Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 1, 2010

Our ‘Underperforming’ Schools
The crisis in American education forced its way in to the headlines this past week. Last time we reported how the superintendent of the Central Falls, Rhode Island school district fired all the teachers and administrators in the district’s high school. While hundreds of teachers and other unionists from around New England joined the discharged faculty--and their students and past graduates--in protest, the school board confirmed the super’s action. Even NBC Nightly News had to take note.

“This is immoral, illegal, unjust, irresponsible, disgraceful and disrespectful,” said George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. Mark Bostic, representing the American Federation of Teachers, told the crowd, “We are behind Central Falls teachers, and we will be here as long as it takes to get justice.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former “CEO” of Chicago schools, and a long time neighbor and basketball court buddy of the President, applauded the action, “When schools continue to struggle we have a collective obligation to take action.” The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” is proving to be No Child Left Behind on steroids. The Providence Journal described Duncan’s approach to underperforming schools,

“Duncan is requiring states, for the first time, to identify their lowest 5 percent of schools — those that have chronically poor performance and low graduation rates — and fix them using one of four methods: school closure; takeover by a charter or school-management organization; transformation which requires a longer school day, among other changes; and “turnaround” which requires the entire teaching staff be fired and no more than 50 percent rehired in the fall.”

President Obama himself reiterated this strategy at an education forum at the Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles this morning.

The Central Falls union was prepared to discuss “transformation” provided the longer hours were compensated. But the district demanded they donate the time and when the teachers said no they were given the boot under “turnaround.”

Central Falls, the smallest city in the smallest state, is a mill town that no longer has a mill. The unemployment rate is 13.8 percent, 41 percent of children live in poverty and 63 percent of the high school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. It has moved to center stage for the moment because it provides multiple examples of what’s wrong in the USA: economic meltdown, union busting, threats of privatization, an unfair tax structure--all complementary to “underperforming” education.

Public education in this country has always had class and race bias. During the days of slavery it was forbidden by law to teach a slave to read. For nearly a century after emancipation most African-American kids were restricted to separate and decidedly unequal schools.

Before World War II, children of the white working class didn’t do much better. Neither my father, nor his three brothers ever got a high school diploma. My mother was the first on that side of the family to reach such lofty academic achievement–graduating from Wyandotte High School a year ahead of Ed Asner (Lou Grant.) Most teenagers had to try to find work before finishing school.

Education improved for many during the relative prosperity after the war. Many working class veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to go to college or trade school. The growing Middle Class relieved the pressure on youth to enter the low end of the job market before at least completing high school and by the Sixties many were going on to higher education as well.

But this progress was uneven and tentative. A great legal victory was won in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled mandated racial segregation in schools violated the Constitution. But more than a half-century later no more than token integration has been achieved in most places. Among the impacts of the hydra-headed curse of urban sprawl was a mass exodus of the white Middle Class from urban cores to new suburbs. Vast wastelands of abandoned neighborhoods scar cities such as Detroit, St Louis–and Kansas City–even though their metropolitan areas have registered substantial growth. Mainly the poor, mostly Black remain in the once thriving, now dysfunctional central cities.

Enrollment in the Kansas City school district, its boundaries based on the old urban core, has shrunk from more than 70,000 in the Sixties to 17,000 today. Like all American school districts, KC is dependent on property taxes for the lion’s share of operating funds. Vacant property doesn’t pay much tax. Developers have robbed more school money through Tax Increment Finance schemes. The steady loss of both students and funds forced the district to close more than forty schools over the past forty years. Now, despite big parent/student/teacher protests, the district is going to close half of the remaining schools in one big cut. The workforce of more than 3,000 employees will be slashed by more than 700, including about 285 teaching positions.

Since the Reagan era, the Establishment has declared that public schools have failed. Teachers belonging to unions have been singled out as the chief cause of “underperformance.” Schemes have been advanced to drain even more public money from our schools for vouchers for religious and private schools, charter schools, commercial reading programs, etc. Testing companies now set the standard for education and get big bucks for testing compliance.

We can’t address the many sides of the education crisis in a few paragraphs. But the Labor Party program section entitled “Ensure Everyone Access to Quality Public Education” can guide us in the right direction,

“We are a nation of educational haves and have nots. The rich protect their children in elite private schools while our children suffer in increasingly crowded, dangerous, and under-funded public schools. The rich send their children to the best colleges and universities, while more and more of our children are denied higher education due to rising tuition costs and deep cutbacks in our state universities. This two-tiered educational system must end. We call for a renewed commitment to high quality public education for all, not voucher systems and other privatization schemes that further reduce resources for our public schools. We call for: National financing of all public education (instead of property taxes) so that each child, not just those of the rich, has the resources necessary for a good learning environment. National legislation and funds to reduce the student-teacher ratio to 15 to 1 in all public schools. National legislation and funding to extend public schools for pre-K children starting at age 3 on a voluntary basis. Parent education at public schools to help parents from all backgrounds learn more about how to help their children learn at home. Free public university and technical education of all kinds for everyone who wants it. Each of us should be able to go to school as far as our abilities can carry us. Like the GI Bill of Rights, everyone 18 years or over should receive a minimum livable wage for four years when attending a post-secondary educational institution.”

