Are job protections for teachers to blame for educational underachievement among low-income students of color in California? That’s the provocative question ostensibly at the heart of Vergara vs. California, which seeks to invalidate the tenure, due process and seniority rights of hundreds of thousands of educators.
Astute observers of the nation’s escalating education wars, however, may be asking another question: When did it become permissible to use the welfare of children as a fig leaf for an all-out legal attack on teachers?
Or, as historian and teacher John Thompson wrote recently in Scholastic, “Are corporate reformers unabashedly using the courts as a battleground for battering employees’ rights, as opposed to helping children?”
Sadly, the answer to Thompson’s question appears to be an unequivocal yes. For while the outcome of Vergara will have far-reaching national implications, it is hardly unique in its attempt to scapegoat teachers for sub-par educational performance. Similar efforts are underway across the country, as some so-called “education reformers” seek to simultaneously privatize public education and weaken the hard-won protections of teachers.
Though efforts to remake public education have attracted both Democrats and Republicans, the three-pronged strategy of austerity, privatization and demonization is familiar to anyone who has watched the conservative movement over the past several decades. First you starve government of the resources needed to perform at a high level. Then you claim that the private sector is more efficient and effective, and should be given greater authority. Finally you target public sector workers and the unions that represent them in order to clear the field of opposition, claiming that they are hurting the very people they are charged with serving.
The buildup to Vergara is a perfect example of this sequence. Over the past decade, California saw massive cuts in its education budget, which has only recently started to recover. In 2010-11, the state was 46th in the nation in K-12 spending per student, and 50th in the number of K-12 students per teacher. At the same time, the Golden State has been ground zero for education privatizers, who have spent millions of dollars on school board races, legislation such as the controversial parent trigger law and the relentless effort to advance charter schools.
Now, with Vergara, these forces are seeking to strip teachers of fundamental protections, using the patronizing argument that children must come first (indeed, the name of the group that brought the Vergara suit is the cloying “Students Matter”). That facile assertion is convenient cover for a legal case predicated on weak evidence and willful blindness toward the actual conditions that impact both children and teachers.
To succeed, the plaintiffs in Vergara must prove that the California Educational Code systematically discriminates against low-income children. Because no evidence exists to support this claim, plaintiffs are relying on anecdotes as well as theories that have come under heavy fire from education experts.
Meanwhile, in their zeal to punish teachers, Vergara’s supporters conveniently ignore the fact that educational outcomes have been pummeled by funding cuts for virtually everything in public schools. Teachers, counselors, nurses, deans, assistant principals, office staff — all have fallen victim to the budget axe.
None of this seems to register with Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, the force behind Vergara. He and other supporters of the suit insist that teachers should be able to transcend such conditions.
It hardly seems a coincidence that Welch went knocking on the doors of a big money corporate law firm whose clients have included Walmart (defending them in a huge employment discrimination case), Chevron (defending them in a $27 billion environmental suit) and Dole Food Company (defending them in a farmworker sterility case), among others. The firm’s involvement would seem a natural fit for a case that would eviscerate the rights of workers.
Perhaps educator Mitchell put it best: “How did we get to a point where corporate powers can cherry-pick some theoretical research about a complex problem and strike down imperfect but basically good laws, without offering alternatives?…Why should a few rich people’s opinions on the causes of failure in poor schools be allowed to trump social science and the democratic rights of educators?”
Important questions, indeed.
(Julie Gutman Dickinson is partner in the union-side law firm Bush, Gottlieb, Singer, Lopez, Kohanski, Adelstein & Dickinson. She serves on the Advisory Board of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.)
L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Two
Los Angeles teacher Laura Palacios confronts the second day of a citywide strike with coffee, doughnuts and a sore throat.
L.A. Charter School Teachers Also Flex Strike Muscles
Obscured by Los Angeles’ massive public teachers strike, a separate charter-schools walkout targets many of the same issues.
Teachers at three charter schools are decrying a lack of job protections and rising health-care costs.
A day after more than 30,000 teachers in the country’s second-largest school district went on strike, 80 teachers at three South Los Angeles charter schools coincidentally also walked out, marking only the second charter school teacher strike the nation has seen.
Earlier this month 99 percent of the teachers at the three schools operated by The Accelerated Schools (TAS) voted to authorize a strike. Their demands, aside from a pay increase, have been different from those of other United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) teachers who walked off on Monday.
TAS and UTLA had reached an agreement in March 2018 for an average salary increase of 17 percent for teachers working 195 days in the current school year. But sticking points remained, including binding arbitration to enforce the contract, “just cause” language to govern terminations or nonrenewals, so that teachers can’t be fired arbitrarily, and competitive health benefits. According to Hong Bui, UTLA’s Charter Representative, TAS management proposes to freeze the company contributions, so that any future increase in health-care premiums is borne by employees. Bui noted that binding arbitration and just cause are “enjoyed by 90 percent of unionized teachers in Los Angeles County.”
Grandmother: “There is no excuse that we’re at this point. The money is there. We are not investing in the kids’ education as was promised.”
“Most unionized charter schools have some due process and just cause, but TAS schools do not,” Bui said. “Without these protections, the employer can and has made life unbearable for those teachers who speak up.”
Bui added that between 2016 and 2018, TAS schools had nearly a 50 percent staff turnover.
On Monday TAS co-founder and CEO Johnathan Williams said, in a prepared statement: “TAS presented UTLA with a new offer that included a process for teachers with strong performance evaluations to receive a guaranteed two-year contract with a $2,000 bonus upon completion. UTLA refused the offer. Teachers who are doing a great job for students will always have a place at TAS. On behalf of our students, we implore UTLA to work with us to find a reasonable resolution that puts kids first.”
