Opinion

It’s not a surprise teachers are striking. It’s a surprise they didn’t happen sooner

Scenes from the teachers’ strike in Los Angeles

Thousands of teachers involved with United Teachers Los Angeles have been striking since Jan. 14, 2019. These teachers are fighting for smaller class sizes, more staff and higher pay.
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Thousands of teachers involved with United Teachers Los Angeles have been striking since Jan. 14, 2019. These teachers are fighting for smaller class sizes, more staff and higher pay.

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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California Influencers this week answered the question: Sacramento, Los Angeles and Oakland schoolteachers have already gone on strike this year. What is the best way to avoid teacher strikes in the future? Below are the Influencers’ answers in their entirety.

Monica Lozano - President and CEO of the College Futures Foundation

California has long prided itself on being a visionary state. Yet for our children’s education, the Golden State has no clear long-term plan. Budgeting for education has become crisis-driven and highly political when it should be quite the opposite—thoughtful, practical, sustainable, with balanced consideration of the needs of students, teachers, schools, and the state.

The recent K-12 teachers’ strikes are a symptom of a much bigger problem. While they force a settlement over much-deserved salary increases and other benefits, the more fundamental issue of how resources are allocated continues unaddressed.

Our top leaders need to come together and examine the deep structural issues that impact our education system statewide, from the burdens of ballooning pension and healthcare costs to ever-increasing housing costs. There is no reason why California should rank 41st in the country when it comes to per-pupil spending. We have to make tough choices because resources are limited, but every decision should put student success first.

We cannot continue to let the youngest, most vulnerable populations in the state get caught in the middle. It’s time to take action for a meaningful and lasting solution.

Janet Napolitano - President, University of California

I think the issues facing many school districts around the state – particularly those that are resource-poor – require some innovative thinking by both school boards and teachers unions. And ideally these ideas would be discussed and worked out at the bargaining table, with both sides appreciating the others’ needs and striving to achieve a fair, workable solution. With many districts finding it difficult to remedy low teacher salaries within their limited budgets, perhaps the state could play a role. Sacramento could consider a tax cut for teachers, especially those in rural or underserved areas, or a similarly targeted student loan forgiveness program. Any such relief for teachers should also be extended to school counselors, advisors, nurses and other staff. Other approaches to support teachers could include assistance with professional development or adjustments to current sick and vacation leave policies. Understanding that strikes hurt students and teachers alike, in addition to school districts, it’s important that these issues be explored, if not negotiated, at the table rather than on the picket lines.

Eloy Oakley - Chancellor, California Community Colleges

Throughout California, the cost of living is making it difficult for students to afford their education. But they are not the only victims of the high cost of housing and transportation – educators are also victims. Whether you are a K-12 teacher or a faculty member in community colleges, making ends meet is tough. School districts and community colleges are understandably finding it difficult to keep up with the pressures to raise salaries, the challenges in recruiting faculty and the cost of funding retirement plans and medical benefits costs. Proposition 98 was passed by the voters to ensure that K-12 and community colleges had sufficient funds to cover the cost of a high quality public education system. Unfortunately, Prop 98 has created a ceiling not a floor for funding. Policymakers should rethink how we implement Prop 98. We should make certain that K-12 and community colleges have a high floor of funding and ensure that the nation’s most diverse public education pipeline has the funding and accountability framework it needs to produce a first class workforce.

Connie Leyva - California State Senator (D-Chino)

Going on strike is always the last option. Workers strike when they feel like their back is up against the wall and there is no other viable option. Respect is key! When workers – in this case, teachers – feel disrespected, it makes it difficult to get everyone on the same page for negotiations.

Of course, money is at the top of the list, but that is not just in the form of wages. Management must respect the job teachers do in educating our future, and teachers must appreciate the balancing act that administrators do. Understanding the role each plays will be a huge step in the right direction.

As a state, we must put our money where our mouth is and fully fund our schools. Every student must have his or her own desk and books, and every school have a nurse and mental health services. We should hire enough teachers so there are not 45 students in a classroom, and pay teachers a living wage and provide healthcare and a fully funded pension.

It is our job to ask ourselves these hard questions and then find solutions so teachers don’t feel like their only option is to go on strike.

Myrna Castrejon - President and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association

Recent teacher strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento have shined an important light on the truth: California’s public schools have suffered from chronic underfunding for too long. When the strikes began in January, California’s charter public schools made it clear that we must all come together and demand full-funding for all of our state’s public schools. However, we must also come together and address the fact that a persistent achievement gap exists within our state’s public school system and that there is a lack of opportunities available to our black and brown students who urgently need them.

