The teachers’ struggle is a struggle for justice

March 6, 2014

San Francisco public school teacher Michael Barron describes the kinds of demands that can help strengthen educators' campaign for a fair union contract.

CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS have begun for some 6,000 public school educators, members of United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), who work in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), with contracts for teachers and paraprofessionals set to expire June 30.

But unlike recent years in California in which cuts were the norm, increased taxes on the rich and a new school funding formula benefiting districts with more needy students have given teachers the opportunity to fight for more.

Union leaders have begun by presenting respectable demands on guaranteed prep time for elementary school teachers, increasing paraprofessional work hours and clarifying the work responsibilities for special education teachers. But they have been reluctant so far to release more information, arguing that the district will use it to manipulate and divide the union membership.

In other cities, recent contract wins by teachers have shown that being open and clear is how to win the schools our students deserve. Just in the past week, teachers in Portland, Ore., and St. Paul, Minn., have won favorable contracts by emulating the up-front, community-oriented strategy of the Chicago Teachers Union that led to their successful strike in 2012.

UESF members march at the May Day demonstration for immigrant rights in 2008
UESF members march at the May Day demonstration for immigrant rights in 2008 (Steve Rhodes)

The Portland and St. Paul campaigns were successful, fighting off many concessions, lowering class sizes, and in St. Paul reducing standardized test taking, because they made their concerns public. They convinced their natural allies--students and parents--to fight with them for better public schools. Such an alliance among teachers, parents, students and community forced the leadership of these districts to concede when confronted with a real, formidable strike call.

The aim of this article is to highlight some of the real injustices experienced by our students and educators and help facilitate a deeper discussion on what needs to change in the SFUSD. We can use these points to help develop a transparent public contract campaign that informs and empowers all members and encourage the participation of our students, parents and community members.

We Should Demand a Lower Class Size.

In late January 2014, UESF received notice from district administration stating the union's official complaint (grievance) for excessive class sizes, often over 40 students, had been denied. Administrators argued that the class-size "goals" in the teachers' contract aren't necessarily the same thing as class-size limits.

San Francisco Unified is the only major district in the Bay Area that didn't commit to firm class-size limits in its teacher contract. Both Oakland and San Jose Unifieds have committed to class-size limits in the low 30s (except for a few subject exceptions like PE).

Fortunately, a successful statewide lawsuit by teachers has at least temporarily lowered some schools' class sizes in San Francisco in the form of the Quality Education Investment Act grants, but this funding will expire next year.

Meanwhile, the only limits for San Francisco schools are set by state laws that mandate 30 to 1 for K-8 and 24 for K-3. However, these limits aren't even outlined in the teachers' contract, making it very difficult to fight the district's regular abuses.

In early February, the district had the opportunity to address this situation through its "sunshine proposal"--a process in which the district administration and the teachers' union notify each other of which parts of the contract they will be looking to change.

While the union notified the district it intends to fight for smaller class sizes, the district leadership's sunshine proposal made clear it has no interest in addressing the massive class sizes.

While San Francisco class sizes are large even by public school standards in the region, the difference becomes even starker when compared to private schools in the city. Out of the approximate 90,000 students in San Francisco, one-third (27,000 students) attend private schools. These private schools advertise an average student to teacher ratio of 11-to-1.

While there are few empirically proven solutions to improve students' achievement, class size reduction is one of the four recognized by the federal Department of Education. Additionally, a district that says that it's determined to close the achievement gap and reduce suspensions must undoubtedly be aware of the numerous studies that show that lower class sizes reduce suspension rates and disproportionately benefit students of color.

So why does SFUSD continue to de-prioritize such effective reforms?

It's not the administration's priority. Nationwide, school district leaders are padding their résumés by trying to increase "outcomes" while decreasing school districts' unionized workforce. Our district leadership would rather frame social justice in the narrow paradigm of standardized testing "achievement" and other abstract indices than face the harsh reality that a teacher with 200 students would have to spend 33 hours just to evaluate each of his or her students' work for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, our district administrators spend millions on the latest assessment, curriculum fad or "improvement system" when these funds could be used to dramatically reduce teacher workload and increase real meaningful student learning. And they depend on such tools to continue obscure the lack of educational equity in our district and city.