Los Angeles has the nation’s most charter schools, with 277 independent and affiliated schools serving more than 154,000 students. The breakdown can get complicated: District-affiliated charter schools are directly operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and their teachers are part of the larger strike that began Monday against the LAUSD.
Union: Between 2016 and 2018, The Accelerated Schools had a nearly 50 percent staff turnover.
Thirty-seven independent charter schools are unionized, and some of those unionized schools, like TAS, are represented by UTLA, while others are represented by the California Teachers Association. (Disclosure: The CTA is a financial supporter of this website.) But their collective bargaining agreements are negotiated with the charter school management, not LAUSD. The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) estimates that 30 percent of charter schools in the state have some form of a collective bargaining agreement or representation.
At a news conference last week, teachers emphasized that their goal is to improve teacher retention by increasing teacher protections. German Gallardo, who has taught 12th-grade history at Wallis Annenberg High School for the past two years, says that educational progress cannot be made with high teacher turnover. “I have students who have missed teachers for a year, and that inconsistency hurts when we send them off to college,” he said, referring to students who had substitutes for an entire school year.
Randi Weingarten: Educators are not the ones who have framed public schools and charters as competitors. “That’s done by people like Austin Beutner.”
Second-grade teacher Simone Barclay told Capital & Main that TAS instructors are technically “at will” employees without the ability to appeal dismissals, and who don’t know whether their contracts will be renewed year to year. “It creates anxiety and stress and doesn’t allow us to advocate for our students, whether it is [for] special education or resources for our classroom. And it leads to much higher turnover,” Barclay said.
The TAS strike comes after the release of a report by a state-appointed fact-finding panel that included recommendations for resolving many of the outstanding contract issues at TAS.
In the past year there has been a groundswell of public teacher walkouts and strikes in states including West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky and Colorado. But until December’s walkout of 500 charter educators in Chicago, strikes at charter schools were unheard of. According to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), between 10 and 12 percent of the charter school sector nationwide is unionized, and the rapid growth of charter schools is outpacing the growth of unionization. (Disclosure: AFT is a financial supporter of this website.)
California’s explosive charter growth and competition for students have made charter detractors worry about those quasi-public schools siphoning resources from traditional schools. UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said teachers are asking for “common-sense regulations on charter school growth” as part of their contract demands, making the concurrent strikes by TAS and LAUSD school educators, in theory, somewhat awkward, although teachers at both schools have told Capital & Main that, no matter where they work, they are in solidarity with one another.
Until last December’s walkout of 500 charter educators in Chicago, strikes at charter schools were unheard of.
Randi Weingarten, president of AFT, said educators are not the ones who have framed public schools and charters, per se, as competitors. “That’s done by people like [LAUSD Superintendent] Austin Beutner . . . and that creates a survival of the fittest. For years they have said that competition in schools is good, but this is a very wrongheaded premise.”
“The charter school industry said their teachers are private school employees,” Weingarten added, “but most charter schools by laws are public schools funded by taxpayers and must enable a voice for parents and educators.”
Charter school supporters, such as TAS founding member and grandmother Hilda Rodriguez-Guzman, say that charters ideally provide a higher quality and more robust education with more flexibility.
“But that’s not what’s happening [at TAS],” Rodriguez-Guzman recently admitted. “There is no excuse that we’re at this point. The money is there. We are not investing in the kids’ education as was promised. It is not acceptable that we keep losing good quality teachers and having substitutes. Sometimes we have computers teaching kids in high school, when they need that human instruction and interaction.”
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L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day One
Laura Palacios is a Los Angeles public school teacher married to another teacher. Today the mother of two joined 33,000 other union members in the first L.A. teachers walkout since 1989. This week Capital & Main will follow Palacios during the strike.
Why a Teachers Strike in Los Angeles Could Bring Big Rewards as Well as Risks
Los Angeles teachers’ demands have moved away from bigger raises and toward more funding to alleviate deep education cuts. But what would constitute victory for their union?
A teacher walkout would cast the strike as a challenge to the creeping absorption of public schools by charter management organizations.
If Los Angeles’ public school teachers go on strike Monday, they will face off against a school district headed by superintendent Austin Beutner, a multimillionaire investment banker and former L.A. Times publisher with no experience in education policy. Perhaps more important, this strike will play out on an education landscape that has radically changed since 1989, when the United Teachers Los Angeles union last walked out. Foremost has been the national rise of charter schools — which, in California, are tax-supported, nonprofit schools that operate within public school districts, yet with far less oversight and transparency than traditional schools. Only a fraction of charter schools are unionized, a situation preferred by the charters’ most influential supporters, who include some of California’s wealthiest philanthropists.
For 21 months negotiations have ground on between UTLA and the second-largest district in the nation. (The Los Angeles Unified School District enrolls 640,000 students.) The more nuts-and-bolts issues on the table include union demands for a 6.5 percent pay raise, a limit to class sizes (that can now hover around 38 pupils per classroom), and a push for more support staff such as nurses and librarians.
Kent Wong, executive director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center, notes that UTLA’s demands have moved away from larger raises and toward more funding to alleviate the deep education cuts that have been made over the years.
“It is important to understand the bigger forces at work here,” said Wong, who added that the pro-charter forces have invested millions of dollars to elect a pro-charter majority on the Los Angeles school board to shift resources from public schools to charters.
Recent teacher strikes “are not just about pay. They are about the quality of education.”
All strikes are risky undertakings and it’s an axiom that no one wins a strike. But a UTLA walkout would dramatically raise the stakes by casting the strike as a challenge to the creeping absorption of public schools by private charter management organizations.
