As we prepare to observe the national holiday honoring the roles working men, women, and children have played in building our nation—which too many of us will spend doing everything but that—I’d like to offer a little prayer.
God save the California Teachers Association (CTA).
I do this for both intensely personal and public-policy reasons.
My older sister taught school for 33 years, 32 of them in public schools. She taught life sciences in middle and elementary school and was much compensated for it—with awards and the love and gratitude of colleagues and students, not money. Fourteen years after Brown v. Board of Education, she stood before her first public-school class, in a year in which two charismatic public leaders were assassinated, many American cities erupted in flames, and a President abandoned a second term over an unwanted war. She and many of her union peers took every legal and political opportunity to make public education both integrated and equal, at great professional and personal risk. Her union bargained for and earned her a pension and health benefits that allowed her to retire in dignity and to manage the many physical ailments she neither anticipated nor earned. After she died in February, we gathered to remember and appreciate how many other lives she influenced in a positive way. We couldn’t begin to hang a number on it.
Quick exercise: Take out your #2 pencil:
- Name the last five Super Bowl winners.
- Name the five teachers who had the greatest influence on you in your life.
- If you answered Question (1) correctly and Question (2) incorrectly, what year did you drop out?
In the last century, while in law school, I had the good fortune to be involved in a program called “Street Law”, thanks to Professor Jason Newman and fellow student Ed O’Brien. (I’m happy to say the program is thriving and international.) Its initial purpose was to teach the origins and importance of our rule of law to kids in “Juvie” and underfunded high schools. Another student and I team-taught for a semester less than a mile away at Dunbar High School—at the time, one of D.C.’s poorest. (How poor was it?, you ask. Students who already couldn’t afford to had to buy most of their own books.) The most immediate benefit for me was that our kids, most of whom had much more experience with the law than I, weren’t shy about asking the one question most avoided in my own studies: “Why?” One young man—who’d done time for defending himself, with a brick, against a cop wearing leather gloves, with steel washers sewn in just below the knuckles—wondered aloud how, exactly, that was a just result. What a spirited hour that was! We did no better than a draw, as I remember. More importantly, as interested observers we experienced firsthand the crushing challenges confronting urban communities and their public schools. Two examples stick with me to this day:
- A young woman came into our class seemingly bored and acting out; her colleagues said, “She’s just that way.” She turned around completely that one semester, after we figured out she had an equilibrium problem that was corrected with glasses.
- We met a White English teacher who was happily failing kids who couldn’t get through the Sunday funnies for not mastering Chaucer, in Middle English.
As I wrote 11 days ago, the privilege of escort my oldest grandson to his first day of Kindergarten fell to me because both his parents are public schoolteachers. My son heads a program he inaugurated to give autistic kids of high school age the encouragement and skills they need to live independently as productive citizens, rather than wards of the state. My daughter-in-law teaches third grade as part of “a schoolwide program” in a Title I elementary school. Here’s what that means, as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act and interpreted by the California Department of Education (CDE):
“A schoolwide program is a comprehensive reform strategy designed to upgrade the entire educational program in a Title I school; its primary goal is to ensure that all students, particularly those who are low-achieving, demonstrate proficient and advanced levels of achievement on State academic achievement standards. In general, a Title I school may operate as a schoolwide program only if a minimum of 40 percent of the students in the school, or residing in the attendance area served by the school, are from low-income families.”
Translation: Nearly half of her students are poor and English is a second language. Last year, she was Teacher of the Year there.
In short, they made the same, high-risk career choice my sister made and in which I had brief, meaningful experience, for the same altruistic reasons. They decided to dedicate themselves to assuring that their students—in particular, those to whom life has not been as kind as to most others—leave their charge with what they need to excel, while doing no more damage to their dreams and imaginations than required. That choice carries with it the compromises and challenges with which anyone who knows a diligent K-12 teacher is familiar. If they endure, the greatest of these is limited earning potential, which in turn limits their own options for preparing for their own children’s postsecondary education. In exchange, as CTA members they’ve exercised their rights to benefit from negotiated contracts that guarantee a decent salary, to qualify for tenure after two years, and to earn retirement benefits that guarantee some measure of security for time served.
Because the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 applied only to collective bargaining in the private sector, CTA members organized, worked for, and won the right to bargain collectively in 1975, 16 years after Wisconsin. Urban affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers had won similar rights in between—New York in 1961, Denver in 1962, and Chicago in 1966.
“A Decent Living?”
