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News :: Labor
California Teachers Take Another Hit From Politicians
01 Jul 2014
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With Democratic Governor Jerry Brown in office since 2011 and the Democratic Party winning a supermajority in the state legislature in 2012, one might think that organized labor was secure and riding high. At least, that is the impression organized labor projects during campaign season. But the Democratic politicians have used their supermajority to serve up a cruel bill of fare to working people, who are still trying to digest it.

There are two public retirement systems in California, and with the drop in the return on investments during the Great Recession both became underfunded. Governor Brown first targeted CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System) and managed to push through reforms that included raising the age of retirement and raising the amount public workers contribute to the fund. Unions offered no significant opposition to these concessions.

This year Brown has tackled CalSTRS (California State Teachers’ Retirement System), which covers K – 12 and community college teachers. In addition to increasing the amount the state and school districts contribute, he has proposed that teachers pay an additional 2.25 percent of their salary to the retirement fund.

One might think that the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) would have strongly opposed Brown’s proposed concessions from teachers, given that it is one of the more “progressive” unions in the state and many of its members are covered by CalSTRS. Quite the contrary: it wrote Governor Brown, saying it “would like to thank you for proposing a solution to addressing the current unfunded liability of CalSTRS” and merely asked Brown to extend the timeline for the implementation of some of his proposals. CFT explained why it embraced Brown’s proposal in this way: “CFT believes that all stakeholders are responsible for solving the CalSTRS unfunded liability.”

Superficially and at first glance, one might agree with CFT that Brown’s proposal seems fair. All stakeholders should pay. But after taking a step backwards and surveying the entire context, a different conclusion emerges.

For example, a recent study found that in California “public school teachers’ retirement benefits — at least the part taxpayers pay for — are smaller than those of virtually any other type of public employee, despite frequent claims that teachers’ pensions are excessive and diverting precious dollars from education and other essential government services.”

Given that teachers’ pensions are lower, it is only reasonable that their current salaries should be higher so that they can prepare for this frugal future. Instead, Brown is proposing their salaries be reduced by diverting part of their salaries into the retirement fund. But this salary reduction comes on the heels of previous teacher salary cuts during the Great Recession when teachers were required to take furloughs (unpaid days off) and were denied salary increases to compensate for inflation.

Everyone benefits from public education. Businesses can hire people with the intellectual foundation to become productive workers, thanks to public education. Well-educated people are more likely to get higher paying jobs, pay higher taxes, and are less likely to commit crimes.

But not everyone is in an equal position to help pay for public education. In California inequalities in wealth have soared during the past three decades. The income of the wealthiest 1 percent of Californians grew by 81 percent while the income of the bottom 20 percent dropped by 11.5 percent.

So the wealthy are in a far better position to pay the taxes that underwrite public education and help pay for the pensions of the people who do the hard work of educating. After all, if one “stakeholder,” as CFT refers to teachers, has fallen overboard and is clinging desperately to a life jacket while another “stakeholder” (the rich) is lounging on deck with a large collection of life jackets, it would hardly be fair to demand that the stakeholder in the water give up their life jacket. Brown’s retirement proposal is basically asking those who are threatened with drowning to give up their life jacket while those comfortably situated on the deck are not asked to give up anything.

And the tax structure in California basically follows this same logic, thanks to aggressive lobbying on the part of the rich and the corporations. Shockingly, California’s lowest-income families pay state and local taxes at a higher rate than the very wealthy. The poorest people pay at a rate of 11.1 percent. The top 1 percent pays at a rate at a rate of 7.8 percent, lower than any other income bracket. The wealthier people are, the lower their tax rates. (The California Budget Project.)

Corporate taxes have followed a similar logic. Between the 1980s and 2003, for example, corporate taxes declined by a third.

