Social justice union-busting?

April 19, 2012

David Russitano, a restorative justice adviser in San Francisco at Paul Revere Elementary School and a candidate for his union's executive board on the Educators for a Democratic Union slate, looks at the politics of school layoffs in his city.

THE SAN Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is asking educators to shoulder the burden of the economic crisis--and wants to trample the union contract in the process.

The School Board voted 5-to-1 on February 29 to send out pink slips to 245 teachers and 249 paraprofessionals. The board also decided to bypass seniority in implementing the layoffs by exempting the 14 schools in the so-called Superintendent's Zone, using social justice language to justify their attack.

According to an SFUSD press release, the district created the "Superintendent's Zone of 14 schools located primarily in the Bayview and Mission neighborhoods of San Francisco to focus more resources on closing the achievement gap in some of the city's historically lowest performing schools...In skipping certificated employees in the Superintendent's Zone in the layoff process, the district is living up to its commitment to access, equity, and social justice."

As a member of United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), I know that there is no social justice in this these layoffs. For starters, the schools have been placed in the zone on an arbitrary basis. Other schools serve the exact same student demographics, but are left out of the zone. As a UESF document pointed out, all public schools in San Francisco have a mix of students, and there is no clear way that these schools have been chosen.

A teacher from San Francisco joins in protests against budget cuts in Sacramento in March
A teacher from San Francisco joins in protests against budget cuts in Sacramento in March

In fact, some of these schools have already been targeted for reforms under state legislation required by the federal Race to the Top program. For example, Carver Elementary was forced last year to use the turnaround model, which meant they had to replace at least 50 percent of their classroom teachers and the principal.

However, Carver is in the Superintendent's Zone, and will be skipped over for seniority for layoffs this year. How is it possible that they replace a majority of teachers one year ago and then claim social justice to jump seniority the next? SFUSD wants to have its cake and eat it, too.

Even worse is that the exemptions are conditional. They are not for all staff at these schools, but only for teachers. Our most vulnerable union members, the paraprofessionals, will be laid off.

Overwhelmingly, paraprofessionals work directly with students who need the most attention. Paraprofessionals are not compensated at living wages and have been left out of most pay raises. Why is it okay to lay off paraprofessionals, mostly people of color, at a school, yet save the mostly white teachers? That doesn't sound like social justice.

Furthermore, the high turnover in these schools is not primarily because of layoffs. The main reason people leave is because their job feels overwhelming. Singlehandedly, teachers and paraprofessionals are supposed to overcome the achievement gap when capitalism creates this gap in the first place.

TO PERFORM the task of overcoming the achievement gap, educators are given tools that don't work. What you find at the "bottom 5 percent" schools is testing, testing and testing. At my school, Paul Revere, which has students from pre-K to 8th grade, first graders are tested every single week in math and language arts. The first graders can't fill in their own Scantron bubbles, so the teachers take their own valuable time and, along with parent volunteers, bubble in the tests.

Some teachers started to keep track of the amount of time spent testing in the later grades. They recorded in excess of 67 hours for this school year alone. Yet all this testing has done is discourage teachers--and it has not closed the achievement gap at all.

Educators have been great at implementing these inadequate tools, despite knowing that more testing is not going to close the gap. This leads to good teachers getting demoralized, as they are tired of being blamed or labeled as bad teachers.

The final kick in the face is that SFUSD has enough money in the bank to avoid layoffs this year. With $55.8 million in unrestricted reserves and an additional $23.3 million in restricted funds, they could easily keep teachers and paraprofessionals on the job. And if they really cared about social justice, they would be hiring people.

There is nothing about social justice in what the district is doing, so why is this happening now?

It is not coincidental that UESF and SFUSD have just started bargaining a new contract. In addition to the layoffs, SFUSD is asking for $36 million in concessions at the bargaining table. In a way, their playbook is the one used in Los Angeles two years ago, in which seniority was attacked on the basis that schools disproportionately affected by layoffs should be exempted from such cuts.

In San Francisco, the district is trying to put different groups against one another: teachers in the Superintendant's Zone vs. teachers out of the zone; teachers vs. paraprofessionals; and finally, teachers vs. the community. In making this attack on seniority, and using social justice as its reason, the district is trying to break our unity.

FORTUNATELY, UESF has already begun to fight back, with a rally of 300 people at the school board March 14. Many passionate and talented teachers spoke about the way the district was attacking the community.

Among those protesting was Van Cedric Williams, who has been a teacher for 10 years. He said:

Do I teach my students to be good students by pitting their friends against each other, by pitting their employees against each other? We know that you have $55 million in reserve funds. You need to make the tough decision to spend it on the teachers. I tell my people invest in yourself and do well, but the school district won't and that's a shame.

A teacher at El Dorado Elementary told the school board:

I read with interest when the Superintendent told the [San Francisco] Chronicle that the layoffs won't tilt the earth on its orbit. That may be true factually--you could lay off all the teachers in the district, and the earth would not be tilted. But I invite you to come to El Dorado and tell our community that laying off seven to 15 classroom teachers does not, in fact, make a big tilt.

To justify its policy of concentrating teacher layoffs in some schools and exempting others, SFUSD officials point to the district's achievement gap between white and Black students. Of the seven largest urban districts in California, SFUSD is number one for test scores for white students. For Latinos, it is slightly worse, at third. But for African American students, it is last.

So there is definitely a need to close the achievement gap in San Francisco. It will take a movement that demands more resources for schools. UESF is a part of the solution by fighting to obtain additional funding for these schools. Seniority and the union help protect activists who are fighting for justice in the schools and in the community.

The movement for education justice will also have to take on wider issues like housing rights and stopping foreclosures (one block in the historically African American Bayview neighborhood has 14 foreclosed homes on it). If we are serious about the achievement gap, we need a new civil rights movement in San Francisco that fights for raising the standard of living for the most hard-pressed communities of color in this city. This is what we in Educators for a Democratic Union are committed to.

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