“A strike is a big deal,” Wong said, because “you have this massive privatization scheme that’s been gutting support for public education and resources for public education. That’s the broader scenario that’s at stake here.”
A walkout by the Los Angeles union (whose 33,000 members include librarians, student counselors and other support staff) would have a recent, successful precedent. Against great odds, Chicago teachers won a seven-day 2012 strike, which became a model that transformed the school-community relationship and how teachers interact with parents. That strike was launched after a careful grassroots effort to build support among parents and the Chicago union; it is cited by Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, as a national example.
In Los Angeles signs have popped up in the windows of local businesses declaring, “We Stand With LA Teachers.”
“You could look at the Chicago teachers strike and say that was a brilliant strategy in terms of the level of community support,” said Jacobs. “But stepping back—teachers care about education. If you look at the strikes, they are not just about pay. They are about the quality of education.”
An all-in strike strategy may be risky for UTLA, but the union and others see peril for district management as well. “If [Beutner] is thinking it might be advantageous to provoke a strike,” said Jacobs, “given the recent history we have seen in states across the country and in Chicago, that seems like a foolish position to take.”
The issue in Chicago was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to close schools and the union’s push to keep them open. This was different from the situation in L.A. and in states along what Jacobs calls the “red thread”– West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, where the teachers joined with parents to oppose the underfunding of education that has occurred since the 2008 recession. Still, Chicago offers potential lessons for Los Angeles teachers.
Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs UC Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy, calls Chicago “the de facto leader of the teachers unions in the country.”
The Chicago teachers union would later reach out to teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, sharing their members’ experiences, he said, adding that, in organizing for a potential strike, the traditional big fear is that the parents are going to turn against the union. That didn’t happen in Chicago because of mindful base-building and teachers’ connections with their students and their parents.
That lesson hasn’t been lost on UTLA.
“The union will emerge stronger from this regardless of what happens. They have done a good job of mobilization among their members and with parents.”
In Los Angeles signs have popped up in the windows of local businesses declaring, “We Stand With LA Teachers,” and local parent groups have banded together to support the educators.
“I think the union will emerge stronger from this regardless of what happens,” Lichtenstein said of a possible UTLA strike. “They have done a good job of mobilization among their members and with parents. Things could turn around–a long strike and parents get upset—but I think UTLA is sophisticated enough to know what’s happening. They’d cut their losses.”
What would constitute “victory” for Los Angeles teachers?
“One definition would be very concrete things [like raises and staffing issues] —the union could win some of that,” Lichtenstein said. “The other definition is bigger—it could be the re-funding of public education in California and the country. This kind of strike is a powerful impulse to tell the [Democratic] supermajorities in Sacramento to modify Proposition 13, to bring new sources of funds so that school districts are not starved.”
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Los Angeles Teacher Contract Talks: The Sounds of Silence
With a January 10 strike deadline looming, little progress has been made in negotiations between teachers and their school district.
“I think universally there is support,” says ESL instructor Monica Braunstein. “Parents are saying, ‘What can we do to support the teachers?’”
Los Angeles’ public school drama resumed Wednesday amid a flurry of finger-pointing over responsibility for stalled contract negotiations between Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) that are now in their 21st month.
The new year began with an LAUSD press release charging that UTLA had refused the district’s offer to resume talks since the December 17 release of the state fact-finding panel’s report. “We are willing to work around the clock to resolve all of the outstanding issues, but we cannot make progress if UTLA will not even meet or engage in any discussions,” LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner said in the statement.
The panel’s report had tried to strike a compromise by urging LAUSD to at least partly agree to union demands for lowering class sizes with a modest set-aside for hiring more social services support staff, and for the union to accept the district’s six percent pay raise offer. But the fact-finders didn’t address such non-salary union issues as investments in community schooling, early and adult education, and putting limits on standardized testing. And it left untouched what has emerged as one of the negotiations’ most contentious issues — the district’s protestations of poverty even as it’s built up a nearly $2 billion surplus.
Later that Wednesday morning, Beutner claimed on KPCC radio that the district had asked the union to come back to the table over the holidays but that “UTLA has refused to engage in any kind of bargaining.” The superintendent again asserted that L.A. Unified did not have the money to meet all of UTLA’s demands and that it was up to the union to decide which of them were more important to their members than others.
That brought a quick rejoinder from UTLA, whose own press statement asserted the union hadn’t received a bargaining proposal from LAUSD since October 30 and that the union’s bargaining representatives were still waiting for a formal proposal outlined in informal emails sent by the district on December 28 and 31.
“Rather than formally communicate with the union that represents all LAUSD teachers,” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl declared, “Beutner once again tries to spin the narrative to make it seem UTLA is unreasonable.”
UTLA followed with a second statement Wednesday night that included a formal rejection of the district’s latest offer, which it described as “basically the same as LAUSD has been putting forward for months, just dressed up slightly differently.” The union added that its bargaining team would be available to meet on Monday, “if the district has a legitimate and clear offer for us to consider.”
In the meantime, both sides continue to brace for the January 10 strike deadline, with the district hiring about 400 non-union substitute teachers and promising that schools will remain open, and teachers at school sites organizing pickets. What remains unclear is how many students will cross those picket lines.
Like many UTLA teachers who are also LAUSD parents, Monica Braunstein, a 15-year adult education ESL teacher at the Abram Friedman Occupational Center, is hoping to avoid a walkout but says that if the mood at her son’s high school is any indication, then parents and students will be squarely behind the strike.
“I think universally there is support,” said Braunstein “The parents are saying, ‘What can we do to support the teachers?’ And there’s been debate. Parents are asking, ‘Are you keeping your kids home? Are you sending them to school?’ My son plans to go picket with the teachers and not cross the picket line.”