None of these trends should be surprising. They simply reflect the power of money. The San Francisco Chronicle reported:

“In a state with nearly 38 million people, few have more influence than the top 100 donors to California campaigns – a powerful club that has contributed overwhelmingly to Democrats and spent $1.25 billion to influence voters over the past dozen years. These big spenders represent a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups that donated to California campaigns from 2001 through 2011. But they supplied about one-third of the $3.67 billion given to state campaigns during that time, campaign records show. With a few exceptions, these campaign elites have gotten their money’s worth, according to California Watch’s analysis of campaign data from state finance records and the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, which tracks the influence of campaign money on state elections.”

All of this leads to the question why all “stakeholders” should take responsibility for underwriting the retirement fund, as CFT has argued, when some stakeholders (the rich and the corporations) are not paying anywhere near their fair share of taxes and when teachers have already suffered financially from the Great Recession, caused by reckless and lawless bankers and the politicians who do their bidding?

CFT knows full well how unjust the tax structure is in California and, to its credit, has led the campaign to raise the slogan of taxing the rich. It is not operating from a position of ignorance. However, it seems to operate from a position of cynicism. Despite Governor Brown’s anti-union record, CFT has endorsed him for re-election in 2014. And despite the Obama administration’s attack on public schools by promoting charter schools, merit pay, and the evaluation of teachers on the basis of students’ standardized tests scores, CFT’s parent affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), endorsed him for re-election. At best, the CFT and AFT will get a few crumbs tossed their way while their members continue to suffer a declining standard of living.

In other words, in response to a class war, where corporations and the rich are championing privatizing public education, reducing wages of workers, dismantling pensions, shredding the social safety net, cutting Social Security, avoiding single-payer health care, loosening environmental restrictions, and preventing federal and state governments from creating jobs — all programs that working people want defended or implemented — CFT, AFT and unions in general are allying themselves with Democratic Party politicians who are linked to the corporations that are spearheading these attacks. With this kind of battle strategy, there can be little wonder why unions are in a steady decline and why union members are so uninvolved with their own unions.

The Chicago Teachers Union proved that there is a winning strategy available, if unions would only take advantage of it. They acted independently of the Democrats and Republicans in order to unambiguously defend both their members and public education, and they actually took on Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was privatizing dozens of schools and refusing to pay teachers adequately. The Chicago Teachers Union mobilized their members, they solidified alliances with the community and won a majority of the public to their cause, they held huge mass rallies — tens of thousands participated — as a way of reaching out to the public about their grievances, and they organized a successful strike. But they could only do this because they put the members of the union in charge and kept them informed at all times of all important developments.

This strategy stands in stark contrast to how most unions operate: they only give the most vague reports to their members and focus exclusively on electing Democrats to office or weighing in on legislative measures. When rallies are organized, they bring out a few hundred or a few thousand at best. They are not seriously pursuing massive demonstrations but merely give the appearance they are fighting. After all, the last thing the Democratic Party wants are massive demonstrations that they don’t control. This approach amounts to unions subordinating the interests of their members to the interests of the politicians, and the Democrats are quick to punish unions who fail to toe the line.

As working people lose more and more ground while the rich get ever richer, they will eventually reach an explosive point where they have been pushed too far. Unions have the choice of continuing to elect sell-out, dead-end corporate politicians. Or they can create a real, politically independent grassroots movement, forging alliances between unions and the community, as the Chicago Teachers Union did, and build the necessary powerbase to counter the corporations and their politicians. Only such a grassroots movement, which aims at uniting all working people, will be capable of successfully confronting the class war that has been waged against them by the corporations and their politicians. The pressure is mounting on unions to adopt a new strategy and launch an all-out defense of their members.

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association.

Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco (at)
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RHow the charter school racket operates in Michigan
02 Jul 2014
2 July 2014

Over the past two decades, Michigan has become “ground zero” for the spread of for-profit charter schools. The state ranks first in the nation in the percentage of charter schools run by “education” companies that derive revenue from the resources siphoned from the public schools.

A whopping 78.8 percent of these schools are for-profit enterprises in Michigan. The next highest percentage is found in Missouri, having 36.6 percent of its charters for-profit.

