Why "blue state" teachers need their own revolt

Gillian Russom, a high school teacher and member of United Teachers Los Angeles, writes that the conditions that gave rise to teachers' strikes and protests in red states aren't as different from what she faces in LA as you might think.

Education workers and students rally to demand school funding in Los Angeles (SEIU Local 99 | flickr)Education workers and students rally to demand school funding in Los Angeles (SEIU Local 99 | flickr)

CALIFORNIA IS arguably the bluest of blue states.

We have a Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, both houses of the state legislature are about two-thirds Democratic, the state's two U.S. senators are Democrats, and almost three-quarters of the delegation to the U.S. House is Democratic. Los Angeles and San Francisco have Democratic Party mayors and are considered liberal strongholds.

California is also by far the richest state in the nation. In fact, considered by itself, it's the sixth-largest economy in the world, home to mega-corporations like Apple, Chevron, Wells Fargo, Disney, Visa, The Gap, and Hewlett Packard.

Yet California public schools languish at 46th out of the 50 states in per-pupil funding.

What does this mean for teachers and students? Here are the numbers: California spends $75,560 per year for each person it incarcerates and only $10,291 per student. Some 57 percent of California school districts don't employ a single nurse.

The K-12 student-to-teacher ratio in California ranks among the highest in the nation. Each school counselor serves an average of 945 students, compared to the 250 students recommended by the American School Counselors Association. While the state auditor recommends one school librarian for every 785 students, the ratio in California is one to 8,091.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, where I teach, class size "limits" in our contract--which actually can be waived if our school district declares a "fiscal emergency"--are 37 for 9th and 10th grade academic classes and 46 for all other high school classes. In our current contract campaign we're fighting for lower class sizes and real, enforceable caps.

My classroom is so crowded with student desks that my students and I sometimes can't get from one side of the room to the other unless we walk outside and enter through the other door.

I teach at a large high school with a sprawling campus which once had 18 custodians to clean it in the evening. Now we have just three. Classrooms get pretty dirty since custodians aren't given enough time to sweep--only to empty the trash cans. My classroom has a resident mouse living behind one of the bookcases.

Our air conditioners were installed in the 1960s, and they're so noisy it can be hard to hear students sharing their ideas in class discussion. When the AC breaks, it often takes days to get a replacement part. Meanwhile, LA temperatures in the spring and fall frequently reach 100 degrees.

As UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl told the Nation magazine: "This isn't a red-state issue, it's a blue-state issue, too. The rank and file are going to take the fight to the Democrats who have been complicit in the attack on public education and teachers unions."

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WHAT ABOUT teacher pay? A recent comparison of teacher pay by state shows Oklahoma, Arizona and West Virginia ranking second-, fifth- and sixth-lowest respectively, with California ranking fourth-highest. The implication is that higher-pay states, like California, would likely be immune from teachers taking such drastic action as a statewide strike to win higher salaries.

But according to Oakland-based education activist Joel Jordan, that conclusion would be highly misleading. As Jordan wrote in a recent report:

When taking cost of living into account, the differences narrow dramatically. In 2016, California teachers earned $26,865 more than West Virginia teachers, but when cost of living is factored in, only $6,429 more. Those differences would narrow further for super-high-cost urban areas of California, where housing costs alone are among the highest in the nation.

Teacher salaries in my district can't keep up with the insane cost of housing in Los Angeles, so most of my co-workers who own homes live in outlying cities to the east--which means they can spend one to two hours commuting to work every day.

And when you compare other factors like class size and overall education funding, West Virginia actually comes out ahead of California. According to a 2016 NEA analysis, West Virginia spent 50 percent more per student than did California.

Meanwhile, California ranks with some of the poorest states in the country, like Mississippi and Alabama, in terms of the gap between rich and poor school districts. "[T]he highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below the necessary spending levels," according to a report by the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

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THE OUTRAGEOUS underfunding of California schools is due to our state government's failure to address major problems in the tax system that favor corporations, going back to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.

Prop 13 reduced the tax rate on homes and businesses by about 57 percent and changed the law so that the property tax rate is based on the value at the time the property was bought, rather than the property's current market value.

This has been a windfall for corporations, while devastating funding for schools and public services. For example, the bulk of Disneyland's property is taxed at 1975 rates: five cents per square foot. If Disneyland were paying current rates, they would owe at least $4.7 million more per year in taxes.

After years of efforts without support from Democratic Party politicians, a coalition, including the California Federation of Teachers, has recently launched a ballot measure called Schools and Communities First, which would reform Prop 13 so that homeowners aren't affected, but corporations pay a tax rate based on the fair market value of their property.

People have called repealing Prop 13 the "third rail" of California politics because Democratic Party politicians are afraid of the public backlash that comes when you challenge corporations and the rich with proposals that would raise their taxes.

Their failure to act has robbed us of decent schools and public services for 40 years. But this new coalition with very limited resources has already achieved very favorable poll numbers for the ballot measure.

National trends affect Los Angeles schools, too, according to Alex Caputo-Pearl. The Los Angeles Unified School District spends "$1 billion of its $6.4 billion budget on special education to cover the shortfall in federal funding for kids with special needs," he told the Nation.

Then there is the impact of education "reform." A "287 percent increase in private charter schools in LA has diverted $600 million per year from neighborhood schools," he added.

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EVEN THOUGH the state provides the lion's share of funding to education, just like it does in West Virginia or Oklahoma, the difference in California is that money is distributed through the separate school districts.

And because, unlike in many red states, collective bargaining at the district level is legal, this means that teachers' unions have tended to lower their horizons for what can be won because of limited district budgets--rather than taking on the state and demanding revenue increases to create a bigger pie, as all the recent statewide teacher rebellions have done. This can also lead to divisions among different school unions, which can see themselves in competition for district resources.

What about the statewide unions? In states with collective bargaining, these unions serve as "advisors" to local unions, but focus most of their attention on lobbying and elections.

Yet they tend to have big, bureaucratic apparatuses that get in the way of militant statewide action--unlike the statewide union in West Virginia, which was relatively weak and more willing to take the lead from the rank and file.

In 2017, more progressive teachers unions in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego spearheaded the creation of a new network to raise statewide demands: The California Alliance for Community Schools (CACS). The alliance now includes nine locals committed to pushing for more state funding and more regulation of charter schools.

CACS is pushing the Schools and Communities First ballot measure, but it was also able to hold a first-ever statewide week of action in the fall.

The level of rank-and-file organizing and mobilization is still very uneven in different locals and needs to be built as the foundation, but hopefully, CACS can pave the way for greater consciousness and common action statewide in the future.

What we need to see is strike action from a local union that can inspire others, tied to demands for increased state funding.

For the first time, United Teachers Los Angeles is tying our local contract demands to a statewide demand of 20 by 20: funding levels of $20,000 per pupil in California by the year 2020.

And in a positive step for solidarity among all school unions, the UTLA Board of Directors voted unanimously for a sympathy strike with the planned one-day Unfair Labor Practices strike by classified staff in SEIU Local 99 (the strike was called off when Local 99 reached an agreement the next day).

UTLA is planning a citywide rally on May 24 and a strike authorization vote in the fall if we haven't reached an agreement by September.

Time will tell if the struggle builds toward a walkout and other militant actions in LA later this year, but we know this much already: Blue-state teachers need their own rebellion.