Schools LA Students Deserve campaign: Unapologetic about what students, educators need

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By UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl

Delivered (in its entirety) July 28, 2017 at the UTLA Leadership Conference


At the core of UTLA’s strategic plan is a very basic concept: If public education is to survive and thrive in Los Angeles, it is time for us to call the question on why our schools are being starved.

It is simply not acceptable that California, as the fifth largest economy in the world, stands at 46th among the states in per-pupil funding. It is simply not acceptable that the second largest school district in the country, a crucial civic institution, has the highest class sizes in the country.

California is the richest state in the nation and the LA area has more millionaires and billionaires than any other in the country.

There is an undeniable truth — the money is here to fund our schools. The billionaires and rich corporations are keeping that money from us. And politicians are helping them do this. It is time to call the question on that cynical arrangement.

Last year at this conference, I said that we would need to be prepared to make the crisis that our students face every day, into a crisis for leaders in LA and California by February 2018 — and that building to this 2018 compression point must involve us being ready to strike if we need to. With our contract having expired in June, our health benefits expiring in December, Donald Trump in the White House, and an LA School Board having been bought by billionaires, I am more convinced than ever of this path.

And I am more inspired than ever by our campaign for the Schools LA Students Deserve. Our union is the strongest it has been in years — from the removal of John Deasy in 2014, the big contract victory in 2015, the Build the Future, Fund the Fight initiative in 2016, and the organizing and contract enforcement muscles we have built each step of the way.

Look at the events of last year.

We led the way in the ballot box victories of Props 55 and 58. As we did this, we increased our political action fund, PACE, by 44% through hundreds of new member contributions.

We did this together and we are stronger because of it.


Above, the UTLA officer team at the Leadership Conference: United for the Schools LA Students Deserve.

With community partners, we launched the Reclaim Our Schools LA coalition. In June 2017, this coalition was the driving force behind a successful School Board resolution that commits LAUSD to invest in the Community Schools model. These are public schools driven by community-led assets and needs assessments and that feature broad curriculum, parent engagement, positive behavior support programs that are well-staffed, and wraparound services for families.

We did this together and we are stronger because of it.

Last year, the district offered far more schools to charters for co-location. Yet, we drove the number of actual co-locations down. Of the 23 school communities that built high-profile push-back campaigns, 19 of them —over 80% — successfully stopped co-locations. Out of these struggles, new parent leaders flowed into our parent leadership institutes.

We did this together and we are stronger because of it.

We launched rounds one and two of the “We Are Public Schools” media campaign featuring our everyday heroes, our classroom educators, on billboards, digital ads, bus benches, and more.

We did this together and we are stronger because of it.

With local teacher unions across the state, many of whom are in contract bargaining, and building now with community organizations, we formed the unprecedented California Alliance for Community Schools. On May 12, the alliance organized actions across the state in support of legislation that would bring common-sense regulations to charter schools. There is tremendous potential for deeper statewide coordination.

We are doing this together and we are stronger because of it.

We have strengthened contract enforcement and member representation. In 2014, when I came into office, there were 3,300 unresolved grievances jamming and slowing the system, sucking away our staff’s time, and leading members to lose faith in the union. That 3,300 is now down to 1,400 after years of staff working with members and the district to productively resolve cases, and clearing other cases because members were retired or for other reasons. We now have a Grievance and Representation Coordinator to confront the district on trends that our grievances show us in principals’ behavior or unreasonable district practices. We have increased organizing to address site issues. And, we are now part of the Group Legal Services program, which means members who are faced with reassignment or threats to their credentials get thousands more dollars in legal support than they did previously.

We did this together and we are stronger because of it.

Last year, we organized successful school-site campaigns to remove bad principals. We are developing more tools to help sites organize around this issue when necessary this year.

We are doing this together and we are stronger because of it.

Educators at the Alliance charter chain, who are bravely fighting to unionize, came to UTLA workshops on immigrant rights and successfully pressured the Alliance management to make campuses safe havens. This in the face of a legislative audit that found Alliance management to have amassed a $1.7 million war chest to fight against its own teachers, against unionization. Simultaneously, our UTLA-represented charter educators at other schools won contracts that cut against the race to the bottom, lifting standards in salary, health benefits, and more.