So what should we do in San Francisco? While we should also spend money on other pressing issues within the district, we could lower class sizes by nearly 20 percent by hiring another 625 teachers using what California Teachers Association estimates is a $50 million surplus.

In the long term, we should demand that our innovative city get innovative about bringing district class size down to the national average of 20 students in elementary classes and 23 in secondary classes.

We should demand that in one of the wealthiest regions of the world, there's no excuse for the substandard conditions that contrast so greatly with the more privileged children of the same city. We want to see San Francisco lead the state in prioritizing policies that promote meaningful learning, and smaller class size is step one.

We Should Demand a Dramatic Wage Increase for All SFUSD Educators, Especially Paraprofessionals.

With a city economy larger than all but 20 of the wealthiest countries of the world, you would think that San Francisco could figure out a way to pay its educators a decent salary. The average SFUSD teacher makes only $64,000 a year--that's $5,000 less than the average California teacher's salary and exactly half the pay of the average San Francisco police officer.

Due to its incredibly detrimental effect on school climate and student learning, district leadership has been discussing and researching what causes 50 percent of our teachers to leave the district within their first five years. A simple answer is that substandard salaries and incredibly expensive health benefits put a strain on teachers who can move to a more affordable, and likely better paying, school district.

While the Proposition A parcel tax of 2008 gave teachers a modest raise, it's fallen short of the increased cost of living in San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area. San Francisco made international headlines last fall when its median rent prices became the most expensive in the country, even beating out New York City where the average teacher makes $75,000 per year.

Yet teacher salary is only half the story. Paraprofessionals and early childhood educators, who are disproportionately women and people of color, have seen themselves iced out of any pay raises in recent years. The Proposition A parcel tax denied any substantial income raises to paraprofessionals or early childhood educators.

While just over 70 percent of San Francisco teachers live in the city, only about a quarter of paraprofessionals remain here. Paraprofessional hourly wages range from about $17 to $22 an hour. Paired with part-time working hours, paraprofessionals are making poverty wages in San Francisco, with the majority forced to work additional jobs.

Paraprofessionals tend to have very close connections to the communities they're serving. Rather than drive a wedge between paraprofessionals and teachers, we ought to actively fight for a higher percentage raise increase and full-time work hours for paraprofessionals.

So how much should we ask for? Los Angeles teachers recognize that the increased cost of living and pay cuts since the 2008 crash have devastated their livelihoods. They're asking for a 17.6 percent raise! With a cost of living even higher than Los Angeles, would it be wrong for SF educators to ask for a 20 percent teacher raise and 25 percent raise (with full work hours) for paraprofessionals? I think not.

We Should Demand Affordable Health Care for Educators with Families.

While the average SFUSD employee makes over $30,000 less than the average San Francisco city worker per year--$56,000 vs. $90,000--we also pay considerably more for the same health care plans.

One needs only to visit the San Francisco Health Service System's website to see the injustice. All district educators with families have to shell out at least $700 per month just for a basic HMO--a cost so burdensome, especially for paraprofessionals, that many rely on public assistance.

Paraprofessionals who commit to purchasing health care for their dependents have to pay for summer health coverage in the spring months (March, April and May). In other words, if you're a paraprofessional earning $1,500 cash each month who wants your family on a basic HMO, you would have to pay nearly half of your entire monthly income for health coverage.

During the months of March, April and May, as you pay ahead for your summer coverage, you would receive biweekly paychecks of just $50. How can anyone burdened with such circumstances focus on serving our kids each day?

Meanwhile, the city nurses, represented by two different locals, have set an admirable standard of fair health care contracts for their members with families. Why shouldn't educators, with similar levels of education and experience as our city nurses, fight for similar benefits?

We Should Say "No" to Standardized Testing and "Yes" to Professional Autonomy, Meaningful Assessment and More Curricular Options.