We should all be marching together in Sacramento to increase funding for public education to improve academic outcomes so all kids can have access to the great schools they deserve. Why? Because our teachers deserve to teach in school conditions that are equal to the dignity of their profession. Because our parents must have a meaningful voice in raising the bar for academic achievement. And most importantly, because our students can’t wait.

Deborah Kong - Program Officer for The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

The people who teach and care for our youngest children should be celebrated as the “brain builders” of our society, according to a recent report by the Assembly Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education. Yet almost 60% of the workforce, comprised of mostly women of color, who are helping our children to learn and grow, must rely on one or more public income support programs, according to research by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.

It’s hard to focus on a child’s stage of development, what comes next, and how to challenge them at just the right level, a key practice for effective early childhood teachers and caregivers, when you’re worried about feeding your own family. Across early childhood and K-12, we have to do a better job at improving teacher compensation and work environments if we want to create a brighter future for our children.

Ling Ling Chang - California State Senator (R-Diamond Bar)

Since my tenure, I have made it a priority to engage with teachers and students, visiting schools and meeting with teachers. At each school, I have met hard-working and dedicated educators who care deeply about our students. I have also met bright young students who think the world of their teachers.

While I share the frustration regarding classroom size and lack of funding, it is important for all parties involved to talk through their differences and avoid strikes whenever possible because at the end of the day, kids are the biggest victims, and teachers would prefer to be in the classroom educating their students.

As the fifth largest economy in the world, California commitment to school funding has been near the bottom relative to the rest of the nation for years. Until we take education seriously and prioritize it in the budget, we will see disputes between teachers and school administrators play out across the state. We need to act now to not only support students and educators, but also take a hard look at how to improve public education before California loses its competitive edge.

Kim Belshe - Executive Director of First 5 LA

There are complicated, long-standing reasons behind these events. We need to stop pointing fingers and start joining hands, an approach that is working in Los Angeles.

The strike in Los Angeles lifted up the importance of smaller class sizes, counselors, school nurses, librarians and early learning. All of these issues require greater funding and the strike gave rise to a broader conversation about whether our schools and our teachers have the funding necessary to deliver a quality education, inclusive of both K-12 and preschool.

In June, LA’s voters will decide Measure EE, LAUSD’s first parcel tax in recent history to maintain and expand education funding for kids in pre-K to 12. The strike had many complicated and long standing points of origins, but adequate school funding would do tremendous work to address the teachers’ strikes of today and prevent future strikes tomorrow.

Cynara Lilly - Principal at RALLY Communications

Avoiding teacher strikes takes happy teachers – and unions that are less interested in blunt political action and more interested in the wellbeing of the adults they represent and the kids those adults teach. The strikes in Los Angeles resulted in big drama, and a lot of hardship for teachers and families, but very little gain at the end of the day. While we can all agree teachers need better pay, and more support, smaller bargaining units would also help do the trick. Smaller districts and smaller unions mean that administrations and teachers can work together to develop contracts that reflect the needs of the schools, kids, parents and teachers. Massive districts that serve hundreds of thousands of kids and have unions with tens of thousands of teachers are simply too big to serve anyone well – except maybe politicians.

Vernon Billy - CEO and Executive Director of the California School Boards Association

The root cause of teacher strikes is found not in Oakland or Los Angeles, nor in any of California’s local school districts. The solution to teacher strikes lies in the State Capitol, where lawmakers have failed to prioritize funding public schools at a level that meets the needs of students and, as a result, allowed California to fall behind the rest of the nation.

Forty years ago, our schools were rated top five nationally in per-pupil funding and had the results to match. Today, we rank 41st in per-pupil funding, 45th in the percentage of taxable income spent on education, 45th in student-teacher ratios, and 48th in the number of overall staff per student.

If California funded schools simply at the national average, funding would increase by nearly $2,000 per student. For a school of 500 students, that’s an additional $1 million for expanded curriculum and student services, class size reduction, and support staff like counselors and instructional aides – all issues that teachers unions have highlighted during the recent strikes.

Ultimately, the fight is not between labor and management nor between teachers and administrators, but between those who are committed to funding public education at an appropriate level and a state that refuses to provide students with the resources they need.

Michele Siqueiros - President of The Campaign for College Opportunity

I think we can all agree that it’s difficult to pay a teacher their true worth and that a flawed funding system in California only contributes to many teachers feeling undervalued. The fact remains that California spends far less than most states in per-pupil funding, and rising pension obligations have pushed many districts to the brink of insolvency. Future strikes can only be avoided if lawmakers have the courage to tackle rising health and benefit costs head-on and stakeholders must come together to demand increased investment in public education that puts student success first.