Braunstein and other veteran Friedman teachers have already had their hopes dashed by LAUSD’s refusal to negotiate the union’s demand that adult ed teachers be brought up to the same salary schedule as K-12 teachers.
The last time L.A. teachers struck was 1989’s nine-day walkout. According to Jackie Goldberg, who during that dispute was a school board member representing Board District 5 —a seat she is again seeking in the March special election — the relatively minor differences between the district and the union on salaries aren’t the sticking point this time around.
“It’s about the teaching conditions,” she said by phone. “We need more teaching assistants. Every school should have its own plant manager instead of sharing them. It’s ridiculous — [LAUSD is] behaving like we’re still in the Great Recession. Almost every other public agency in California has [restaffed] most if not all the [positions] they either didn’t fill or they laid off since the Great Recession. So we have huge class sizes — amongst the largest in the nation.”
One similarity between 1989 and 2019 that LAUSD’s current surplus dramatically illustrates, Goldberg added, is the district’s credibility problem over its pessimistic, annual three-year budget forecasts.
“In the last 30 years they’ve never been right,” she said. “No one’s saying spend all $1.8 billion. Spend half of it. Spend $800 million. Put $200 million [into] hiring 2,000 classroom teachers, reduce class sizes from the 45 that they are now, or the 40, depending on which school you’re at. There are things they could be doing right now and still put away a billion dollars for reserve.”
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Top Education Stories of 2018
We look back on 10 Capital & Main stories that reported on the changing conflicts within public education.
Bill Raden: It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken, following four decades of disinvestment and tuition hikes.
David Sirota: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. Now, however, prominent Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly have slammed the idea of offering taxpayer subsidies to the retail giant.
Co-published by Splinter.
Bill Raden: The state’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction will have a historic opportunity to correct the course of a system in which the public good has increasingly been compromised by the competing demands of private interest.
Gabriel Thompson: A January study found that 11 percent of students on the California State University’s 23-campuses reported being homeless during the past year. At Humboldt State nearly a fifth said they’d been homeless at one point during 2017.
Bill Raden: The Los Angeles Unified School District has more homeless students than many school districts have in total enrollment. In response, the district has created some innovative policies.
Deborah Klugman: When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many school districts take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk.
Bill Raden: In California, where 76 percent of its K-12 enrollment is students of color, diversifying public colleges and universities is a top priority.
Gustavo Arellano: There are over a dozen streets, parks or monuments in Orange County named after former Klan members — and one elementary school.
Bill Raden: Of California’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.
Bill Raden: Austin Beutner, who has no background as an educator, was widely seen as the more politically connected of two finalists, as well as being the prospect most sympathetic to charter schools.
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California Tries to Close Its College Degree Equity Gap
It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken, following four decades of disinvestment and tuition hikes.
Today, with California’s higher education system cartwheeling from one crisis to the next, the state’s vaunted Master Plan for Higher Education, which in 1960 revolutionized matriculation with a modern, multi-segmented system of public colleges and research universities, is being attacked as an obstacle to opportunity. Its outworn ideas of access and excellence have been rendered so thoroughly obsolete by demographical change and austerities that education reformers won’t waste their breath or political capital on a master plan redesign. Instead, change advocates are focused on improving delivery.
“We don’t need another blue ribbon commission or task force to study it,” argues Audrey Dow, senior vice president at the research and advocacy group Campaign for College Opportunity. “What we need is a governor who’s going to take action and say, ‘Okay, I’m setting the goal. I’m going to take these policies and make sure that ones [already] on the books are implemented. And then I’m going to add this, and then with my January budget, this is what I’m going to do.’”
That person would be Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who, on the campaign trail, embraced the idea — if not an actual number — of a state college completion goal. Sacramento has already passed a handful of reforms aimed at streamlining on-time graduations. After inauguration, Newsom will launch “California Promise,” his sweeping education agenda that includes some of the college access, affordability and infrastructure pieces that advocates like Dow insist are needed to close equity gaps.
It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken. Four decades of disinvestment and dizzying tuition hikes, on top of some of the country’s highest costs of living, have put its world-renowned, formerly low-cost degrees disproportionately out of reach for low-income students and students of color. This year, that sustained neglect was formally recognized when the university system that gave the world its fifth-largest economy slipped from its top rankings spot in the annual QS World University Rankings.
“The big story here is, we’ve had tremendous historical success,” notes John Douglass, a senior research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, who has written on the crisis. “But this system is starting to break down, and it’s just not clear where we’re going, and nobody’s offered a vision on how we can maintain access for Californians to our higher public ed system and the robust relationship of the universities with economic development.”
It’s little wonder that an election eve poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that a majority of likely voters said the level of state funding for public higher education was insufficient, and 61 percent thought there is not enough government funding for scholarships and grants for students who need financial help. That’s almost exactly the same percentage that cast their ballots for Newsom, who promised to make affordability and degree completion a top priority.
Better late than never. For the past decade PPIC has issued warnings that California risks crippling its economy if it doesn’t close what the nonpartisan research group says by 2030 will otherwise be a workforce skills gap of 1.1 million baccalaureate degrees. For a state that increasingly relies on — and rewards — highly educated workers to grow its knowledge economy, a degree deficit will translate into lower wages, reduced tax revenues and a widening chasm of income inequality.
Similar concerns in 2009 led the new Obama administration to set a national goal to have 60 percent of all 25-to-34-year-olds complete at least an associate degree by 2020. By 2017, 45 states had adopted or were considering their own college attainment targets. California, however, conspicuously failed to follow suit.
