Nan Austin

Student woes, teacher raises in the news of 1915 – sound familiar?

A century ago, educators were tackling the issue of high numbers of children with problems overwhelming the system. California teachers, the highest paid in the country, made an average of $950 a year. The argument of the day centered on giving raises high enough to own a farm, necessary to bring in more men and stabilize the profession.

Those and other tidbits come from articles in 1915 in the Modesto Evening News, precursor to The Modesto Bee.

The same themes generate discussion today, though since the article of Nov. 27, 1915, the average wage of a California teacher has grown about 7,400 percent to more than $70,000. Minimum wage, for comparison, was 16 cents an hour in the Golden State or about $333 a year in 1916. In 2016, that will rise to $10, a 6,250 percent increase over 100 years, to $20,800 a year.

This fall, the two largest districts in Stanislaus County were formally at impasse in contract negotiations for the year now half over.

The Turlock Teachers Association wanted more and better training, binding arbitration and fewer mandatory meetings, said President Julie Shipman in October. The union had agreed to Turlock Unified’s salary offer of 4 percent if it came with binding arbitration, asking a partial percent more without it.

In November, the Modesto Teachers Association and Modesto City Schools declared their long-simmering negotiations at impasse. Salary is a key issue, with the district offering the same 4 percent it gave other employee groups and the union asking 7.3 percent, according to a district update. The difference in dollar terms is roughly $4 million in teacher pay and associated taxes, plus 3.3 percent more for other employees under “me too” contract clauses. School-day times and grade deadlines are among the other issues on the table.

Both unions have framed the disputes as centered on disrespect of teachers, shown by a general fattening of district office staffs and salaries and by refusing to work with teachers as true collaborators. With the growing teacher shortage, they say, districts need to make strides to ensure stability in their workforce and show they regard teachers as professionals.

Three out of four teachers, by the way, are still women. No word on how many own farms.

Students still have problems, with those that worried educators 100 years ago just the beginning of a far longer list.

Under the startling headline “School Children Are Sixty Per Cent Defective,” a Dec. 11, 1915, Bee article listed deficits found in California students: An average of 35 out of 100 had bad teeth, 15 had poor eyesight, and 10 were “afflicted with adnoids.”

Student problems have gained focus in recent years as research has linked health and home issues to low achievement. While poverty is not the only factor, it has a strong correlation with all of the above and children living in poverty have become a majority in this state, 60 percent. The figure marks the number qualified for free or reduced-price lunch under California’s low-income threshold, which is about twice the federal poverty level.

In Stanislaus County, that figure is 68 percent. In Merced County, an astounding 81 percent of schoolchildren qualified as low income in 2014-15 – the highest percentage in the state.

The Dec. 11, 1915, headline may also have been referring to allergies, asthma or chronic sinus infections, all of which we still have in abundance in the Valley. Nationally, asthma is a leading chronic illness among children, with about 10 percent of students likely to have the condition.

Dental problems continue to cause a high number of absences, with 17.5 percent of school-age children suffering from untreated cavities, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Schools now have the option of providing more services for students who need glasses and dentists, through community-driven budgeting called the Local Control and Accountability Plan, or LCAP (pronounced L-cap). In this region, most services being added for students tend toward counseling, grief support for children who have lost family members and improving behavior.

The hard-to-read state LCAP report forms make it difficult to see how district services are changing, or how they compare to other districts. As funding rises, which it is doing in most districts in the Valley, this becomes increasingly important for community members to know if they hope to see changes in education.

“The Local Control Funding Formula is a huge opportunity for parents to shape the vision for your children’s education and make it happen,” sums up the California State PTA website, which provides one of the best guides to being a citizen advocate.

Another good source of information is the site, which devotes a page to demystifying the LCAP process at

The concept of local control goes down the tubes if community members stay home, leaving the few parents already on school committees to speak for them. Especially in Stanislaus, Merced and Tuolumne counties, the multitude of tiny districts means many more citizens need to step up and speak up to make sure the community is part of the process.

A century ago, making sure the schools were run well was considered such a community function, city leaders often ran them.

In the intervening years, school districts all became separate entities and state lawmakers created a labyrinth of regulations deciding how they should spend their money. Local boards had little choice but to sign off on budgets largely out of their control.

Now some of that power is back, but is a breathlessly busy public ready to wield the control it wanted?