Rosie Arroyo - Chair of the Board for Hispanas Organized for Political Equality

In addition to providing better pay for teachers, class size reductions and addressing issues of inequity, we need solutions that address the core structural funding issues that are at the center of educational inequity. As a broad coalition of labor, education advocacy and good government groups are set to introduce an initiative in the November 2020 election to reform Proposition 13, the restructuring of this initiative will have to be a policy reform and debate that we will have to immerse ourselves in – putting communities first. With significant economic and social disparities facing students and families statewide, this will be an opportunity to move away from short-term, band aid solutions and take a hard look at what our communities need and what our values as a state are. We must all engage in the process and elevate community voice – including students, parents and teachers – to adequately address the structural funding issues facing our education system. Good policy is informed by practice and, as experts in the field, their perspective is critical. Given the dire state of our education system, the need for bold policy and investments to address systemic challenges is needed more than ever.

Mike Madrid - Principal at Grassroots Lab

The challenge of local school districts growing financially unsustainable mirrors the challenges facing other branches of local governments at the city and county level. Not surprisingly, the solution to these financial constraints are the same as well. We must first rein in costs, reform long term obligations, tie successful outcomes to increased spending and lastly seek additional revenue.

Growing pension obligations and unsustainable health care benefits have grown beyond sound fiscal management. Like any household budget, we must identify areas of waste and duplication – from administrative functions to travel budgets – let’s leave no stone unturned.

Second, we must meet reform future pension obligations and long term benefit packages to fit within the parameters of basic actuarial data and the dictates of basic mathematics.

Third, let’s incentivize outcomes and use the carrot of future resources as a way of enhancing outcomes. More student success should mean more dollars.

Finally, and only as a last measure, we should seek additional taxes at the local level in those areas that have first demonstrated the fiscal restraint and responsibility necessary to provide appropriate successful services to our students.

Student success must be the ultimate standard we use for our public schools. Funding levels must follow success. Without that cultural change the likelihood of future unsustainable financial schemes will continue long into the future.

Ted Lempert - President of Children Now

Our state’s leaders need to face the hard truth that we have not prioritized education. California ranks among the top per capita spenders in a range of government programs, but not in education, where we are well below the national average. And our teachers are paid less on average than other state and local public employees.

As part of investing more in education, we need to ensure our teachers are supported in two critical ways: First, they need to have other caring, well-trained adults on campus to help support students. Yet California ranks among the bottom states in the ratio of nurses and counselors to students. Second, teachers benefit from students who enter K-12 well prepared with early education. The state must ensure all schools have sufficient support staff on campus, and that all children have access to high-quality early learning.

Finally, all of us need to work with the education community to ensure that teaching is a truly valued profession that attracts the top college graduates. Parent, student, business, civil rights and community groups all want every student to have a well-compensated and highly-effective teacher in every classroom. Let’s work together to achieve that goal.

Rosalind Hudnell - Former President of the Intel Foundation

It is no surprise that the activism of teachers in California from decades ago has now resurfaced. But it is disheartening to recognize that the challenges remain the same. To believe it’s all about teacher pay diminishes the complexity of the conditions of our public school reality – that is where real solutions must be achieved.

Teachers are underpaid. Classrooms are too crowded. Facilities and supplies remain insufficient and disparities in property revenues and income continue to create disparate student outcomes. We likely spend too little on direct student support and too much on administration. Teachers have varying levels of acumen, experience and engagement. Unions and collective bargaining have both helped and become obstacles. Let’s face it, even with the enormous amount of money spent on education in our state, California lags behind the majority of states in the nation and there is blame everywhere. We should not be surprised at the recent teacher strikes. We should be surprised so much time has elapsed since the last ones.

Yes, strikes happen when negotiations break down and people believe they have no other option. They happen when history suggests previous attempts were fruitful even if the data shows a more complex legacy. Preventing future strikes will require improved communication, a deeper sense of trust from both sides and a willingness to negotiate in good faith towards a mutually agreeable outcome. And while all of that is needed, wise and a minimum expectation, it won’t solve the fundamental gap that remains in teacher expectations. So whereas it’s not just all about teacher pay, it is all about money and how our funding reflects the priorities we all desire along with the accountability to deliver for all students at the local and state levels.

We must resist quick fixes. Ballot issues focused on changing Proposition 13 for commercial property will drive more revenue if passed. However, if politicians can then redirect increased funding, leaders at both levels will continue to point fingers across the aisle and across county lines and new sources of funding will evaporate for the purpose intended. Let’s not forget that new funding from the California lottery was going to solve the educational funding gap. That clearly didn’t happen.

As long as education funding remains part of a political process of priorities that see fluctuations in local and state decisions, our children will remain ping-pong balls with some winning and many more losing.

Until we solve that fundamental issue, we won’t solve the teacher pay, accountability or respect gap. Stopping people from striking shouldn’t be the goal. Fixing the long-term issues must be.

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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