“There’s really been at the state level no real leadership to say, ‘Hey, this is the gap, this is how we’re going to close it, and we’re going to align policy and budget to that, to ensure we set an attainment goal, and hit that attainment goal,” explains Dow.
The irony, she adds, is that more Californians are going to college — and graduating — than ever before. This includes Latinos, who now account for half of the state’s K-12 students. But those numbers are too few and rising too slowly to meet the projected demand. Which is why the College Opportunity campaign has been lobbying Newsom to adopt a statewide college credential attainment goal of 60 percent of adults — or 1.7 million additional degrees — by 2030.
“Within that goal we have to be closing racial equity gaps,” she emphasizes. “There’s just no way that it’s mathematically possible for California to hit 60 percent without closing racial and ethnic gaps in attainment.”
What is possible is for Newsom to combine political leadership with an arsenal of research-proven strategies developed to mitigate the worst completion rates in the state. The 70 percent share of all California’s public college students who attend the 114-campus community college system is an artifact of the Master Plan, which designed the two-year colleges to take all the mostly underserved students whose grades left them ineligible for the elite four-year University of California, and who couldn’t get into the California State University system. Unfortunately, the 2.1 million community college students have only a 47 percent chance of graduating, transferring to a four-year school, or earning some sort of certificate after six years.
One of the more divisive methods being proposed to boost completions is a Jerry Brown pay-for-performance funding scheme from the Gates Foundation that would withhold part of the schools’ $6.7 billion in general funding until specific transfer targets are met. Newsom has remained noncommittal. An early success at clearing a transfer path to the CSUs was the Associate Degrees for Transfer program, in which any student with the certificate is guaranteed admission. Its effectiveness persuaded UC to sign onto a similar program last spring. There’s also Assembly Bill 705, which requires community colleges to consider high school grades rather than placement tests in order to reduce non-credit remedial coursework. Which was also the point last year of CSU’s controversial decision to simply do away with remedial classes altogether as it tries to double its 19 percent four-year graduation rate to 40 percent by 2025.
It is to eliminate such frictions that Newsom has vowed to revive a version of the defunct California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) to coordinate student-centered reforms across the UC, CSU and community colleges. Jerry Brown had eliminated CPEC in a 2011 line-item budget veto, claiming it had become “ineffective,” then vetoed a subsequent effort to revive it. The new commission will also oversee what could be Newsom’s most impactful proposal — an integrated data system to both track student progress and act as early-intervention radar by anticipating problems on the degree track. But as promising as that might sound on paper, university veterans of past budgetary battles may require convincing.
“At the moment, I don’t really know how high higher education is in Newsom’s agenda,” Douglass says warily. “I think it could be like Jerry Brown’s, which was not very high. The only issues he really cared about was the politically popular issue of freezing tuition, not looking at, well, what is the financial model? How can the system grow with the state’s population and needs?”
But Newsom’s campaign trail commitments to degree equity and to expanding affordability have already persuaded Dow and other college education advocates. The real proof will come in how much he’ll include for higher education in his first, January budget, and in how soon he’ll honor his campaign pledge to double the state’s current year of free community college or to expand Cal Grant B Access awards for low-income students as a pathway to a debt-free degree.
“Those are the costs that really put students into debt or keep students from going full time,” Dow argues. “We have to be thinking about time-to-degree as an affordability issue. When students at a community college take six years to complete, that’s four additional years that they’re paying for tuition when it should have been two years.”
The truth is, Dow would have good reason to be optimistic about any young governor entering office at the head of a mandate-like blue wave of legislative Democratic supermajorities, and with a projected $14 billion surplus to turn his promises into policies.
“We will see what happens,” she says.
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Will New York Fund Amazon Subsidies or Student Debt Relief?
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. Now, however, prominent Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly have slammed the idea of offering taxpayer subsidies to the retail giant.
Co-published by Splinter
Elections have consequences, and they may have particularly immediate consequences for billionaire Jeff Bezos, as newly empowered New York Democrats appear to be positioning themselves to try to block new state subsidies for Amazon, now that the online retailing titan has chosen New York City and Northern Virginia as new headquarters locations.
A day before last week’s midterm elections, when Amazon’s choice was still up in the air, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. “I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes,” said Cuomo, as reports surfaced about Amazon potentially moving in to Long Island City.
The next day, though, Democrats won control of the state Assembly and state Senate. Now, prominent Democrats in those chambers have slammed the idea of New York offering taxpayer subsidies to Amazon. And one lawmaker wants the legislature to decide between giving Amazon taxpayer largesse or addressing the state’s student debt crisis.
Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim announced that he will introduce legislation to slash New York’s economic development subsidies and use the money to buy up and cancel student debt — a move he said would provide a bigger boost to the state’s economy. The legislation, says Kim, would halt any Cuomo administration offer of taxpayer money to Amazon, which could reap up to $1 billion in tax incentives if it moves to Long Island City. The deal is a goodie bag for Amazon: It includes everything from a $325 million cash grant to a promise that taxpayers will help secure a helipad for Amazon executives.
“Giving Jeff Bezos hundreds of millions of dollars is an immoral waste of taxpayers’ money when it’s crystal clear that the money would create more jobs and more economic growth when it is used to relieve student debt,” said Kim, who recently published an op-ed with law professor Zephyr Teachout criticizing the Amazon deal. “Giving Amazon this type of corporate welfare is no different, if not worse, than Donald Trump giving trillions in corporate tax breaks at the federal level. There’s no correlation between healthy, sustainable job creation and corporate giveaways. If we used this money to cancel distressed student debt instead, there would be immediate positive GDP growth, job creation and impactful social-economic returns.”