Largely unregulated and run by politically connected businessmen seeking to cash in on the half-trillion dollar year education “market,” several charter school operations around the country have been exposed as corrupt rackets. (See: “Charter school companies in US face corruption charges”).

The Detroit Free Press has released what it calls an exhaustive year-long study of the financing, operation, oversight and education outcomes of Michigan’s charter schools on its “” website. The study, which includes articles, documents, PDF files and videos, is a damning indictment.

The exposé, however, does not draw any connection between the spread of charter schools and the deliberate dismantling of public education by the Bush and Obama administrations. The Democratic president has overseen the doubling of the number of charter school students since taking office in 2009.

The Free Press points out there are several states, including Mississippi, not generally thought of as a paragon of public education, that have explicitly banned profiting from educating young people.

Detroit ranks number two in the country in the percentage of schools that have been chartered, trailing only New Orleans, where the school district has been completely privatized. In the case of New Orleans, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, exacerbated by the criminal neglect of the Bush administration, was used as a pretext to dismantle public education. In Detroit it has been a protracted campaign of budget cuts, school closings and the elimination of thousands of teacher and support staff jobs, carried out by a succession of local Democratic Party administrations, which were aided and abetted by the Detroit Federation of Teachers union, that opened the door to a takeover by charter schools.

In recent years, all manner of charlatans, con artists, preachers and retired professional athletes have opened charter schools in Detroit, pocketing money that would have gone to traditional public schools. In fact, enrollment in charter schools in the city has now surpassed that of the public schools.

The most blatant example of the reckless insinuation of these elements into public education was witnessed with the transformation of the Catherine Ferguson Academy, an award-winning school devoted to the education of unwed teenage mothers and their children, into a charter school in 2011. The new chartered CFA would be run by a dubious outfit, Evans Solutions, Inc., owned by Blair Evans, brother of a former Detroit police chief.

The World Socialist Web Site, whose supporters actively fought against the privatization of the school, warned at the time, “The Detroit political and corporate establishment has no interest in defending CFA. Their conscious strategy is to shut down large sections of the public school system, while subordinating the rest to the direct operations of for-profit companies.”

Earlier this month it was announced that Catherine Ferguson Academy would be shuttered permanently.

A summary of the Free Press investigation’s most significant findings, include the following:

1. Charter schools spend $1 billion per year in state taxpayer money, often with little transparency.

2. A majority of the worst-ranked charter schools in Michigan have been open 10 years or more.

3. Charter schools as a whole fare no better than traditional schools in educating students in poverty.

4. Some charter school board members were forced out after demanding financial details from management companies.

5. State law does not prevent insider dealing and self-enrichment by those who operate schools.

The Free Press, no doubt in the interest of “balance” and not offending its corporate and political benefactors in both capitalist parties, declares there are some “innovative” charter schools that have “excellent academic outcomes.” It should be pointed out, however, that charter schools, despite their quasi-public character, are selective about the students they accept. Public schools, especially those that service specific neighborhoods and do not require testing to get in, must accept everybody, including students with severe learning disabilities.

However, even with this seeming advantage over public schools, the vast majority of charter schools have not improved the education outcomes for their students … quite the contrary. These schools provide a cut-rate education for students and substandard wages and benefits for their employees, who are in constant fear for their jobs. If a particular venture proves unprofitable, a company can simply move on to greener pastures. This, in fact, occurred earlier this month when Mozaica Education pulled out of the Muskegon Heights School District, located in the western part of the state.

The Muskegon Heights district became the first fully chartered district in the country, when, in 2012, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to oversee its operation.

The Free Press report sheds an interesting light on the question of school governance. Charter schools are run by management companies, but there are also “boards of directors,” roughly analogous to school boards. However, in the case of many charter schools, these ostensibly governing bodies are mere window dressing, a rubber stamp for the appropriation of public money by the businesses in whose interest these schools serve.

