By CAROLE SELIGMAN
SAN FRANCISCO-Monday, May 8 was a great day to be a teacher in California! That was the day of a huge demonstration-over 8000 teachers-in the state capital, Sacramento.
I and a fellow teacher at the South San Francisco elementary school where I teach third grade drove to Sacramento in two hours. There we were handed yellow protest t-shirts as we got on a bus to the state capitol building and joined with our colleagues from all around the state.
This was on a workday for which we could not get substitute teachers. At our school, other teachers who were very enthusiastic about our union’s-the California Teachers Association-call for much higher funding for education offered to take over our afternoon classes while we made the trip.
We brought a sign that said, “Money for Education, Not for Incarceration,” and all the teachers at our school signed their names to it.
The demonstration was called in response to Democratic Gov. Gray Davis’s refusal to commit a greater share of state funds to public education. Specifically, teachers were protesting the fact that California’s per pupil spending on education is significantly below -about $1000 below-the national average.
Teachers’ wages in high cost-of-living cities such as San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, and many others make it impossible for them to afford housing expenses. San Francisco, for example, has a huge yearly teacher turnover because new teachers cannot afford to rent, let alone buy, homes in this over-priced area.
The most popular chant at the demonstration was “Show Us the Money!” And the teachers meant business! California, a wealthy state with a big surplus in the current state budget, has the worst teacher-student ratio in the country. This is despite a recent funding measure that lowered class size in kindergarten through third-grade classes to 20 (from as high as 33).
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the wealthy capitalists who control the California state government and Department of Education have little concern for educating the huge number of immigrant, Chicano, Black, and other working-class children who attend public schools here.
California corporations are rolling in money. This is the home of Silicon Valley, new Internet companies and dot-com fortunes. California’s military-industrial complex is booming. Its agri-business is booming. Its prison industry is booming.
Meanwhile, its social services, education, and public health systems are starving. Given the billions in profits being raked in by California corporations, this situation is completely unacceptable.
The California Teachers Association is a huge organization representing about 200,000 teachers in the state. When it sets its muscle to accomplish something, such as defeating the voucher plan that was on the ballot two years ago, it can do it. What the union hasn’t been doing, until the May 8 demonstration, is to mobilize teachers in militant demonstrations for their own rights and for the rights of the children to quality public schools. May 8 should be only the beginning of mobilizing teachers.
Unfortunately, the CTA endorsed and gave lots of money to Gray Davis when he was running for governor. This is the usual way the Teachers Union engages in politics; endorsing, supporting, and trying to cut deals with Democrats.
But this just doesn’t work. More was accomplished with the one demonstration on May 8 (more money promised for education just before and right after the demonstration) than in the previous several years!
In terms of winning some concrete reforms (like more pay for teachers and better schools for kids) there’s nothing so practical as organizing some good old-fashioned mobilizations of workers’ power in the streets.