We did this together and we are stronger because of it.

When the mayor of Huntington Park (a UTLA member) and the HP City Council voted to put a moratorium on charters for common-sense urban planning reasons, they became the target of the California Charter Schools Association, CCSA. We supported the council in elections against mounds of CCSA money, and the council members supporting the moratorium won. On a parallel track, we have been honored to have been involved with the local, state, and national NAACP as that organization called for a charter moratorium, and it has, just this week, put out a new report reaffirming its position.

We did this together and we are stronger because of it.

And we are already shaping the debate in the 2018 state elections. Antonio Villaraigosa’s long-time ally, Marshall Tuck, is running again for state superintendent of public instruction. Assemblymember Tony Thurmond is running against Tuck, and he is a consistent and powerful voice in support of Community Schools. We’re thrilled he is here for our PACE reception tomorrow.

Antonio Villaraigosa is running for governor. We have been meeting with gubernatorial candidates John Chiang and Gavin Newsom. Both Chiang and Newsom are bringing our issues to the campaign trail. Chiang said the following in March to a charter school audience: “Charter schools cannot be a drain on the finances or the talents of the school district. They must be held accountable to the same standards as all public schools. They must have a governance structure that is transparent and answerable to local voters. They must be open to collective bargaining . . . It is particularly painful to read of the squandering of scarce education dollars on over-inflated salaries, luxurious meals, and limousines. That must stop. Immediately.”

Newsom said the following in May at the California Democratic Party convention: “We’ll create full-service Community Schools, engaging entire communities in our children’s future, open to everyone — all day, every day. Wellness centers in schools, to deal with not only physical health needs, but adolescent mental health needs. Arts education for every child, in every classroom, K-12. After-school programs. True public-public partnerships. An ethic of encouragement, an ethic of support. And, unlike Betsy DeVos, we will attract teachers, not attack teachers.”

You can see from Chiang and Newsom’s comments that our collective work makes an impact statewide, and we are stronger because of it.

But, let’s be clear. Amidst steps forward, we also took serious losses this year.

Donald Trump winning the presidency was a devastating blow for all progressive movements. On top of the attacks on immigrants and communities of color, the disrespect of women, the assault on decades of environmental protections, massive proposed federal cuts to education and proposed federal increases to vouchers and charters, it is also certain that unions will lose fair share and be undermined significantly nationwide.

U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been leading the fight against Trump and DeVos’s agenda, and we are thrilled she will be with us at our PACE reception tomorrow.

Losing the LA School Board races in May was a serious blow. We collectively poured our souls into the races for Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla. We had more member volunteers than ever before. We raised more money than ever before. We organized support from community organizations and unions more than ever before. But, we couldn’t overcome the $13 million spent against us, more than ever before in U.S. history in a School Board race. And, while we made reasonable strategic decisions throughout the campaign, in a race in which we were severely outspent, every resource allocation we made meant we couldn’t make it somewhere else, with all the downstream effects of that—sending a mailer at one time meant we couldn’t do it at another time, doing a run of TV ads at one time meant we couldn’t do it at another time, etc.

We are looking reflectively at every aspect of the campaign to learn, but three things are very clear.

First, the billionaires buying the School Board races was the second punch in their counter-attack. The first punch was spending $27 million to win 23 out of 26 state legislative races across California in November 2016. They have counter-attacked aggressively because they needed to respond to a series of our victories. In 2014, we got rid of their superintendent, John Deasy, and defeated their statewide superintendent candidate, Marshall Tuck. In 2015, we won a great contract and extension of health benefits, and we defeated two of their most prized School Board candidates. In 2016, we commissioned an Economic Impact Report on charter growth that had an impact across the state and nation, and we organized to turn their Broad-Walmart 50% charter plan into a sputtering mess.

This is a multi-year war — our opponents are going to respond to losses like that. In 2016 and 2017, they responded in the way they know best: using unlimited money.