When even these handpicked board members have had enough and demand more transparency, and an accounting of where the money is going, they are usually removed or simply ignored. Case in point is the minutes from a board meeting at the Detroit Enterprise Academy in October, 2010. DEA is a charter school run by National Heritage Academies, an outfit set up in the mid-1990s by J.C. Huizenga, cousin of H. Wayne Huizenga, founder of the huge trash conglomerate, Waste Management Corporation.

When asked why he became interested in starting a school, Huizenga quipped, “I got to thinking about the possibility of opening a charter school that would overlay a business model on top of the education model.” Regarding the for-profit aspect of the enterprise, Nick Paradiso, NHA’s vice president pointed to Huizenga’s interest in various bond markets. He added while the company does not disclose its financial operations, it started making a profit in 2000.

At the 2010 board meeting an exchange took place between a board member and NHA representative Greg Lambert regarding the NHA management fee. The issue in question was a resolution put forward by board members for dual signatures for disbursement from the Detroit Enterprise Academy bank account. In other words, there was a question as to who was withdrawing the money and where was it going.

A verbatim segment of the minutes reads, “There was a discussion regarding the amount of the NHA management fee. Greg Lambert clarified that the entire amount received by NHA was the management fee according to the contract and that there was no separate item line for a ‘management fee.’ He stated he would not disclose a specific dollar amount for management fees. The appropriateness of this position was questioned since public money was involved. Mr. Lambert stated that the public dollars became private when they were received by NHA. He further indicated that because NHA is a private company, the information need not be disclosed.”

This extraordinary account is hardly atypical. It encapsulates at once the rapacious and criminal character of these business “overlays” on what remains of public education in the United States and the ease by which these corporate vultures can plunder the public coffer.

The theft of public monies goes hand in hand with a reduction in per-pupil spending, including salaries and benefits for teachers and support staff, in addition to supplies and equipment used for instruction. During 2012-13, average charter classroom spending was $4,893 per pupil, compared with $6,985 for traditional schools.

According to the Free Press the six largest for-profit operators of charter schools all spend less on each student, in some cases substantially so, than the statewide average. For example, C S Partners, which operates 19 Michigan charters, spent 37 percent less on each student. These cost savings go directly to the corporate owners who have a financial incentive to spend as little on students as possible.

Regarding academic achievement the results for these charter schools range from unremarkable to abysmal. It should be noted that the Obama administration’s advocacy for charter schools coupled with his “Race to the Top” education agenda and the push for the adoption of the Common Core Curriculum, has greatly deepened the crisis within the public schools. It is no exaggeration to say that these policies, which primarily center on standardized test results as the sole indicator of student achievement has relegated teachers to onlooker status at many schools. Predictably, student learning has suffered.

But if one were to think that charter schools would be the beneficiaries of the public schools misfortune—guess again. The Free Press exposure shows that not only is the for-profit company taking financial advantage of the most economically and socially at-risk students, in many cases their students are scoring even lower on standardized tests than public school students.

Take the Leona Group for example. In math proficiency, as measured by the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test, its students scored a 15 percent average, meaning 85 percent of students in the state of Michigan scored higher.

The transformation of Michigan into a center of for-profit schools and the restoration of a class-based education system is a complete reversal of history. According to University of Michigan Professor Jeffrey Mirel, a specialist on the history of education, by the mid-nineteenth century the state had “become a leader in democratizing education, and in creating a public K-16 system.” During this period Michigan State University was founded as the first land grant college in the United States.

All this was in place when the eruption of the American working class in the 1930s, spearheaded by auto workers in Detroit and Flint, led to the formation of industrial unions, a substantial improvement in living standards and expansion of the reach of quality public education to ever wider layers of the population.

That public education is now being dismantled under successive Republican and Democratic administrations is the direct result of the conscious decision by the American ruling class to reverse these gains. It is also testimony to the treachery of the United Auto Workers, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and other unions, which have abandoned any defense of workers’ interests.

American capitalism is rolling back the clock to a time when workers had no rights. It is seeking to impose the unfettered dictatorship of the corporate and financial aristocracy over society. Therefore knowledge of culture and history and the expectation of a better life—which has always been at the center of the education of the next generation—must be expunged completely.