To provide context, here are the 2011 basic numbers, according to TeacherPortal, a proprietary, unaffiliated data source “owned and operated by QuinStreet, Inc. (NASDAQ: QNST), a publicly traded corporation that operates a vertical marketing and media online business in the United States and internationally.” (For my Republican friends: an “entrepreneur” and, therefore, authoritative. Their raison d’etre is a one-stop resource for potential teachers deciding where to locate—and to receive “free” information on how to enroll in to online graduate degree programs, which is another matter entirely.) The average starting salary for a starting California teacher was $35,760, ninth-highest in the nation; the average salary overall was tops at $59,825; the average in 13 other states exceeds $50,000. California ranked eighth in average percentage increase in salary after 10 years, at 41.6%. Here’s how TeacherPortal summarizes the prospects in the Golden State:
California is the top state for average salaries for teachers but don’t be fooled. With such a high cost of living, you’ll definitely want to get your masters degree to increase your salary… There are many other benefits to living in California of course—and many people can—and do—live comfortably off of a standard teacher’s salary… With recent budget issues, the education budget has come into question—luckily, strong unions and interest in education at a national and state level looks [sic] to keep this a secure place to be in any environment.
For comparison purposes, according to CDE, in 2009-2010 the average salary for a K-12 principal was $105,964 and $153,610 for a superintendent. (Their public data, now two school years old, shows an average full-time teacher’s salary as $67,932, which is $8,107 more than TeacherPortal’s figure. Besides the latter’s data being a little newer, I’m assuming the latter also includes teachers paid part-time.)
Other demographic fun facts from CDE, from 2009-10, which portray the size and diversity of the public education enterprise here:
- Total number of teachers in K-12 public schools: 299,886.
- Ethnicity of public school teachers: White, 207,457, or 69%. The two next highest groups represented are Latino/Hispanic, 52,052 (17%), and Asian, 15,567 (5%). (A total of 2,997 teachers declined to identify ethnic origins.)
- Gender of public schoolteachers: Female, 217,872 (73%).
- Total number of public school students: 6,190,425. (A total of 512,586 (8%) K-12 pupils were enrolled in private schools.)
- Ethnicity of public school students:
- African American not Hispanic, 424,327 (6.9%)
- American Indian or Alaska Native, 44,915 (0.7%)
- Asian, 526,866 (8.51%)
- Filipino, 156,433 (2.5%)
- Hispanic or Latino, 3,118,404 (50 .4%)
- Pacific Islander, 37,012 (0.6%)
- White not Hispanic, 1,673,278 (27.0%)
- Two or More Races Not Hispanic, 96,785 (1.6%)
- None Reported, 112,405 (1.8%)
A Brief History
CTA’s predecessor was founded in 1863, which earned its first legislative victory, establishing free public education, in 1866. That organization became CTA in 1875. Early and significant legislative achievements included:
- Public funding for schools teaching non-White students (1867);
- Prohibiting the use of public school funds for sectarian religious purposes (1878-79);
- Free textbooks for all students in grades 1-8 (1911);
- The first teacher tenure and due process law (1912);
- Establishing the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (1913);
- Leading efforts to outlaw child labor and enact other protections for children in California (1915), and
- Strengthening the teachers’ due process law (1921).
CTA’s never been shy about taking sides on controversial issues. In the 1940s, the union was the only major organization in California to protest against the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. To give you an idea where our elected stated representatives were at the time, Senator Ralph Dills—a 43-year lawmaker (and, early in his career, a teacher) furloughed by term limits, with whom I had the privilege to work for 11 years—was one of only two members of our Legislature to vote against internment. More recently, in 2008 they put their members and their money to work in opposition to Prop. 8, the constitutional amendment that by definition prohibited gay marriage which is still pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s in their charter to work to protect civil and human rights. (Must be that thing about teaching to truth.)
In between, they’ve been in the trenches in every legislative and electoral fight affecting public school funding since the passage of Prop. 13 in 1978, the so-called “Taxpayer Revolt” which essentially gutted local funding for schools and transferred that responsibility to the state Legislature. Ten years later, CTA sponsored Prop. 98, which upon enactment added a provision to the state Constitution requiring that no less than 40% of total General Fund revenues be dedicated to K-12 public education—putting the union in a strong negotiating position in each annual budget cycle. As former Governor Schwarzenegger can attest, on matters budgetary you take CTA on at your peril. In his first full budget after his predecessor’s recall, he negotiated to “borrow” $2 billion from K-12 education and reneged on his promise to pay it back in the next cycle, so CTA took to the airwaves to call him on it. In 2005 the Governor sponsored and raised money for a package of three initiatives aimed directly at the organization:
- Prop. 75, to extend teachers’ probationary period from two to five years.
