The Fractious Politics of Education

Hundreds of California teachers, declaring a state of emergency, demonstrated in Sacramento yesterday, marched on the Capitol building yesterday.  According to The Boston Globe (!?!), more than 100 rallied in the Capitol rotunda, resulting in 65 arrests.

There’s a lot to talk about here, telling us about protest politics, state budget crises, media, unions, and the troubled state of education in America.

Should we start with the media?  Bizarrely, while the Boston Globe published a good story (from AP) on the first day in a planned week of protests organized by the California Teachers Association, and several local papers picked up on it–and sympathy events across the state (e.g. here and here) , the Los Angeles Times, the biggest paper in California, missed the event altogether, leading its California section with the news of former Governor Schwarzenegger’s separation from his wife, Maria Shriver.

The decline of the LA Times, in terms of budget, circulation, quality, and coverage, has been as dramatic as that of any national paper still operating, surely part of the story here.  But the paper did cover education–and teachers protesting:

The protest story (embedded in a video) focused on Los Angeles teachers protesting against the Times itself; the paper has been publishing “value added” scores rating the effectiveness of all teachers in the city’s system.   The local union sees these scores as an attack.  The other education story covered the district’s plans to overhaul the staff at Huntington Park High School, one of the largest in the district; the district expects to replace at least one-half of the teachers.  The union is, understandably, concerned about this move as well.

But the bigger story is about massive budget cuts facing all public school districts in California.  Governor Jerry Brown’s budget plan was to retire the state’s $25+ billion dollar state deficit through roughly 1/2 cuts and 1/2 taxes.  (The tax part would come through a referendum to postpone planned tax cuts.)  If the voters failed to approve the tax extensions, Brown will cut, severely, spending on prisons and public schools.

It seemed like a clever plan.  Voters generally like the ideas of educating children and keeping felons in jail; additionally, Governor Brown would be able to count on two powerful unions, prison guards and teachers, to spend on the referendum campaign, and mobilize their members.  What Brown could not count on, however, was the votes of two Republican state assemblymen and two Republican state senators, which he needed to reach the 2/3 vote to put the question on the ballot.  (Insert your favorite rant here; the ones that come to my mind are about supermajorities, term limits, California politics, and Republicans.)

The Census Bureau reports on per pupil spending across the American states.  For 2007-08, the most recent data available, it lists a national average of about $10,000 per pupil.  New York and New Jersey spend the most, up to $17,000 per pupil.  Individual districts in affluent areas may spend as much as twice that amount.  (You can look up your district and its spending here.)  California is listed at about $9,800.  Since 2007-08, California has cut per pupil spending by more than $2,000.  California now spends less than most states, has larger class sizes than all of them, and lower test scores than almost every other state.  Governor Brown estimates that without the tax extensions, the new budget cuts will amount to something over $800 per pupil.

Local school districts will find their own ways to respond, and more affluent areas will try to raise independent funds–but they already do.  On the agenda in most districts are layoffs, program cuts, increases in class sizes, and reductions in the school year–already shorter than the academic year in any other rich country.  None of this is likely to improve public education in California.  Money isn’t the only thing that matters, of course, but it’s silly to pretend that money doesn’t matter.

The teachers’ union cares about this, of course, and the fact that jobs are part of the story, intensifies those concerns and makes them mobilizeable. Their answer, based on polling data: raise taxes on the rich.  Staging a week of protests is a way to try to draw public attention to the problem, and demonstrate their seriousness.  Given the 2/3 rule and the composition of that state legislature and the electorate, the demonstrations themselves are unlikely to matter all that much.  It’s not that the protest strategy is particularly likely to be effective so much as that everything else the teachers can do is even more unlikely to work–particularly without protest.

Maybe, however, at least in areas served by papers other than the LA Times, it can clue other Californians into the magnitude of the unfolding crisis.

To the extent that parents are tuned into what’s happening, they’re concerned and angry, and like most Californians, oppose the cuts.  Most Californians, however, also oppose any new taxes–except on the rich.

I suspect most parents are also trying to figure out solutions that spare them from engaging in the California budget process.  They can help raise independent funds for their district–or school, contract private services to help their own kids with music, art, and math, or leave the public schools altogether.  If they can’t afford any of these alternatives, they can fume privately, whine publicly, or urge their children to make the best of a bad situation.

But the fact that most families will try to avoid dealing with a collective problem as a collective problem makes the political work of the teachers union–and the professional work of the teachers–all that much harder.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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