The fight for healthy, safe schools

Alex Caputo-Pearl with his daughter Ella and the Reclaim Our Schools Organizers outside the offices of privatizer Bill Siart in February. In a followup to the protest outside the Netflix building in December, parents, students, and educators called for Siart and his billionaire friends to stop spending millions of dollars each year to privatize public education and to instead work with the community to get all students and all schools the resources they deserve.

Above: Alex Caputo-Pearl with his daughter Ella and the Reclaim Our Schools Organizers outside the offices of privatizer Bill Siart in February. In a followup to the protest outside the Netflix building in December, parents, students, and educators called for Siart and his billionaire friends to stop spending millions of dollars each year to privatize public education and to instead work with the community to get all students and all schools the resources they deserve. 

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From the student movement to the All In campaign, we can do this

On a weekend a couple of months ago, I was walking out of a store on Jefferson Boulevard in southwest LA when I heard a couple of familiar voices: Dorsey High School students Tayah Hubbard and Christabel Ukomadu.

Just a few weeks earlier I had seen them speak at an event on how students are organizing for educational justice. In our conversation on the sidewalk, they spoke about their organizing toward a citywide February 24 forum and their push on the district for more health and human services professionals and funding for a Community Schools model. They talked about the random searches in LAUSD that disproportionately and negatively affect black and Muslim students and that research finds to be ineffective and counter-productive, and their work to find alternatives — alternatives that create healthy and safe schools for all.

In the wake of the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, and in this moment of national movement among youth on the issue of gun control, it is inspiring to have youth leaders like Tayah and Christabel here in Los Angeles. As we continue to sort out what happened with the accidental shooting at Castro Middle School, a situation in which we are lucky that more injuries did not occur, and as we learn that Castro had not had a psychiatric social worker in years, it is essential that voices like Tayah and Christabel’s, and the voices of their substantial citywide base of students, be heard on the dramatic need for more counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, educators, and other staff. 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has indicated support for arming educators with guns. This is the most dramatic reflection of a lock-down mentality about schools, an approach that has been roundly rejected by studies across the board, the most recent of which are summarized in this month’s Education Week article, “Why Security Measures Won’t Stop School Shootings,” by Bryan Warnick of Ohio State University, Benjamin Johnson of Utah Valley University, and Sam Rocha of the University of British Columbia. 

Arming teachers not only disregards the trust and relationships that are crucial between educators and students, but it also is an on-the-cheap proposal from people — in this case Trump and his budget-cutting Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — who are unwilling to invest the hundreds of millions of dollars that it actually takes to create nurturing, healthy, safe, and secure environments in schools through class-size reduction and the hiring of trained health and human services and other professionals.

Arm us with counselors, nurses, and manageable class sizes, not guns. 

Our union is the vehicle to win healthy and safe schools
On February 26, in the same month as the incident at Castro and the tragedy in Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the Janus case — the billionaire privatizer-funded suit aimed to undermine unions nationally and to overturn decades of established law. The court, with Trump’s appointment as the swing vote, is likely to go against us. There is deep irony in this attack, in that educator unions are the most important vehicle that can get us to truly healthy and safe schools. UTLA is unique organizationally in Los Angeles, for example, in that we bring expertise in education, breadth across the entire city, depth in potential alliances with parents, powerful reach to Sacramento, and an ability to collectively bargain school conditions and take legal job actions in support of that bargaining. This is a uniquely powerful combination of elements wrapped into one organization that can move us forward on issues of healthy and safe schools.

Given these stakes in protecting our union with the coming of Janus, UTLA is taking leadership in the labor movement nationally with our All In re-card campaign, something that is now being replicated across the U.S. In response to Janus, and to come into the post-Janus world more powerful than we were before, every member is recommitting to the union by signing a new Janus-proof membership card that will hold up under the potential new legal structure after the decision. This takes the legal steps we need, and builds unity in the process. Read more on Janus and the 'All In' drive >>

It has been incredibly moving to see the passion and energy with which UTLA leaders at school sites have been moving on the All In re-card campaign. At a great site meeting at Van Nuys Middle School in our Valley East area, chapter chair Ihuaku Ogbuagu and her co-workers reported proudly that 97% of their members had filled out the new membership cards, and that by the end of the week, it would be 100%. 

Shirley Avenue Elementary in our Valley West area had had some difficulty recently finding a new chapter chair — one of the few schools of our more than 800 sites that didn’t have one. After we had a productive discussion during a site visit about the need to be organized and united in the age of Janus, the educators at Shirley not only all filled out the new Janus-proof membership card, but also elected Mabel Amaya to be chapter chair and Robert Neumann to be vice chair. Moreover, a group of co-workers had volunteered to be on their Contract Action Team and 10 members became new contributors to PACE, our voluntary political action fund. Dramatically increasing PACE funds will be absolutely crucial to building our political program and electing Gavin Newsom governor, electing Tony Thurmond state superintendent, and, crucially, not only preventing privatizer Antonio Villaraigosa from becoming governor, but sending him packing—not to return to politics in California. Read more about the 2018 elections>>

Educators are stepping up across the city to protect and strengthen the crucial vehicle that is our union, and we need to continue that momentum, until 100% of members have filled out the new membership card and are contributing to PACE.

