Time to take from the banks and give to schools

Tom Larsen and Sam Bernstein report on a fight for public schools in Seattle.

SEATTLE--Teachers and other activists have been organizing protests and meetings here to oppose cuts to public education and other services in recent weeks. They also have a message for Chase Bank: It's time for this tax-dodger to start paying up.

The Washington state legislature just passed a budget that will force the burden of the economic crisis onto the backs of teachers, students, workers and the poor. The 2011-2013 budget includes a total of $1.5 billion in cuts to K-12 education funding--out of a $33 billion biennial budget.

The cuts to education include a 1.9 percent across-the-board pay cut for teachers and the suspension of two voter-passed initiatives mandating cost-of-living adjustments for teachers and funding to reduce class sizes.

It's worth noting that Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire supports the cuts, despite saying during her campaign in 2007, "So for those who think we should spend less, I say great. But don't take it out of education, that's the future of our state."

A bill that would have funded K-3 class size reductions by narrowing and repealing certain tax exemptions--like those enjoyed by Chase Bank--passed by a simple majority, but due to anti-tax guru Tim Eyman's I-1053, which passed last fall, a two-thirds majority vote is now required for the passage of any revenue-raising measures.

Closing those tax loopholes, which include exemptions for private jets and plastic surgery, would have gone a long way toward closing the $5 billion budget deficit. Wall Street banks, financial services, insurance and real estate corporations receive $942 million in Washington state tax exemptions each year.

Chase, in particular, is the target of growing anger among teachers, workers and activists. Despite making $5.6 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2011, JPMorgan Chase paid no Washington state taxes on its in-state mortgage interest income due to a tax exemption inherited from Seattle-based Washington Mutual, which was acquired by Chase after it went bankrupt in the 2008 financial meltdown.

Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon received $20.8 million in compensation last year while teachers and students are being told to cut back. But teachers have started responding to cuts that are having immediate and long-term effects on their jobs and their profession.

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ON APRIL 21, 100 people showed up with signs and banners outside the Chase Bank in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood for a protest organized by Social Equality Educators (SEE), a progressive rank-and-file caucus within the Seattle Education Association (SEA) teachers' union.

This protest represents an early response to the cuts and the ideological battle being waged against public education by "reformers" such as billionaire Bill Gates. It had broad support, with some 16 organizations, including SEE, SEA, SEIU, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Jobs with Justice, the International Socialist Organization and MoveOn.org, sponsoring or endorsing the action.

The event began with a dozen teachers and SEE members entering the bank in order to "teach Chase a lesson on the recession." They had developed a multiple-choice test for the bank manager to see if Chase understood its role in the economic crisis. They noted that 250 teachers' jobs could be paid for with the Chase CEO's salary. Protesters handed the quiz to the bank manager, who refused to even look at it.

Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Garfield High School, said, "We are going to have to come back to Chase Bank with a more extensive lesson plan and see if we can educate them on their failure to pay state taxes, and the impact that that is having on our education."

The educators left the bank, and Chase called the police and closed over an hour early, while protesters outside chanted, "Shut Chase down."

Several speakers made the connections between the attacks on teachers to the larger economy. Hagopian, who is a member of SEE, said:

We know this economic disaster is not a natural disaster; it's not like the floodwaters of the Mississippi. This economic disaster is human-created. This economic disaster is a product of the fact that we bail out banks that caused the recession in the first place--without bailing out the students, the teachers, the educators, the bus drivers, cafeteria workers and everybody that makes our school system run...

We're out here because Chase Bank is not paying their taxes. The fact that they are not paying their taxes means that my coworkers are getting laid off at Garfield High School.

"I'm one of the teachers that got laid off last week," said Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser, a history teacher at Garfield High School. "The legislature in Washington state right now is considering additional budget cuts and if they cut what they are considering; Jesse's the next one to get laid off. That's not good for America; it's not good for Seattle. It's not good for our kids; it's not good for the system; it's not good for any of us."

Cindy Jatul, a science teacher at Roosevelt High School, spoke to the ideological war on public education:

I am outraged by the fact that there are banks like Chase and companies like GE that are not paying their taxes and, as a result, we are told that the state budget is broke. We'll have more crowding in our classrooms, less support. Students' education will be diminished, in a state that already has the third worst crowded classrooms in the country.

Teachers have numerous languages that they have to try to teach to, Individualized Education Program kids, special-ed kids--it's impossible! You know, pundits like Gates say, "It doesn't matter how big the classes are as long as the teachers are good, you can teach"--that's baloney.

Anybody that's been into classes, tries to educate, knows that if you have a smaller size class you are more effective; you can meet individual needs.

Teachers chanted, "Cuts, no way. Make the banks pay!" Protesters also send a clear message to Chase with sidewalk chalking, banners and signs that said: "We pay our taxes. Why doesn't this corporation?" "Human needs--not war. Bring our billions home" and "Bail out schools, not the banks!"

"We are fired up. We're not going away," Eric Muhs, a physics teacher at Ballard High School, told a reporter. "Banksters, they get the goldmine, we got the shaft. We got about 200 people from all kinds of organizations. This is only gonna grow!"

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TWO WEEKS later, a different Chase branch in Seattle was the target of another angry demonstration. About 300 people turned out on June 4 for a rally in south Seattle called by Working Washington, Washington CAN and several other groups.

One speaker, who is facing eviction, said that she only owes $40,000 on her mortgage and has $160,000 in equity, but Chase has refused to renegotiate and trying to kick her out of her home.

Another woman described trying to get by on her reduced disability benefits and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families--the Clinton-era successor of the old federal welfare program. Protesters marched and chanted with the Roosevelt High School drum corps, demanding that Chase pays its fair share.

In addition to protesting corporate tax-dodgers like Chase bank, teachers are using multiple methods to get their side of the battle over the budget out to the wider public. On April 21, 80 teachers met at Westfield Southcenter Mall in Tukwila, just south of Seattle, to conduct a "grade-in" to demonstrate to the public the work that they have to do after kids go home.

A few days earlier, SEE organized a panel discussion called "Achievement Gap or Opportunity Gap? Fighting Racism in Public Schools." Over 200 parents and teachers came to the event to discuss the problems in public education--especially institutionalized racial inequality--and solutions.

Dora Taylor, a founding member of Parents Across America, argued that the Seattle School Board's recent decision to introduce Teach for America (TFA) teachers into Seattle schools will further exacerbate racial inequality in education.

TFA teachers are recent college graduates who receive just five weeks of training before being put in the classroom--in contrast to two years of training for certified teachers. Those inexperienced and low-quality TFA teachers "have a history of going into the minority areas and neighborhoods of cities," Taylor said.

Several speakers also took issue with the very way in which educational "achievement" is measured--standardized testing.

Wayne Au, professor of education at the University of Washington in Bothell and an editor of Rethinking Schools, noted that "test makers purposefully choose to use questions on tests that rich kids will usually answer more correctly than poor kids" so that the results fall into a bell-curve spread.

"The problems with standardized tests go further than the inequality from design, though," Au continued. "When pressure is put on schools through standardized test scores, the areas not important to these tests, like the arts, physical education, music and education about minority cultures are often pushed aside."

Moreover, standardized testing "doesn't ask kids to think. Instead the tests generally promote rote memorization and the lowest levels of learning. Critical creative thinking is out; drill and kill is in," Au said.

Teachers, workers and activists in Seattle are building their strength and putting out their demands loud and clear: Corporations and the rich should pay for the crises they caused, not ordinary working people.

Steve Leigh contributed to this article.