One of the most exciting elements of teaching in San Francisco is the dynamism of our educators and students. Our educators help students develop into more critical, social justice-oriented global citizens.

From the yearly Teachers for Social Justice Conference to the development of Ethnic Studies initiatives to the partnership of San Francisco schools with inspiring activist organizations, we have a pedagogical heritage that could transform all San Francisco schools.

Yet the school district's Strategic Plan, the outline of the top priorities for San Francisco schools, has very little to do with promoting more progressive forms of pedagogy or facilitating district-wide teacher collaboration. Nor does the Strategic Plan guarantee that every San Francisco student has a right to music, arts, theater, career training or physical education.

Instead, even with the countless criticisms coming from leading national education figures such as Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody and Valerie Strauss, the number one priority of the district's Strategic Plan is still the implementation of Common Core and using its standardized assessments to drive curricular priorities.

No matter how much sizzle it's served with, Common Core remains an untested experiment bound to diminish local pedagogical control and bucks against already empirically proven models of success.

Take the country of Finland, for example, where they've transformed their education system into the most revered in the world by rejecting standardized curriculum and assessment but by giving teachers the professional autonomy to choose or develop their own curriculum and use their professional discretion to choose appropriate assessments. Rather than count achievement like beans, they promote teacher collaboration and meaningful, local and qualitative assessment of students.

The teach-to-the-test culture being prioritized by SFUSD leadership at the expense of a more rich curricular experience flies in the face of the traditions of San Francisco that promote cultural diversity, creative thought, artistic expression and community empowerment.

The highest stakeholders in San Francisco--students, parents, teachers and community--would undoubtedly choose funding the arts and culturally relevant curriculum to spending millions of dollars on weeks and weeks of standardized tests that hurt our students' self-esteem.

Fortunately, some teachers are confronting such nonsense. In the wake of the Seattle teacher test boycott, St. Paul teachers came up with the novel idea of trying to contractually negotiate their way out the high-stakes standardized tests. Through their struggle, they forced the district to agree to lower standardized testing by 25 percent, evaluate the cultural relevance of standardized tests and actively lobby the state to reduce testing mandates.

Seattle teachers are breaking ground not only by their nationally recognized boycott of an unpopular standardized test last year, but by establishing the Teacher Work Group, which has spent months developing alternative forms of assessment.

Concerned with one-size-fits-all, culturally biased standardized tests, they are actively developing methods to evaluate students that remain "free of gender, class and racial bias; are differentiated to meet students' needs; allow opportunities to go back and improve; undergo regular evaluation and revision by educators."

As a leader of the Seattle test boycott, Jesse Hagopian, said in January 2013:

We face big problems in the world today. We face climate change threatening humanity. We face endless wars and we're facing economic stagnation. These types of problems cannot be solved by bubbling in A, B, C or D. We need to teach our kids critical thinking skills. We need to teach them civic courage and leadership skills to solve these big types of problems that we face in our society.

Our students face the same challenges that will require the same critical thinking and civic courage that Seattle teachers are talking about. We should be at the forefront of respecting teacher autonomy and professionalism and training our educators in empowering forms of pedagogy.

We should ensure that standardized tests are only used when teachers, as professionals, recognize them as the most effective diagnostic tools to improve student learning. We should follow St. Paul teachers' lead and fight for a contract that defends such professional autonomy.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The hope is that this information can be one tool to help facilitate discussions at school sites across the district. We should be actively participating in our union's bargaining and assembly meetings and seek more rallies at the school board that air the real concerns of educators and students.

In the wake of its $15 million embezzlement scandal, the district leadership ought to know that they have our lost our trust. We should demand a more transparent budget that let's us know exactly where the money is going.

All of this will require us to build a high level of organization and empowerment of our fellow unionists as well as committed community support. We should follow Portland, St. Paul and Chicago teachers lead and be willing to strike if the district will not concede to our demands to create schools that our students deserve.

Further Reading

From the archives