That’s the way forward–not the union busting and privatization coming from Big Business and the White House.

In Brief...
¶ The national conference of the
Labor Campaign for Single-Payer gathers at the National Labor College in suburban Washington this coming weekend. Regardless of whether the Democrats can pull off their latest maneuver to impose the Obama plan without a Senate super-majority, or it gets the beating it so richly deserves, the fight for single-payer needs to continue. The forces assembled around the Labor Campaign will be key to this struggle. Unfortunately, for reasons both personal and financial, I will be unable to attend but I will pass along reports as soon as I get them.
¶ AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka was kept busy speaking to two mass rallies against job loss. More than 5,000 gathered in Evansville, Indiana denouncing Whirlpool’s decision to close its refrigerator plant in that city--moving the work to Mexico--eliminating 1100 IUE jobs. Rich later headed to Florida where, despite bad weather, about a thousand unionists and community folks protested the expected loss of 9,000 jobs due to cutbacks and privatization in NASA’s space programs. A number of central labor bodies have passed resolutions urging Trumka to call a mass march on Washington.
¶ The ongoing massive protests by students and employees against rising fees and cuts in workers and services on California campuses will resume this Thursday, March 4. There will be similar actions in a number of other areas around the country with the theme “
Defend Education.”
¶ Congratulations to the drivers and monitors at Durham School Services in Kansas City who voted by a four-to-one margin to be represented by Teamsters Local 838.
¶ Concerned about the President’s newly appointed bipartisan debt commission, expected to go after our Social Security and Medicare benefits? Not to worry. Representing the working class on the cash-through-slash body is SEIU’s Andy Stern, aka Chairman Andy.
¶ Transit Troubles. As Chicago’s bus and train ATU locals can’t seem to get on the same page, the CTA has been violating the bus contract by working part-time operators excessive hours to take up some of the slack left by mass layoffs. There’s a move afoot in San Francisco to repeal language in the city charter that guarantees Muni operators will be the second highest paid in the country. And in New York the MTA is planning to lay off hundreds of station agents and is asking for union consent to get rid of more train conductors. The Daily News reports, “ Transport Workers Union Local 100 President John Samuelsen said that he wouldn't ‘sell out our conductors,’ adding that it would be ‘lunacy’ to reduce subway staffing post-9/11.”
¶ The Kansas City Labor Notes discussion group will hold its regular monthly meeting at Noon next Sunday, March 7, at the usual location. For more information call me at 816-753-1672. Labor Notes staff reports more than 500 took advantage of Early Bird registration for their
April 23-25 conference in suburban Detroit.
¶ The strike by food service workers at HMS Host outlets at Vancouver airport that we reported last week got settled in time to feed the hungry departing after the Winter Olympics. According to the UNITE HERE Local 40 website, the 300 workers will get “significant wage increases, improved job security, transfer, layoff and recall rights, and increased pension contributions.”
¶ Declaring “The architects of the occupation have built the foundation of Iraq’s political process on the pillars of sectarian and ethnic forces to legitimize its crimes in Iraq,” the
Iraq Freedom Congress is calling for a boycott of upcoming elections. The IFC embraces an important sector of the Iraqi union movement and has close ties with US Labor Against the War. We understand that our old friend Amjad Al-Jawhary will be among the international guests at the Labor Notes Conference.

Finally, our weekly update on Vermont Yankee. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported,

 “In an unusual state foray into nuclear regulation, the Vermont Senate voted 26 to 4 Wednesday to block operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant after 2012, citing radioactive leaks, misstatements in testimony by plant officials and other problems.”

A follow up by the same writer on Friday detailed the enormous obstacles to finding and repairing the source of the radioactive leak. The company has committed substantial resources to this task and the story describes their motivation,

“For the nuclear industry as a whole, the safety issues raised by tritium leaks have political implications. The dispute over the fate of Vermont Yankee arose just as the Obama administration was promoting a revival of nuclear plant construction backed by billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees. The push for such construction is cast mainly as a drive to embrace clean and renewable energy sources but is also aimed at drawing Republican support in Congress for a climate and energy bill.”

That’s all for this week.

Coming Events...
Labor Campaign for Single-Payer National Conference
National Labor College, Silver Spring, MD, March 5-7

Tenth Anniversary Of kclabor.org
North Kansas City Library, March 21

Labor Notes Conference
Detroit, April 23-25

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