Teachers and Teachers Unions: Essential to Recovering Equity After Years of Funding Cuts and Privatization

The annual Phi Delta Kappa poll came out earlier this week, and not surprisingly, writes the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler, “The poll found widespread teacher complaints about low pay and poor funding for their schools, and nearly half said they felt unvalued by their communities.  Most said they would not want one of their own children to follow them into teaching.”  She continues: “The annual survey was conducted by PDK International, an association of teachers, administrators and other professionals, which has measured public attitudes toward schools for 51 years.”

Meckler quotes Joshua Starr, chief executive of PDK international and formerly the Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland: “It’s shocking in some ways, but anybody who’s been following public education in the last 20 years and the demonization of teachers, the continued low pay, the working conditions, the relentless focus on standardized testing as the only measure of success, would naturally conclude we would reap what we sowed.”

In a book published last year, the Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker presents the stark fiscal realities that partly explain why teachers are so discouraged: “Consider, for example, the trade-off between spending to pay teachers more competitive salaries to improve teacher quality versus spending to provide smaller class sizes.  In many cases, schools and districts serving high-need student populations are faced with both noncompetitive salaries and larger class sizes, as compared to more advantaged surrounding districts. Trading one for the other is not an option, or, in the best case, is a very constrained choice. It is unhelpful at best for public policy and is harmful to the children subjected to those policies to pretend without any compelling evidence that somewhere there exists a far cheaper way to achieve the same or better outcomes…. A common false-choice argument is that good teachers matter more than money.  In this view, we simply need good teachers and recruitment and retention (and dismissal) policies to achieve this goal, regardless of money. This argument falsely assumes that there is no connection whatsoever between the amount of available funding for salaries and benefits and the ability of schools and districts to recruit and retain a high-quality workforce.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, p. 51)

Baker continues: “The level of teacher wages matters in at least two ways.  First, among schools and districts in any given region, the salary a district can pay to a teacher with specific credentials affects which teachers that district can recruit and retain.  So do working conditions… Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods need not only comparable wages to recruit and retain comparable teachers, but they need substantively higher wages.  And second, the level of teacher salaries more generally compared with other employment options requiring similar education levels affects the quality of entrants into the teacher workforce.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 51-52)

For Chicago’s WBEZ, education reporter Sarah Karp presents a case study of exactly how these factors are playing out for teachers, students, and an entire school district in Chicago. The subject is the shortage of teachers, particularly special education teachers, in Chicago’s poorest schools and an accompanying crisis from the lack of substitute teachers willing to serve in these schools.  Karp explains: “This is the stark reality in Chicago Public Schools. Last school year, almost a third of 520 district-run schools—152—had at least one regular education or special education teacher position open all year long… The problem is most acute at schools serving low-income and black students. They are twice as likely as all other schools to have a yearlong teacher vacancy. Chicago’s 28 schools with majority white student populations had no yearlong vacancies. And making matters worse, CPS also has a severe substitute teacher shortage… At 62 schools, half the time a teacher was absent no substitute showed up. Here, again, there is a racial disparity.  When majority black and Latino Chicago public schools request a substitute to cover a class, subs didn’t show up 35% of the time, data from September 2018 through March 2019 shows. That’s compared to 20% at majority-white or racially-mixed schools. Substitute teachers can turn down any school assignment.”

In Chicago, racist stereotypes contribute to the problem: “Principal Jasmine Thurmond said the teacher and substitute shortage hits a school like hers extra hard. ‘The perception is that Englewood is a dangerous place to live and it is a dangerous place to work… And because the media does such a great job at perpetuating that, it ends up becoming an internal bias for some folks so much so sometimes they don’t apply for schools that are in areas like Englewood or Austin or Roseland.'”

The school district and administrators in particular schools are working hard to counter perceptions and to launch programs to confront the unequal distribution of teachers and substitutes. Ms. Thurmond, the principal at King Elementary explains that she has, “built relationships with universities and others that help her fill positions.” Because the district leaves some discretion for principals to allocate the funds for their buildings, “(S)ome schools pay for a full-time teacher who works as a substitute floater. Because the money for this position comes out of the school’s budget, it means they have less for other positions, like an art teacher or a reading specialist.”

The district has also designated 60 “Opportunity Schools” for which: “The school district recruits teachers, vets them hires them and then plays matchmaker between schools and candidates.  It also supports the new teachers once they are in the schools… (A) key is that teacher candidates are brought in to tour Opportunity Schools.”  Matt Lyons, who is the District’s chief talent officer, explains: “Despite what someone might read, assume or hear from a friend, you walk into these schools and they are safe, they are welcoming, students are smiling and happy to be there and happy to learn.”

The issues of under-funding by state governments, school funding inequity, racial and economic segregation, and structural racism are deep and abiding, however.  A new report from Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles (ROSLA) traces the story of strategic organizing over several years to develop community support for the city’s schools and for school teachers: “The case study examines how the teachers union and their partners… built and carried out a two-year campaign that lifted a vision of ‘the schools all our students deserve’ into the public consciousness.”

The project was a strategic initiative of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA): “Internally, UTLA embarked on a complete reorganization of the union…. The union increased face-to-face communications with members, expanded school-based structures, and created a Research and Analytics Department to track member contacts.  For the first time, the union was asking its members what they believed was important in their schools, for their students, and in their communities… Externally, the union forged a coalition with three organizations—the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment… the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy… and Students Deserve….” The United Teachers of Los Angeles had created a strong and deeply rooted community coalition—Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles.”

What followed was the teachers’ strike last January.  Here are merely some of the agreements ROSLA claims were won in the strike, which was widely supported across Los Angeles because teachers sought not only salary increases but reforms deemed essential among parents and others: more nurses, counselors and librarians; smaller class size; nearly $12 million for the development of Community Schools with wraparound medical and social services that help families; a reduction in standardized testing; the end of random searches of students which had been occurring in some schools; district support for immigrant students and more ethnic studies programming; support from the city’s school board for stronger regulation of charter schools which drain money from the public schools; and commitment from the Mayor and the LAUSD School Board to join the fight for a 2020 ballot measure challenging the state’s 1978 tax freeze law, Proposition13.

In Los Angeles strong leadership from the teachers union enabled teachers to take action to relieve the kind of despair the new PDK poll shows teachers are experiencing across the states.  ROSLA reports that during the Los Angeles teachers’ strike last January, UTLA’s efforts among its members and its organizing across the community paid off: “The outpouring of support for the strike from every corner of the district signaled an unambiguous commitment to public schools in LA—a city where there is real fear that the very existence of public education is under threat. For over two decades, the nation’s students and teachers have endured a coordinated assault on public education. Budgets have been slashed. Teachers, students and schools have been relentlessly tested and shamed. Children—particularly children of color—have been criminalized through policies that promote compliance over creativity. Further, cities like LA have been sold the false promise of ‘choice’ instead of the guarantee of quality and equity… The story is still unfolding. But the long-term campaign at the core of this story offers critical lessons.  Whether you come from the perspective of a labor unionist, a classroom teacher, a parent, a student, a community member, or as a philanthropist interested in strengthening the foundations of our public life, the work of Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles provides insight, vision, and hope at a time when all are much needed.”