The Meaning of the Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike

Yesterday 30,000 Los Angeles school teachers went on strike. The Los Angeles Unified School District is the nation’s second largest, with 600,000 students enrolled in 900 schools.

The school district has been merely inching up its offers to more fully staff the meager institutions teachers have been describing—huge classes, inadequate student support, and a lack of enrichment staff.  But the District’s offer remains paltry. California’s schools have been underfunded since 1978, when Proposition 13 froze property taxes, and the situation has reached a level parents and teachers in most middle class communities would not tolerate.  The Los Angeles TimesHoward Blume reported on Friday: “The latest offer would provide a full-time nurse at every elementary school and lower class sizes by about two students at middle schools.  It builds on a proposal from Monday, in which the district also offered a small decrease in class sizes.  In that first proposal, maximum class sizes in grades four to six would drop from 36 to 35, and in high school from 42 to 39… Also, every secondary school would get a librarian, which some middle schools lack now. And high schools would get an extra academic counselor.”

Although the Los Angeles Unified School District has claimed an average class size of 26 students, the executive director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson challenges the district’s numbers: “There is conflicting data on this, but suffice it to say that information on the LAUSD website supports the union’s position that average class sizes are probably far larger than 26 in every grade but K-3, with averages of more than 30 students per class in grades 4 through 8 and more than 40 in high school classes.  In addition a separate fact sheet prepared by the district says, ‘Nearly 60 percent of all Los Angeles Unified schools and 92 percent of the elementary schools have 29 or fewer students in each classroom.’ This means that 40 percent of Los Angeles public schools have 30 or more students per class on average.”

Haimson quotes a high school teacher, Glenn Sacks: “At my high school, for example, we have over 30 academic classes with 41 or more students, including nine English/writing classes with as many as 49 students, and three AP classes with 46 or more students.  One English teacher has well over 206 students—41+ per class.  A U.S. Government teacher has 52 students in his AP government class.  Writing is a key component of both classes—the sizes make it impossible for these teachers to properly review and help students with their essays.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published an open letter from fifteen award winning Los Angeles teachers explaining why they are striking. They list enormous class size; schools lacking a full-time nurse, a librarian, or adequate social-emotional support services for students; an over-emphasis on testing and test prep; career technical education teachers who lack a conference period; and “unregulated charter school growth, without requiring reasonable accountability and guidelines for charter school co-locations…”

While for 40 years California’s schools have suffered from the state’s stringent property tax freeze, in recent years the Los Angeles Unified School District has built up a reserve surplus of $2 billion, which the teachers say should be spent to improve conditions in the city’s public schools.  And, Howard Blume reports, the newly elected governor, Gavin Newsom has proposed a budget that would free up money by relieving school districts of some required pension payments.

A primary issue underneath the current impasse is lack of trust. Eli Broad, the corporate school reformer who founded the Broad Academy to train non-educators from the corporate world as school superintendents, has been investing for years in the political candidacy of charter school proponents to take over the Los Angeles school board.  In a piece published late yesterday by the NY Times, Miriam Pawel describes Eli Broad’s influence in Los Angeles school politics: “(T)he billionaire and charter school supporter Eli Broad and a group of allies spent almost $10 million in 2017 to win a majority on the school board.  The board rammed through the appointment of a superintendent, Austin Beutner, with no educational background.” Beutner was an investment banker and the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times. His only public administration experience was as deputy mayor of Los Angeles.  Today one in five students in Los Angeles attends a charter school. Pawel adds that students going to charter schools “take their state aid with them, siphoning off $600 million a year from the district.”

In a stunning article for California’s Capital & Main, and published jointly in The American Prospect, Danny Feingold explores the implications of what is happening in Los Angeles: “Sometimes strikes are exactly what they seem to be—over wages and working conditions…. But sometimes a strike is about something much bigger: a fundamental clash over vision and values, with repercussions that extend far beyond the warring parties.  Call it a meta-strike… On one side… are those who believe that public education as an institution should be preserved more or less in its current form with a greater infusion of money to address chronic underfunding and understaffing.  On the other side is an array of forces that want to radically restructure public schools, and who have made it clear they do not believe that the LA Unified School District in its current incarnation is worth investing in—or even preserving.”