Second, the billionaire-backed candidates for School Board, Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, did not win on a campaign message to massively expand unregulated charter growth. Even the billionaires know that we have moved that narrative and that people prefer fully funded neighborhood public schools over unregulated privatization schemes.

And, third, the billionaires’ path to victory was to vigorously suppress the vote among working-class people and to directly and relentlessly appeal to the hyper-wealthy, many of whom do not have children in public schools. Torrents of negative attacks on Zimmer depressed the working class vote, while Nick Melvoin got his votes through high turnout and large margins in the wealthiest precincts in LA County — some of the wealthiest precincts in the United States. Yet another reminder that the war over public schools is a class war.

And, the billionaires continue. After Eli Broad and Reed Hastings bought the School Board, Broad is now jumping over the School Board entirely in his latest scheme. He is behind Assembly Bill 1217, which he has gone straight to the most powerful people in Sacramento to move forward. This would open one state-run STEM school. It is literally a billionaire one-school carve-out, for a privately run but publicly funded school, with serious student equity and access issues. By going straight to the state, it subverts local control and creates yet another unchecked path to starve our public schools. We are vigorously fighting this.

The punchline is this. We can exert power in School Board races, and we can exert power in Sacramento. But our most fundamental response to the May School Board losses is to double down on our ultimate source of power — going deep with organizing at our schools and in our communities.

And so we enter this school year.

We know we are under attack. We hear the well-funded media drumbeat attacking health benefits, amplified by Broad and Wal-Mart’s Cal Matters partnership with the LA Times. Early signs at the bargaining table are that the district is not going to move without serious pressure. LAUSD’s response to our salary demand of a 7% ongoing pay increase retroactive to July 1, 2016, was a 2% one-time bonus. This is an insult. And, while it is a good thing that teachers will now be able to consider running for School Board, because those positions will be paid more than a starting teacher’s salary, it is an even bigger insult that the Board received an 174% ongoing pay increase in the same month that the district offered its educators a 2% one-time bonus. Moreover, LAUSD has not moved an inch on our proposals on class size, school climate and student discipline, and decision-making for parents and educators in site budgets.

Under these circumstances, we must use our unique knowledge to bring into full relief the crisis that has existed for decades in our schools, often in silence, and bring that crisis out loudly. If we don’t, Los Angeles will become an almost entirely privatized “some students, not all students” landscape, like New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, and the survival of public education will be at risk.

Sisters and brothers, it is time to go on offense, and the circumstances are right to do so. Our full contract and health benefits are being negotiated simultaneously, and our members will be engaged. All LAUSD workers are bargaining their contracts and health benefits right now. We have built internal organizational strength over the last three years. We are stronger than we have been in years in the community. We are coordinating statewide with locals and advocacy organizations. All eyes are on public education in the 2018 governor and state superintendent’s races. There is increasing skepticism of the billionaire agenda nationally.

All the while, if state per-pupil funding goes unaddressed and LAUSD continues to lose upwards of $600 million per year to unregulated charter growth, every round of bargaining in the future is going to be tougher and tougher.

The time is right, and the time is now, to go on offense.

Our Schools LA Students Deserve campaign, run jointly with parent, community, and youth allies, is our vehicle. We must shake everything we can out of the district financially to meet our priorities. This means going after LAUSD’s unrestricted reserve, which is one of the highest among urban districts in California. It means targeting other district money, which our research department is identifying, to better serve our students.

We must do this with a recognition that to make sustainable progress on the big-ticket items that our students and members deserve, it is imperative that California move up from 46th among the states in funding.

The demands of the Schools LA Students Deserve campaign must be unapologetic about what our students need. We have already put proposals across the table in bargaining to this end, with more to come. Salaries and benefits that attract and retain excellent educators. Reduced class sizes across-the-board. Additional health and human services personnel. Increased investment in bilingual and dual-language programs and special education supports. Reduction in special education caseloads. Investment in a Community Schools model that can be replicated across the district. Accountability standards for all charter schools. Increases in teacher discretion over tests, and reductions in overall testing and paperwork mandates. Strengthened professional rights and stability for educators. Investment in staffing and practices to improve school climate and address student discipline. Increased accountability for administrators regarding student discipline. Expanded decision-making for educators and parents over school budgets and school programs.