Our contract campaign is how we fight for healthy and safe schools 
We are proud that we all, together, won a great healthcare agreement through a strategy of escalating actions and building power through organizing.

We are proud that we had an overwhelming voter turnout and “yes” vote in the healthcare ratification.
Now, we need to use the same strategy of escalating actions and building power to win a good contract. 
We are proud that, taken as a whole, our contract bargaining package provides the most comprehensive approach to school health and safety in Los Angeles — through proposals for mental health, social-emotional, and other staffing, through proposals for effective student discipline and safety plan implementation with administrative accountability built in, and through proposals for class-size reduction, parent/educator decision-making, Community Schools funding, investment in special education, and the improvement of community conditions through our Common Good proposals.

These proposals on health and safety combine with those on salary increases, charter school and Prop. 39 co-location accountability, cuts in testing and top-down mandates, and more. 

At its core, our contract campaign is about the survival of public education in Los Angeles. If we don’t win salary increases and improvements in working conditions that attract and retain educators, a Community Schools model that reverses declining enrollment, key learning condition improvements that attract families, and provisions that put common-sense regulations on charters, we will go the way of Detroit and New Orleans, two other urban areas in which billionaire privatizer Eli Broad has played a key role. That would mean the emergence of a largely non-union collection of charter schools rather than a public school district, and with the loss of equity and access for our students, the loss of jobs and healthcare for us.

With escalating actions, we will shake money out of LAUSD for our economic bargaining proposals. But, that won’t be enough. Our escalating actions and political work must also get California out of 46th place among the 50 states in per-pupil funding. That is the only path forward to a sustainable financial future for public education, our students, our jobs, and our healthcare.

To this end, in our 20 x 20 campaign, we are launching signature-gathering as part of a statewide coalition to get the California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act of 2018 (formerly Make It Fair) on the November ballot. The measure would close the commercial property tax loophole that the wealthiest commercial property owners in the state have been jumping through for decades.

Moreover, Assembly Bill 2731 was officially introduced this month, with the Reclaim Our Schools LA community/labor coalition as sponsor and Assemblymember Mike Gipson as author. It closes a tax loophole on hedge fund and private equity managers and drives money toward public education. We are going to have to fight tooth-and-nail to get it passed. Read more about the Schools and Local Communities Funding Act and AB 2731 >>

But, our contract campaign is about much more than economic demands. Our escalation of pressure on the district must also have at its core non-economic demands that affect us and our students daily: support around school climate and student discipline, cutting testing and top-down mandates, more decision-making power for educators and parents on school budgets and other issues, and accountability for charters and Prop. 39 co-locations.

West Virginia sends us a signal
While every region has its own idiosyncrasies, the illegal strike organized by educators in West Virginia was rooted in the same dynamic we face in Los Angeles — a basic threat to the sustainability of public education. In West Virginia, it was more about school funding as it relates to not being able to hire enough educators to be in classrooms, and here in LA, it is more about school funding as it relates to a privatization movement that undermines our classrooms. But, fundamentally, both are about funding, basic regulation and standards, and whether elected officials will step to the plate to address those issues. While California, the richest state in the country, is, shockingly, below West Virginia (one of the poorest states in the country) in per-pupil funding, both states are abysmal when it comes to financing schools.

The educators in West Virginia organized and took risks. We will have to do the same.

And, 2018 is the year we will have to do it. This year gives us two strategic leverage points that we will not have in 2019 or 2020, as we prepare to fight for our healthcare again in 2020. We are in full contract negotiations, which only comes once every few years, and which allows us to legally open bargaining on all of our issues rather than just a select few. Moreover, 2018 is the year that will be dominated by governor and state superintendent elections, both of which will give unprecedented highlighting to issues of public education.

With these unique leverage points, the time to act is now to address salary, our working and learning conditions, and the basic sustainability of public education. As we escalate bargaining and actions in March, April, and May, we will make every effort to reach a contract agreement by the end of this academic year. To give maximum support to our bargaining team in this process, we must be strike-ready by May. In April and May there will be crucial actions in our escalation, actions in which every single member of UTLA must participate to exert maximum pressure.

Let me close with this. When you signed up to be an educator, it didn’t have “fight tooth-and-nail for a thriving public education system” in the job description. But, the reality is that that is part of the job description now. And, we can only do that together, every single one of us united.

We can be inspired by leaders like Tayah Hubbard, Christabel Ukomadu, Ihuaku Ogbuagu, Mabel Amaya, and Robert Neumann. We can do this. We will do this. Keep up your great work with our students, our families, and our union, and I will see you soon!