Feingold adds that Superintendent Austin Beutner has already hired Cami Anderson, the notorious state-appointed overseer superintendent in Newark, New Jersey. Fired in 2015, Anderson had botched her attempt radically to restructure the school district by expanding charter schools.  Feingold explains the implications for Los Angeles: “Though Beutner has yet to unveil his proposal, he has tipped his hand in a big way with the hiring of consultant Cami Anderson, the former superintendent of Newark, New Jersey public schools.  In Newark, Anderson pushed through a disruptive plan called the ‘portfolio model’….  The changes in Newark included neighborhood school closures, mass firings of teachers and principals, a spike in new charters and a revolt by parents that drove out… Anderson.”

While teachers who walked out last spring in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and other states and the teachers striking this week in Los Angeles are protesting huge classes and too-few counselors and nurses, in a commentary published in Forbes Magazine, teacher-writer Peter Greene observes something different this year: “In… virtually all strikes of the past, we could make one assumption safely—that… everyone wanted in their own way, to see the public school district remain healthy and whole…   Increasingly the agenda of many people taking positions of authority over public education is to dismantle public education and replace it with a network of private charter schools, a process often accelerated by starving public schools for funding in order to manufacture a crisis… Teachers in many school districts and many states across the country find themselves in the unusual position of working in an institution led by people who want to see that institution fail.  Back in the day, teacher strikes were about how best to keep a school district healthy… UTLA’s demands for smaller classes, more support staff, safer schools, community schools, and charter school oversight are not about making their working conditions a little better, but about keeping public education alive and healthy….   (M)any teachers will see it not simply as a local battle, but as a skirmish in a larger national fight.”

Last May, after the spring’s wave of walkouts by schoolteachers, Henry Giroux considered the meaning of the teachers’ actions: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public—a reminder of the centrality of the role they play in making good on the claim that critically literate citizens are indispensable to a vibrant democracy… Rejecting the idea that education is a commodity to be bought and sold, teachers and students across the country are reclaiming education as a public good and a human right….”

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New Report: How Big Money Has Been Swinging Elections Against Public Education

In a fine new report, the Network for Public Education Action exposes, “how the super rich buy elections to undermine public schools.” The report presents nine case studies—in Newark, New Jersey; Washington state; Los Angeles; Perth Amboy, New Jersey; Louisiana; Rhode Island; Minneapolis; New York; and Denver—where billionaire dollars have been carefully invested to buy elections and promote the privatization of public education.

Who are the people investing their fortunes in privatizing public schools? The report, Hijacked by Billionaires, begins with profiles of the people who have either donated more than a million dollars to candidates or political committees or have contributed to at least three of the nine elections profiled in the case studies. The report’s index of billionaires includes Netflix’s Reed Hastings; the Walton family, founders of Walmart, and including Alice Walton, Jim Walton, Carrie Walton Penner, Greg Penner, and Steuart Walton; Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of The GAP; the Bloomberg family including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and his daughter Emma; Microsoft founder Bill and his wife, Melinda Gates (The report tracks personal, not Gates Foundation gifts.); California businessman Eli Broad; co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen and his Vulcan Inc.; California businessman William Bloomfield; Lane Grigsby and Cajun Industries, the Louisiana construction company; former ENRON trader John Arnold and his wife Laura; the Bezos family including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his parents Jackie and Mike; venture capitalist Nick Hanauer; Samson Oil heiress Stacy Schusterman; SiliconValley venture capitalist Arthur Rock; Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs and the Emerson Collective LLC; Eagle Capital Management’s Ravenel Boykin Curry IV and his wife Elizabeth; Purdue Pharma’s Jonathan Sackler; and Katherine Bradley, who is connected with three of the case studies and whose husband chairs Atlantic Media Group.