New York has the most expensive set of corporate subsidy programs in the country, and a report by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that such subsidies “are not cost-effective, with either no statistically significant effects or large costs per job created.” Kim noted that in 2015 alone, New York gave out more than $8 billion in corporate incentives. He pointed to a recent study by the Levy Institute that found cancelling student debt would result “in an increase in real GDP [and] a decrease in the average unemployment rate.”
In New York, student debt has ballooned. A 2016 report by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office found that “the delinquency rate among New York student loan borrowers rose by more than a third over the past decade while average borrower balances in the State increased by nearly 48 percent, to $32,200.” A memo outlining Kim’s bill says the legislation would empower New York officials to “exercise their eminent domain powers to buy, cancel, and/or monetize the state’s out of control student debt,” which the memo says totals more than $82 billion.
Kim’s move followed criticism of a possible Amazon deal by Senator Michael Gianaris, who led Democrats’ successful effort to win control of the chamber, and who is expected to be in one of the Senate’s top jobs.
“Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong,” Gianaris and City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, both of whom represent Long Island City, said in a press release. “The burden should not be on the 99 percent to prove we are worthy of the one percent’s presence in our communities, but rather on Amazon to prove it would be a responsible corporate neighbor.”
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California’s Schools Chief: Why a Low-Profile Job Matters — And Is Awash in Election Money
Whoever is elected Superintendent of Public Instruction in November will have a historic opportunity to correct the course of a system in which the public good has increasingly been compromised by the competing demands of private interest.
What makes the superintendent far more than a glorified administrator is the authority that comes with a popularly elected mandate.
The most persuasive evidence that the California Dream is rooted in Enlightenment notions of free public education, democratic governance and equity can be found in the state’s founding document. Not only does the 1849 Constitution sketch out the contours of public schools, accountability, a funding mechanism and a Department of Education, but the framers stipulate that it be led by an elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI).
Fast-forward 169 years to the election of a new superintendent and the latest test of California’s commitment to its foundational cornerstone. The stakes are high. Though California spends 40 percent (or $56 billion) of its $138 billion budget on its six-million student public school system, the past four decades have seen the state slip from among the top-five states for school funding to consistently ranking in the bottom five. Whoever is elected on November 6 will have a historic opportunity to correct the course of a system in which the public good has increasingly been compromised by the competing demands of private interest.
What, exactly, does the superintendent do? The political shorthand typically describes the $175,000-a-year position as Sacramento’s elected equivalent to Betsy DeVos, the Trump-appointed U.S. Secretary of Education.
The superintendent can use the post’s bully pulpit to act as a super-lobbyist
on behalf of students.
On paper, the SPI interprets regulations, sets curriculum and teaching standards, collects school accountability data and manages the day-to-day business of the sprawling California Department of Education. The superintendent is thus an implementer but not a maker of policy — which is the bailiwick of the governor and his appointed president of the State Board of Education.
But those roles represent a great deal of power, and not just for their direct impact on California students and their families. Jack O’Connell, whose two-term tenure as schools superintendent immediately preceded Tom Torlakson’s election as superintendent in 2010, says the sheer size of the California Department of Education means that decisions by its superintendent reverberate far beyond state borders.
“There’s an organization that all 50 state superintendents belong to,” notes O’Connell, “and there’s a line on their agenda — ‘Hey California, what’s happening?’ Because [we’re doing] what’s going to come next [elsewhere]. So when we start requiring algebra in eighth grade, textbook companies are going to start putting algebra in eighth grade, and those are the same textbooks that other states are going to use.”
What ultimately makes the SPI far more than a glorified administrator or compliance officer is the authority that comes from having a mandate. Unlike the 37 states that follow the federal model by appointing the chief executive of their education agencies, California is among a select group that gives voters the final say. Winning a statewide election translates into power, says Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies, and the director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State University, Sacramento.
“You look at other states, like Texas, [where] the Commissioner of Education is appointed. This position is different,” Heilig explains. “The Superintendent of Public Instruction is not beholden to the governor but is setting an agenda for education. So it’s a really important office. Teacher associations have [the superintendent race] as one of their top priorities, because they understand the sort of independence that this elected official has.”
That institutional independence, plus the opportunities afforded by the SPI’s automatic seat on the State Board of Education, has evolved into an almost mystical power of personal persuasion. Superintendents often refer to it as “the bully pulpit,” though during the 1960s, that term was realized in its worst sense — when populist Republican segregationist Max L. Rafferty used his pulpit for declaring war on the counterculture, and became a national figure in the process.
In its best sense, however, the SPI can use those powers of persuasion and independence to act as a kind of super-lobbyist and coalition-builder from inside or outside the state schools bureaucracy to advocate for students. Democrat Bill Honig, who spent a decade in the job from 1983 to 1993, was renowned for his public battles with Republican Governor George Deukmejian. In 1990, that meant organizing a statewide resistance against Deukmejian’s attempted cut of $800 million from the schools. Honig calls it the “convening power,” and he credits Torlakson’s mastery of it, in tandem with Jerry Brown, for transformative changes like Local Control Funding Formulas, alternative school-accountability measures and bringing Common Core to California.
“This is a very complex educational system in California, with local school districts and boards, and teachers, unions, counties, the Department of Ed and the State Board,” Honig says. “I mean, there’s a lot of moving parts. When we are the most effective is when we’re moving in a common direction under a common philosophy, and that’s what’s happened in the last eight years under Brown and [board president] Michael Kirst and Tom Torlakson.”
Democrat Delaine Eastin concurs. State schools superintendent from 1995 to 2003, Eastin had to operate under both the governorships of Republican Pete Wilson and Democrat Gray Davis. It was under Wilson that she similarly found herself politically isolated and facing a hostile governor, who she also had to sue for illegally withholding money from schools. She adds, however, that effective independence can also depend on the determination of the individual occupying the office.
