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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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When Sacramento teachers held a one-day strike in May, they became part of one of the hottest trends in public education. Teachers in both Los Angeles and Oakland went on strike for several days earlier this year, as have their counterparts in seven other states over the last 12 months.
What’s going on? Our California Influencers put it bluntly. It comes down to dollars and cents – for teachers, for support staff and for programming.
“Our state’s leaders need to face the hard truth that we have not prioritized education,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now and a former Democratic state legislator. “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.”
California School Boards Association CEO and Executive Director Vernon Billy was even more unsparing.
“The root cause of teacher strikes is found not in Oakland or Los Angeles, nor in any of California’s local school districts,” he said. “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.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised budget calls for more than $100 billion in K-12 education spending, which represents a whopping $35 billion increase over the last six years. But skyrocketing costs for pensions, special education and other spending requirements leave California’s public school teachers struggling to make ends meet.
“Almost 60 (percent) of the (teaching) workforce… must rely on one or more public income support programs,” said Deborah Kong, a program officer for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. “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… when you’re worried about feeding your own family.”
There was widespread agreement among the Influencers that teachers deserve higher salaries. The question of where to find the money for those raises is more complicated. Rosie Arroyo, board chair of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, endorsed a 2020 ballot measure to raise taxes on non-residential business properties.
“We need solutions that address the core structural funding issues that are at the center of educational inequity,” said Arroyo, who is also a senior program officer at the California Community Foundation. “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.”
But longtime Republican strategist Mike Madrid argued that tax increases should be only a last resort.
“We must first rein in costs, reform long term obligations, tie successful outcomes to increased spending and lastly seek additional revenue,” Madrid said. “Funding levels must follow (student) success. Without that cultural change the likelihood of future unsustainable financial schemes will continue long into the future.”
Cynara Lilly, a principal at RALLY Communications, put the blame squarely in the laps of the teacher unions and called for smaller bargaining units to build trust in contract negotiations.
“Avoiding teacher strikes takes … unions that are less interested in blunt political action and more interested in the well-being of the adults they represent and the kids those adults teach,” Lilly said. “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.”
Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino) strongly disagreed.
“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,” said Leyva, who chairs the state Senate’s Education Committee. “When workers – in this case, teachers – feel disrespected, it makes it difficult to get everyone on the same page for negotiations.”
Monica Lozano, president and CEO of the College Futures Foundation, offered a long-term prescription.
“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,” Lozano said. “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.”
Former Intel Foundation President Rosalind Hudnell added that the recent teacher strikes shouldn’t take anyone by surprise.
“We should be surprised so much time has elapsed since the last ones,” she said.