So… what’s in it for these people? “Many of the big charter chains have boards that include billionaires—allowing those who would never dream of sending their own children to a charter or neighborhood public school to direct the education of thousands of disadvantaged children. For some billionaires, charter directorship has become a source of pride and prestige. Other billionaires despise teacher unions (and all unions) and blame them for the struggles of poor students. They prefer charter schools, because more than 90% of them have no unions… Others have true disdain for democracy and believe if ordinary people govern their schools, corruption is inevitable. Still others believe that only the marketplace and consumerism can produce quality. If the marketplace and competition made them and their business successful, then surely that will work for schools too. All are united by the belief that education cures poverty and that their enormous wealth has little to do with the economic injustice and generational poverty that plagues our cities and rural communities… The billionaires’ refusal to confront the importance of poverty and its negative effects on school performance suggests that their focus on school choice is meant to distract us from policy changes that would really help children, such as increasing the equity and adequacy of (public) school funding, reducing class sizes, providing medical care and nutrition for students, and other specific efforts to meet the needs of children and families.”

Here are brief summaries of three of the report’s case studies:

After a string of failures, Washington State finally passed a ballot initiative to permit charter schools: “In November 2012, Washington State voters passed the Charter School Ballot Initiative 1240, which provided for the establishment of up to 40 charter schools within five years.  It passed by a very slim margin, 50.69% in favor, to 49.31% opposed. This was Washington State’s fourth charter school ballot initiative with the first three attempts having failed in 1996… 2000… and 2004…  In addition to ballot initiatives, pro-charter legislation had been proposed and failed.”  Who were the billionaires who invested enough to get the initiative passed in 2012? The largest investors from within Washington were Paul Allen and Bill Gates, the co-founders of Microsoft; venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer; and Jackie and Mike Bezos, parents of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Large out-of-state investment came from Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Education Reform Now, based in New York, the 501(c)(4), dark-money affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. The report lists other investors, including $1.1 million from Alice Walton.

In 2011, a huge influx of out-of-state money tipped the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education: “John White spent two years as a teacher with Teach for America. He later became an executive director of TFA in both Chicago and New Jersey and a deputy superintendent in New York City under ‘reform’ chancellor Joel Klein. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal decided he wanted White as his state superintendent… The only problem was that Jindal did not believe that Louisiana’s then current state board, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), would deliver enough votes in support of White.  In Louisiana, the state superintendent is determined by a supermajority of BESE members—at least eight out of the total eleven must vote a candidate into office….”  Jindal reached out to his friend Jeb Bush and the political influence of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and an alliance of pro-corporate-reform state school superintendents Jeb had convened—Chiefs for Change.  Members of both groups reached out to key allies to help fund the 2011 BESE election: Michael Bloomberg, Eli Broad, John and Laura Arnold, Alice and Jim Walton, and Carrie Walton Penner.  Smaller gifts came from Arthur Rock, Reed Hastings, and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.  From within Louisiana, the Grigsby family and Cajun Industries donated a quarter of a million dollars. BESE was flipped to Jindal’s satisfaction, and John White, Jindal’s favorite candidate for state superintendent—the guy favoring Teach for America—was approved by the new BESE.

The third example among NPE’s case studies is of New York, a state where Wall Street money has made Governor Andrew Cuomo a strong supporter of charter schools: “Since his first gubernatorial campaign in 2010, Andrew Cuomo received generous contributions in exchange for his support of charter schools…  When Cuomo sought money from the hedge fund community, it was made clear that he needed to support their pro-charter agenda… In exchange for Cuomo’s support of charters, charter board members became extraordinarily generous to the Cuomo campaign. One donor was the Great Public Schools PAC, started by the controversial Success Academy Charter School leader, Eva Moskowitz.” Success Academy Charters’ board members have been primary contributors: Dan Loeb, Bruce Kovner, Joel Greenblatt and his wife Julia, Bryan Binder, Daniel Nir and his wife Jill Braufman, Andra and Dana Stone, Kent Yalowitz, Catherine Shainker, Jarret Posner, Suleman Lunat, and John Petry.  The list of New York and Connecticut donors to Cuomo campaigns—people who are connected with charter schools, and even in some who own construction companies that build charter schools—continues for three pages.  In Cuomo’s 2014 bid for reelection, “All the efforts and contributions made by charter advocates paid off.  In the final two months of the election, Andrew Cuomo outspent his Republican gubernatorial opponent… five to one… Post-election, Andrew Cuomo Inc., was left with about $9 million for his next campaign.”