- Prop. 76, to require “public employee labor organizations” (and nobody else) to get members’ prior written consent annually before using dues for political contributions.
- Prop. 77, to lower Prop. 98’s funding formula and no longer require repayment of “borrowed” K-12 revenues.
CTA is oft-criticized for being the biggest gorilla in the Capitol cage, what with its 325,000 dues-paying members and its multimillion-dollar annual contributions budget—you know, one of those vile “special interests.” (Footnote: Their numbers also include community college teachers and some other faculty members.) I’ve been involved in legislative politics, one way and another, since I was 17. Every time I see or hear that phrase, the antennae go up; it’s code for one entity to try to gain advantage over another in the process.
Quick Civics Lesson. You may not want to hear this, but lobbying is a constitutionally protected right. Tucked in at the end of the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights—after the freedoms from government-established religion, of worship, speech, and press—is “the right of the people peaceably to assembly, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (Seems George III didn’t respond to their emails.) I’m not certain they foresaw that this clause would be used to guarantee the “right” of latter-day royalty—billionaires—to spend freely to secretly influence elections by hiding behind legal fictions, but that’s another matter. What they did understand is that we humans don’t come in only one flavor, and that we also tend to organize ourselves around shared ideas and beliefs, often at odds with others. (See “establishment of religion,” above.) Because these factions inevitably would compete for the attention and favors of those who govern, they reasoned this process should be acknowledged openly, and protected for everyone’s benefit. So, think about it: from that standpoint, everyone is a special interest. “Taxpayer, Party of One.” Ever entered into negotiation with your kid, who’s asked for a raise in her allowance? You’ve been lobbied. Ever ask your boss for a raise? You’re a lobbyist. Ewwww!
The lesson: You, too, are free to round up your fellow believers, collect dues, and take your cause to your elected servants. The founders’ hope was that an engaged citizenry would provide the necessary balance. In order for your voice to be heard, you have to use it. It’s a bit hypocritical to criticize others who combine to amplify theirs because, for whatever reason, you choose not to.
So, taking the long view: Until things change, the California Teachers Association is the best friend public school kids have ever had. Its members do society’s most important work, and dig into their own pockets to protect their pupils, the truth, and themselves. If you think they’re unqualified, overpaid, or too pampered in their golden years, speak up—but, please, have the integrity to bring facts. Consider it a for-credit assignment.
What can you do to help protect public education in California? Here are some starters:
- This November, vote “Yes” on Prop. 30. If we want better education, we have to pay for it. If we don’t, we won’t like the pain from “trigger cuts” built into the current year’s budget—and the state budget’s danse macabre goes back to left-foot-forward.
- Vote “No” on Prop. 38. I’m certain multi-millionaire Molly Munger has the best of intentions in trying to raise more dollars for education, in a more targeted way. We voters have an unfortunate habit of turning back both, when there are two tax measures on the ballot.
- Vote “No” on Prop. 32. Prop. 75’s backers are at it again; this time, they call it the “Paycheck Protection Act” and insist it cuts all ways. As the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters and others have pointed out already, it’s another anti-public union Trojan horse, with loopholes for wealthy contributors who will or who have already created exempt entities.
- Vote “Yes” on Prop.31. It ain’t perfect; in fact, it has some downright goofy stuff in it. It would establish a two-year budget cycle, though, which would make our current process of committing suicide by falling on a rock as often as necessary a little less painful. It would also allow local governments to combine and collaborate more—a two-edged sword but, still.
- If you elect Republicans to represent you in Sacramento, please do let them know that they have your permission to tell Grover Norquist to go pound sand, so they can actually participate in putting a budget together. Also, please do assure them that, yes, you are prepared to pay for whatever it is you want from them—without stealing from what’s already necessary or obligated. (Warning: You may be called upon to help identify alternate sources of re-election funds. Like, for example, you.)
- Get smart on what real state government reform looks like and talk it up with your friends, neighbors—and your representatives in Sacramento.
Finally, it pains me that my son and daughter-in-law have to pay for political participation; frankly, it pains me that anyone does. What can we do about it? It’s too late for “transparency” because we’ve already surrendered our governing and electoral processes to the moneychangers. Read the next sentence carefully: Almost all the money in politics goes for this purpose: to get elected and re-elected. If we, the people, want to check the corrosive power of money in politics, we have a choice to make. Pay the freight ourselves, out of personal contributions or taxes—neither of which we’ve ever been willing to do—or reform those processes to take out the profit motive.
More on that down the road.