“Having a voice at the table that’s steadfast and articulate is really important,” Eastin says. “The superintendent can be ineffective if the superintendent sits on his hands, or her hands. But it is important that the superintendent be nimble and to not paint with too broad a brush. … Sometimes you have to go toe to toe.”
The superintendent race has already attracted the inflationary levels of campaign spending by education PACs and independent expenditure committees that critics say is rattling the integrity of California elections. But the June gubernatorial primary reached a new spending height with a political belly flop that was solely the work of a PAC controlled by the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). In a failed attempt to boost the election hopes of pro-charter candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, the charter lobbying group dropped $22 million into the former Los Angeles mayor’s flagging campaign against Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.
Now, five weeks out from the general election, the only option open for charter school forces is to repeat that performance by pulling out the money stops in the superintendent’s race, where Marshall Tuck, a former Los Angeles charter school operator in his second run for superintendent, is facing teachers-backed Tony Thurmond, a progressive Assemblymember and former social worker from Richmond. The two Democrats finished the primary with Tuck barely edging out Thurmond, 37 to 35.6 percent. Although officially nonpartisan, the PAC spending makes the race the latest proxy for the broader battle between progressives and neoliberals for the soul of California’s fractious Democratic Party.
Because charters are ground zero for that fight in California education, it’s little surprise that Tuck and Thurmond’s sharpest differences revolve around fixes to the state’s deeply divisive charter school law. Public schools have long complained that the law’s authorization and funding mechanisms doom struggling schools and push fiscally stressed districts into insolvency. Thurmond has said he’d consider supporting a “pause” to new charters; Tuck has flatly rejected any brake to charter expansion but would give extra funding to districts hemorrhaging enrollment to keep them afloat during downsizing.
The issue has made Superintendent the only non-ballot initiative race to make the California Fair Political Practices Commission website’s “Top Ten” list of heaviest PAC spending for the general election. Recent filings with California Secretary of State show the Tuck campaign far out front in the super-PAC money race, with Tuck at $14.3 million, mostly from EdVoice for the Kids PAC, a charter PAC associated with Reed Hastings, the billionaire Netflix CEO and a major charter school funder. The Thurmond campaign stands at roughly $5 million, mostly from unions. (Disclosure: Some of Thurmond’s campaign contributors are financial supporters of this website.)
At the end of the day, the effectiveness of any superintendent hinges on an ability to strike an amicable working partnership with the State Board of Education and the governor — to move an agenda in “a common direction” under a common philosophy. And if bad blood left by the charter lobby’s bare-knuckle primary campaign against Gavin Newsom should mean that a Superintendent Tuck wouldn’t be off to a running start with a Governor Newsom, there’s still plenty of common ground between the two camps on school funding, early education, California’s teacher crisis and closing the achievement gap.
But whoever wins, there remains a unique opportunity for a superintendent and governor on the same philosophical page to change the paradigm for reform and bring peace to a destructive quarter-century of charter-versus-public school warfare that has come mostly at the expense of students.
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Living Homeless in California: The University of Hunger
A January study found that 11 percent of students on the California State University’s 23-campuses reported being homeless during the past year. At Humboldt State nearly a fifth said they’d been homeless at one point during 2017.
Homeless students told of sleeping in the woods and of completing research assignments at McDonald’s, to take advantage of free Wi-Fi.
In August of 2016, Chanté Marie Catt left her home in Redding, in the Sacramento Valley, to begin her first semester at Humboldt State University. Catt was 36, with a boyfriend and 1-year-old daughter, and possessed a booming laugh and no small amount of confidence. After nearly two decades running her own pet-care business in Los Angeles, she had begun to feel limited by her lack of a college degree, and several years earlier followed her parents north and enrolled at Redding’s Shasta College. The transfer to Humboldt had her dreaming of towering redwoods and cool ocean breezes. “We were excited to start a new life, maybe buy a house,” she says.
The couple tried to find a place from Redding, scouring Craigslist for openings without luck. In person, Catt figured, her prospects would improve. Once they had checked into a campground north of the university and enrolled their daughter in daycare, she dedicated her time to visiting property management companies. A week went by, then another. She paid application fees to management companies—$20 here, $43 there—and called through every listing she found, but even with a solid credit and rental history, never heard back. The family bounced from one campsite to another, with occasional stops at a motel to clean up. It was an expensive way to live, and she rapidly blew through $16,000 in financial aid and student loans. One day, out of a combination of anger and desperation, Catt took to Craigslist from her motel room. “I’m a sociology student,” she wrote, “starting research on our homeless students and on the property management companies here. Anyone want to share their stories!?”
Within hours, she received more than 150 responses. Homeless students told her of moving from couch to couch, of sleeping in the woods and of completing their research assignments at McDonald’s, where they took advantage of free Wi-Fi. “My children are cold, we are broke from all the rental application fees and I’m tired of it,” wrote a mother of two. A graduate student who worked full-time revealed that he was living in his car for the second consecutive semester: “I never knew it would be this hard to find a place to rent.”
Several weeks later, while still homeless, Catt had organized a campus group, the Homeless Student Advocate Alliance, and was spending her free time passing out fliers to attract more members. They weren’t hard to find. “Every couple of students I talked to was experiencing some sort of displacement,” she says. For many students at Humboldt, going to college meant becoming homeless.
One homeless-student conference included workshops on outdoor living, covering topics like how to light fires to keep homework dry.
The true scale of this crisis was revealed last January in a groundbreaking report commissioned by the California State University system. The study found that 11 percent of students on the university’s 23-campuses reported being homeless during the past year. The problem was most acute at Humboldt State, where nearly a fifth of the student body had been homeless at one point the previous year.