This is bold and visionary, but we must do more. Our students, schools, the stability of families, student attendance patterns, enrollment, attraction to LAUSD schools, and so much more depend on a variety of additional factors. We must use the unique moment of our contract, and the public nature of our campaign, to leverage additional community demands that help our students and schools. Many across the country call this strategy “Bargaining for the Common Good.” We have been approached by and are in discussions with historic civil rights, immigrant rights, and community organizing groups on how exactly we engage this exciting opportunity.

For example, we could demand that the district remove all unused bungalows from campuses.  Develop new green spaces on every campus. That the district partner with UTLA and housing groups to leverage the construction of more affordable housing. Create a student deportation defense fund to assist families. Require the district to meet with parents and community long before a charter co-location is proposed.

While the district may claim these issues are outside the scope of bargaining, these demands are righteous, winnable, would make a difference for our students and schools, and can be the foundation for new coalitions. And, let’s be clear—a decade ago, UTLA tried to go it alone, without coalitions with the community, in the fight against RIFs, Public School Choice, and Deasy’s teacher evaluation. We lost. We are not doing that again. We are building coalitions with the families of the students we serve.

Increasing school funding must be one of these community demands. What is taking shape in discussions with community organizations is a call for “20 by 20.” We need LA schools to be funded at $20,000 per pupil by the year 2020. Jumping from $11,000 to $20,000 is aggressive, but it is far from crazy. It exists in the real world. Several other states, far poorer than California, are already in the $20,000 per student range.

Remember what I said earlier. The money is here. The billionaires and rich corporations are keeping the money from our schools. Politicians are helping them do that.

I’ll say again: California is the richest state in the country. It is the fifth largest economy in the world. The LA area has more millionaires and billionaires than any other in the United States.

Moreover, Eli Broad and Reed Hastings are engaged in education issues. They’ve dropped millions into elections and charter schools. Yet, Broad has advocated against progressive taxation that would increase his taxes and put more money under public control, to be used for all students. Lots of billionaires take the same position Broad does.

We need to force politicians to make a public choice. Nick Melvoin, Kelly Gonez, Ref Rodriguez, and Monica Garcia have all received the billionaires’ money in running for School Board. They are now responsible for all students in the district. We have a very common-sense demand for the four of them: Get your billionaire patrons to lead the effort to increase taxes on the rich to fund public schools.

We’re not going to get to 20 by 20 through one method. There will need to be several funding sources. We are working with community organizations to define these, but there are already promising pathways.

First, we need to reprogram as much as we can in the LAUSD budget to go toward student needs.

Second, UTLA is already deeply involved in the Make It Fair initiative to increase commercial property taxes on the wealthiest commercial property owners.

Third, we’re exploring an LA County millionaires’ tax.

Fourth, we are building national networks to demand of the federal government that it deal with one of the greatest shames in national policy. IDEA became federal law in the 1970s, righteously ensuring that special education students be served by school districts. However, for four decades, IDEA has been an unfunded federal mandate that impacts every district across the country. One billion of LAUSD’s $6.5 million budget goes to covering the unfunded federal mandate to educate our most vulnerable special education students. We need those students to be supported — they deserve every cent. But the federal government’s shameful underfunding of its own special education mandate cripples school districts and puts districts in the untenable position of funding one group of students at the expense of others. We are going to fight for the funding our students deserve.

While 20 by 20 does not align on the calendar perfectly with our February 2018 compression point, using the next six months to push 20 by 20 onto the public stage, and organize support behind it, will force elected officials all over the city, county, state, and nation to consider how to intervene in a 2018 LA public school crisis or strike if the district forces us in that direction.

When all is said and done, the message of the Schools LA Students Deserve campaign is simple.