The Network for Public Education Action urges readers to follow the money in their own states. “Education reform billionaires are trying to buy elections across the country… The Citizens United decision allows corporations and other groups and individuals to form Super Political Action Committees (Super PACs) called Independent Expenditure Committees (IECs). These IECs are allowed to ‘spend unlimited sums of money on ads and other communications designed to support or oppose a candidate.'” However, because Independent Expenditure Committees are required to report their contributors to the Federal Election Committee, the report’s authors were able to document many of the names of contributors.

NPE Action’s new report that tracks an enormous web of wealthy givers trying to undermine public schools across the states is disturbing.  The report traces the massive political power of people whose fortunes have grown with today’s exploding inequality.  In his new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas worries about the same trend. Giridharadas challenges the power of money in our modern Gilded Age: “What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things, but first things first, seek to protect themselves… We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (pp. 10-11) (This blog explored Giridharadas’s new book here.)

The Billionaire Boys: Reinvesting A Small Percent of the Spoils of Capitalism

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber may be a little theoretical for the general reader, but he really gets what’s happening these days:   “We can be glad Carnegie built libraries, glad that the Gateses are battling AIDS, but inequality will not end because billionaires give back some of the spoils of monopoly.” (Consumed, p. 77) “Philanthropy is a form of private capital aimed at achieving public outcomes, but it cannot substitute for public resources and public will in confronting public calamities… Rescuing victims through individual philanthropy cannot be a substitute for helping citizens avoid victimization through effective public governance in which citizens share real power.” (Consumed, p. 131)

In his blog this week, the Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, examines the role of mega-philanthropy and the power of the people the education historian Diane Ravitch has dubbed “the Billionaire Boys Club.”

Rev. Thomas names the ethical contradiction embedded in today’s venture philanthropy: “First, the concentration of philanthropic capacity in the hands of a relatively few white men is fueled, in significant measure, by tax policies that favor the already wealthy at the expense of public coffers, policies that are enacted by politicians beholden to the gifts of those same wealthy few… In addition, these policies are frequently fronts for an anti-government and anti-union bias which dismisses the role of public initiatives… in favor of a benevolent paternalism.”  One reason the Billionaire Boys have so much to invest through their mega-foundations is that tax cuts at the federal and state level have been tilted to favor the extremely wealthy and burden those whose incomes are far lower, exacerbating inequality and the plight of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Rev. Thomas identifies three problems embedded in venture philanthropy. (Rev. Thomas attributes the identification of these problems to Lester M. Salamon,  Director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.)   The first is philanthropic particularism, which Rev. Thomas defines as: “the tendency for givers to  focus on particular groups that appear to be ‘deserving.’ But of course that calculation is colored—let’s use this term deliberately—by social location.”  Rev. Thomas is very clear about the social location of the wealthy white men who control this conversation.

The second is philanthropic paternalism.  Rev. Thomas writes: “Philanthropists today focus on the outcomes they deem appropriate or interesting, either creating the organizations that will advance those outcomes, or bending the traditional missions of established institutions to fit their agendas.  As control of philanthropic resources is more and more concentrated… money is more and more channeled toward the passions of a few individuals….”

And finally, there is philanthropic insufficiency.  According to Rev. Thomas:  “Particularly in times of economic recession, and an attendant agenda of government austerity, the voluntary sector becomes incapable of matching what has been lost by the deliberate gutting of the public treasury to be used for broad purposes.” However well intentioned, charity cannot replace systemic justice.

Writing for Dissent Magazine, Joanne Barkan has detailed how all this affects public education: “The cost of K-12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year.  So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum?  Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.  In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck… But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad… Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field…  Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working… Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.” (Just last month this blog covered  Lindsay Layton’s Washington Post piece exposing the role of the Gates Foundation in underwriting all aspects of the development and promotion of the Common Core Standards and tests.)

Barkan describes the interests and passions in which the three giants of education philanthropy have been dabbling: “choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision making.  And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher.”

The fact that the Billionaire Boys can buy an extensive and long-running public relations and media campaign is one reason we haven’t had a thorough public conversation to compare the experiments of the philanthropists with our historic system of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public.  We ought to be asking which sort of schools do a better job of balancing the needs of each particular child and family with the capacity to secure the rights and address the needs of all children.