“In large part, students are homeless because they don’t get enough financial aid,” says Jennifer Maguire, a Humboldt social work professor, who co-authored the study with Rashida Crutchfield of Long Beach State. “It’s even worse here, because we’re in a rural area with a very limited housing stock.” According to the North Coast Journal, a local newspaper, there aren’t even enough rental units in the city of Arcata, where the university is located, for the students who need housing—much less anywhere else. And while the university plans to build more student housing, it can currently only guarantee slots for first-year students.
This shortage allows landlords to crank up rents and reject applicants at whim. For students without a financial cushion, the situation can quickly turn into a full-blown emergency—and in the CSU system, that’s a lot of students. More than half the students at Humboldt are the first in their family to attend college, and a third are Latino. Many work full-time; some have kids. “The ‘non-traditional’ student is now the traditional student,” says Maguire.
On a cool April morning, more than 200 people packed into a theater at the College of the Redwoods in nearby Eureka, for a forum on homelessness co-hosted by Humboldt State. “I mentioned to a community member last week that I would be attending this summit today and she asked me, ‘What does homelessness have to do with HSU?’” said Humboldt State president Lisa Rossbacher. The crowd laughed, which represented at least some progress. It’s no longer a secret that Humboldt State students struggle with homelessness.
“My children are cold, we are broke from all the rental application fees and I’m tired of it,” wrote a Humboldt State University student.
Much of the progress is due to the efforts of activists like Catt. After several months of homelessness, her family eventually landed an apartment, thanks in part to an emergency welfare grant. By that time, she had organized the homeless student alliance, which was pressing the university to finally address the problem. Last fall, the group held a three-day conference at Humboldt State that included workshops on outdoor living, which covered topics like how to light a fire and keep your homework dry. On the third day, a group of students put up tents on the quad and stayed for two nights. They then moved to the library, which they occupied, and demanded that it remain open 24 hours a day to give homeless students a safe and warm place to be.
The next day, an administrator contacted Catt and offered her the position of off-campus housing liaison, which had been one of the alliance’s demands. Since January, Catt has worked with more than 100 students, many of whom are in need of housing or have dealt with retaliation from landlords. It’s a start, though there are limits to what she can accomplish. One student who was living out of her car recently came to Catt’s office, and Catt gave her a code to the campus lockers, which are normally reserved for students taking physical education classes. The student broke down in tears at the prospect of a hot shower. A few days later, Catt texted her that a landlord had recently called with a room to rent, but the student had moved back in with her parents. “She told me it had just been too cold out there,” says Catt.
A couple of days after the homeless summit, I met Jasmine Bigham, a 23-year-old transfer student, on the steps of the campus library. Like Catt, she had arrived at Humboldt in 2016, and anticipated finding housing within a week or two. “Weeks turned to months,” she says. She spent a semester living out of her Subaru Outback, searching for places to park at night that looked safe, then curling up on the back seat. She didn’t tell her parents. “No parents want their kids living like that,” she says—and anyways, they didn’t have much extra money. Bigham is from a small town in neighboring Siskiyou County, and before college had lived inside a metal shop designed to store tractors and supplies; her parents created walls by hanging tarps. “I sort of grew up having to figure shit out,” she says.
Homelessness has caused Jasmine to give up on some dreams. She wants a college education, so that means giving up a home.
After a semester in the Subaru, she bought a used trailer for $1,000 and parked it at a KOA campground for $600 a month. That felt safer, but then the trailer’s ceiling collapsed and an intoxicated neighbor harassed her, so she left for a room in a house that was infested with mold and rats. She could only handle the grime for so long, so last year she sold her Subaru and plowed the rest of her savings—which she earned by waitressing in Lake Tahoe—into a GMC van. Since January, she’s been living at a parking lot next to student housing.
As we walk from the library to the parking lot, Bigham outlines her semester budget. Scholarships nearly cover her tuition, and she’s in charge of the rest. Right now she’s not working, because she’s taking 19 units, the maximum allowed. The parking pass is $180 a year, and she rents two lockers, at $5 a piece, for the semester. Each day she stops by the campus food pantry, where she fills plastic containers with soup and picks up rice and beans. She describes the area around campus as a food desert but in reverse—filled with only “really expensive healthy food” that’s out of her reach. She takes a bus to Eureka, then walks a mile to reach a more affordable grocery store, where she can load up on quinoa, bell peppers and mangos. She has a camping stove, or else prepares meals for the week at friends’ homes.
At the parking lot, she points out several other vehicles where students are living. She’ll graduate in December, and tells me that when she returns this fall she hopes to get the other homeless students to park together, to create a greater sense of safety. She opens the back of her van, which is meticulously organized: a plastic container for her clothes, a folded mattress she bought on sale at Ross Dress for Less, an ice chest and cans of beans. “I had to learn what food stays good and what doesn’t,” she says.
Bigham tells me that she’s always felt different. She is an African American from an all-white rural community. She grew up on a “broken-down ranch” with cows and pigs, while many students at Humboldt talk about eating meat as if it were a crime. “The hardest thing is people not understanding,” she says, leaning against her van. “If you talk about how people don’t have enough to eat, they say, ‘Well, why don’t they just feed themselves?’”
Homelessness has caused her to give up on some dreams. She loved track, and was recruited by a couple of larger colleges to throw the javelin, but didn’t want to live in a big city. She hoped to continue with athletics, but juggling a full academic load while being homeless didn’t leave much room for anything else. She shrugs and smiles. “You can either be sad or you can figure it out. If you don’t have money, but you still want to do things, you have to give up something,” she says. She wants a college education, so that means giving up a home.
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