S focus on tax extensions, rather than taxing the rich, frustrates many teachers and activists, who point to the regressive nature of the taxes, which include a 1 percent increase in sales taxes and an increase in vehicle licensing fees.

Bob Samuels, president of University Council-American Federation of Teachers, which represents lecturers and librarians at the University of California, explains that the money is there to not only pay for education, but solve the state's budget crisis:

California has the largest economy of any state in America, with a gross product of just over $1.9 trillion dollars. However, next year, Californians are going to spend less than $85 billion on the state budget, and there is still a $12 billion deficit. These statistics mean that the total state budget is less than 5 percent of the state economy, and the deficit is less than 1 percent, yet California is considered to be a high-spending, high-taxing state. Nothing could be further than the truth; rather, California is a very wealthy state where many wealthy individuals and corporations pay little if any taxes.

Samuels argues that unions should only back Brown's efforts to extend taxes if the governor agrees to allow a simple majority in the legislature to pass any new taxes; boost the top tax rate from 9.3 percent to 11 percent to bring in $5 billion in annual state revenues; close tax loopholes to net an extra $6 billion per year; and tax oil extraction at 9.9 percent to funnel an extra $1.2 billion into higher education.

Taxing the rich is a popular idea in California. Joshua Pechthalt, recently elected president of the California Federation of Teachers, reported that an opinion poll commissioned by his union found that 78 percent support a 1 percent increase on the richest 1 percent in California, a move that would generate $2.5 billion in revenue.

"But when Congress extended Bush's tax cuts for the rich in December, it handed California's wealthiest 1 percent a $9 billion tax windfall--equal to half this year's state budget deficit," he wrote in an op-ed article.

Johnstone, the Sam Francisco middle school teacher, also says that the focus should be on taxing the rich, rather than continuing regressive taxes:

The idea that I'm going to go to Sacramento and ask Jerry Brown to extend his tax package on the working class of this state is insane. I really think we have to stop supporting these short-term "solutions" to the education-funding problem that just keep shifting the burden onto the people who work in the schools. I will be going to Sacramento to demand that oil companies and the rich pay some taxes in this state. I will be going to demand free quality public education and public services for everyone in California.

Those views--taxing the rich to fix our schools and fund urgently needed social programs--are ignored by both Democratic and Republican politicians, who debate only how deep those cuts can be. But as the Wisconsin labor mobilization showed, a bold campaign by labor has the potential to turn the sentiment against cutbacks into active support.

Unfortunately, the CTA shied away from such activity in Sacramento. But the rank-and-file union members and anti-cuts activists around the state can be confident that they are with the grain of public opinion as they prepare for the next step in this fight.