Democrats in the California state legislature approved Resolution 13-04.47 last week—also known as “SUPPORTING CALIFORNIA’S PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND DISPELLING THE CORPORATE “REFORM” AGENDA.” The resolution, sponsored (and probably written) by the California Teachers Association (CTA), California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and the California Faculty Association (CFA), the three largest unions representing teachers and university professors in the state, specifically criticizes two corporate reform organizations—Democrats for Education Reform (DfER) and Students First (Michelle’s Rhee’s organization)—because they
“see public schools as potential profit centers and children as measureable commodities . . . [support dismantling] free public education . . . and replace it with company run charter schools, non-credentialed teachers and unproven untested so called ‘reforms.”
However, the resolution makes no concrete commitment to do anything to actually curtail the growing power of billionaire philanthropists, investors and hedge fund managers, let alone increase funding for public education, protect teachers’ job security and academic freedom, or even improve learning outcomes for students. It merely “reaffirms” the Democratic Party’s
“commitment to free accessible public schools for all which offer a fair, substantive opportunity to learn with educators who have the right to be represented by their union, bargain collectively and have a voice in the policies which affect their schools, classrooms and their students.”
This resolution might be encouraging if it had any teeth, or even any credibility. However, the Democratic party (and the teachers unions) have continually watched idly (and in many cases encouraged) all the things they criticize in the resolution, including the growth of private, for-profit charter schools and online, digital and distance learning schemes; the erosion of teacher’s collective bargaining rights and the deterioration of student learning opportunities. Even the criticism that the reformists are reducing children to mere commodities rings hollow when virtually every politician, regardless of party (as well as most teacher and student advocates), has been calling for more STEM graduates, and for all students to graduate career- or college-ready—which is to say all students have a price on their heads and a value to employers. Never mind that there is currently a glut of STEM graduates and thousands of jobless science PhDs, while pretty much the only people getting jobs at all are those willing to accept low wage work in the service sector. Children are a commodity, and the less employers have to pay to educate them now, the more they save on their taxes and the less they’ll have to pay to employ them later.
The implication that the “reformists” are solely responsible for dismantling public education is also an obfuscation of the facts. California, which ranked 46th in per pupil spending in 2010-2011, spent $2,856 less per student than the rest of the U.S. and would have had to increase education spending by $17.3 billion to reach parity with the rest of the country (less than the $20 billion the state had slashed from its education budget between 2008 and 2011). California also fell to 50th in ratio of students per teacher and per librarian and 49th in ratio of students per counselor.
During the past decade the gap in per pupil spending between California and the rest of the nation grew each year, yet most of this was the result of cuts to state funding (often bipartisan), not because of policies of the reformists. This has been exacerbated by California’s increasing reliance on state taxes, rather than local property taxes—a consequence of Proposition 13, which passed in 1978, decades before Students First or DfER were even gleams in the reformists’ eyes. Prop 13 allowed businesses and wealthy homeowners to keep their property tax rates at 1978 levels, thus reducing revenues available for schools and shifting more of the burden onto the state. Prior to Prop 13, California’s schools received 53.7% of their funding from local property taxes and only 35.3% from the state. By 2010-1, they received only 29.8% from local taxes and 56.8% from the state. (Data from the California Budget Project)
If the Democrats truly cared about providing quality “free accessible public schools for all,” they could dramatically increase revenues by raising taxes on the wealthy and their businesses, increasing royalties on oil extraction (California is currently the 3rd largest onshore producer of oil in the U.S., yet it is the only oil producer with no severance tax and has a far lower overall tax rate for its oil producers than either Texas or Alaska), taxing marijuana sales and abolishing the death penalty and Three Strikes law. Democrats currently hold a super majority in both houses of the state legislature, giving them the power to raise taxes and override the governor’s veto, the first time they have had this power in 120 years. Instead, they gave us Prop 30, which imposes an infinitesimal tax increase on the wealthy and increases the regressive sales tax (which disproportionately affects lower income people), but barely holds education funding steady, thus maintaining California’s status at the bottom in per pupil spending (and restoring none of the $20 billion the schools lost over the past few years).
They could also reverse Prop 13 and dramatically raise the portion of education funding coming from local property taxes, thus reducing schools’ current dependence on the whims of state legislators and greed of the state’s business owners. Instead, they have made another nonbinding resolution and even this only proposes closing one of the initiative’s loopholes. If the lawmakers were to convert their Prop 13 resolution into law (something they so far have not attempted), property taxes on businesses would be reassessed “regularly” instead of being locked into their 1978 values. While this would certainly increase revenues, it still allows millionaires to maintain artificially low tax rates on their multiple multi-million dollar homes.
The notion that Democrats are opposed to privatization and the influence of millionaires is also patently false. Governor Jerry Brown, arguably the head Democrat in the state, created two of his own charter schools in Oakland when he was mayor there and used his powers as mayor to divert city staff members to charter school duty. Both charters were heavily funded by wealthy donors. Furthermore, Prop 30, which was pushed by Brown, initially permitted the funneling of tax dollars away from the free public K-12 system and into the pockets of private charter schools. He also proposed killing California’s transitional kindergarten program, which helps low income children catch up to their affluent peers by the time the reach kindergarten.
The resolution is nothing more than window dressing, an attempt by the unions to make their buddies in the Democratic Party appear to be pro-union, pro-teacher, and pro-education. The unions need this window dressing because they have done virtually nothing to resist the reform agenda. For example, when New York, Illinois and Los Angeles imposed Value Added Measures as part of their teacher evaluation plans, the unions whined and complained, but eventually rolled over and accepted it without a real fight. They argued that they couldn’t strike because it had been imposed by state law, in Illinois and New York, or by court order, in Los Angeles.
This is ridiculous and pathetic on several levels. First, when the state or courts dictate how teachers are evaluated—something that has historically been negotiated between the teachers’ unions and their school districts—they are shredding teachers’ collective bargaining rights. The unions have accepted this attack on collective bargaining in the name of democracy (or, more precisely, in order to not offend their patrons in the Democratic Party). Second, workers have a long history of striking despite injunctions, vigilantes, police violence and even armed suppression by the military or national guards, risking beatings, imprisonment, deportation and death. Indeed, most strikes were illegal during the 18th and 19th centuries. The 1936-7 Flint Sit-Down Strike was declared illegal. Sympathy strikes and General Strikes were made illegal in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act. The 1981 PATCO strike was declared illegal by President Reagan, resulting in the mass firing of air traffic controllers. Many of the strikes and protests in support of the 8-hour work day were declared illegal. Many of the Civil Rights, women’s rights, gay rights and anti-war marches were declared illegal.
Ultimately, if teachers and other workers want to retain their right to collective bargaining, let alone improve their working and living conditions, they need to be willing to engage in strikes and other forms of collective action, even if it sometimes involves civil disobedience. The same is true for changing the tax structure, increasing education funding, and keeping public education under the control of local communities rather than corporate boardrooms.