  • Support Our Students: Safe, high-quality schools are a right for all.
  • Empower Our Communities: Schools are anchors of the community.
  • Defend the Teaching Profession: Educators are everyday heroes; we must protect against attacks.
  • Fund the Future: In the second largest district in the nation, the richest state in the country, and the fifth largest economy in the world, we should not be 46th among states in school funding and starved for resources in our district schools. The money is here for our students — let’s go get it.

And let’s be clear. 20 by 20 is a struggle for revenue and for survival for sure — but it is also a racial justice struggle. In one of the starkest examples of institutional racism, California has allowed itself to fall from the top of per-pupil funding among the states to the bottom as the proportion of students of color in public schools has increased. This is reprehensible, and we are going to fight it.

In escalating the Schools LA Students Deserve campaign, we build on work we have already done. In our 2014-15 contract campaign, we systematically escalated pressure on the district, which led to the 10% raise and multiple contract victories. We need to do the same thing now — escalating pressure not only on the district, but also on elected officials across the state, through Red Shirt Tuesdays, parent leafleting, school-site picketing, regional rallies, faculty meeting boycotts, and huge actions like Stand at Grand. Who was at Stand at Grand?

Through all of this, we will attempt to reach an agreement at the bargaining table with LAUSD and at other tables regarding broader community demands. But, we need to be ready to strike if we have to. Most contract campaigns end in agreements before there is a need to strike, but the most successful contract campaigns, no matter how they end, plan for the possibility of a strike from the beginning.

Our preparation starts this weekend. In the first month of school, we need you, our great chapter leaders, focused on three items.

  • Use the checklist you will get in Core Training 1 to get your site ready regarding contract enforcement.
  • Map your school and form a Contract Action Team, using what is discussed in Core Training 2.
  • Hold a chapter meeting on the UTLA strategic plan.

The Contract Action Teams, or CATs, are the lifeblood of our campaign. They are the teams that help us reach 33,000 members about campaign developments and more. And Contract Action Teams are crucial in taking on school-site issues. When I was chapter chair at Crenshaw High School, we used a CAT-like structure, organized by building floors and sets of bungalows, to engage every educator on whether they would be willing to walk out on the principal when he went over time at faculty meetings. After some organizing, the answer, across all parts of the facility, was a resounding “yes.” At the next meeting, we walked out at the appropriate time, and the principal never went over time again. Doing mobilizing like that must be preceded by doing the organizing of getting an effective CAT team together.

Sisters and brothers, I will end with this. What the billionaires, the district, and elected officials who want to hide from the big questions of the day fear most is our collective action. They fear a school-by-school, tightly organized, connected-to-community union that will do escalating actions and that, indeed, has the capacity to strike, with community support, if forced to.

They have a related fear: that we begin to control the narrative by going on offense. That is what other movements have done. Only a few years ago, it seemed impossible to win a $15 minimum wage, but “Fight for 15” captured the imagination of the country. Only some years back, any step forward in humane immigration policy seemed far away, but the “Dreamers” controlled the narrative and important steps forward were taken. Only some years back, legalizing gay marriage seemed far off, but the concept of “Love is Love is Love” captured a generation. These movements were smart and they went on offense, but they were also based on just what is plain right, on a very human level.

Sisters and brothers, we are just plain right.

We can capture the imagination of the city and state. When I taught in Compton in 1990, did my third-grade student Sergio deserve a high-functioning special education program? Of course he did. When I taught at Muir Middle School in 1997 in LAUSD, did my student Garrett deserve more than the partial attention he got from a teacher in a room of 47 students? Of course he did. When I taught at Crenshaw High School in the 2000s, did my student Fabiola deserve a reliable green space on campus, a school that exuded calmness? Of course she did. When I taught at Crenshaw, did my co-worker Meredith, a legendary math teacher beloved by generations of Crenshaw families, deserve fair health benefits as a teacher and as a retiree? Of course she did. Does the money exist in Los Angeles and in California to take care of all students, to respect all educators, to win 20 by 20, to win the Schools LA Students Deserve? Of course it does. Let’s organize and go get it. Thank you for everything you do. Let’s keep moving forward together, and let’s win, together, the Schools LA Students Deserve!