Pink Friday- Teacher Cuts in California


Teachers and Community Members Rallying in Santa Maria

On Friday, March 14, I joined the thousands of teachers, educators, students, and other citizens in the statewide rally “Pink Friday” to protest the California budget cuts that are adversely affecting education. While the new Obama Administration has committed billions in education funding increases as part of the national economic stimulus package, the State of California has committed to undoing any good that may come from these stimulus funds. Tens of thousands of teachers across California have received pink slips, ending their employment in public schools, perhaps permanently, or at least leaving them in limbo for a few months before they find out if they will be hired back for the coming school year.

The reasons for the cuts to education are far from simple. While blame of the minority party in the State Legislature is in order,conservative politics are hardly the only force at work that is bleeding education. California’s system for funding education and other public services, its mechanism for levying taxes, and its process for modifying the state laws governing taxation and expenditures are all contributing factors in this budget crisis. It is a great irony that one of the strongest economies in the world has chained itself to funding mechanisms that sink rapidly in the economic downturn, through over-reliance on real estate appreciation and capital gains taxes.

So, the money’s gone now, but when we did have the cash, we didn’t invest in schools anyway. Modest improvements and increases occurred during the early class-size reduction period and the early NCLB period, and some districts benefitted from State modernization and new construction funds, but schools were hardly high on the hog during the last several periods of economic growth or stability.

California’s per pupil spending is somewhere near the bottom of all the states in the union, in spite of the high cost of living and high costs for providing services such as transportation. I believe the debate now is whether we are in the bottom 5. The U.S. Census data clearly shows California spending far less than many other states, as a tradition, in good times and bad. This spending looks even smaller when compared to the capacity of California’s economy; it’s ability to pay, so to speak.

I’m committed to learning more about the intricacies of this funding and expenditure snafu. The old “third rail” of California’s politics, Proposition 13, has to be looked at as part of this problem. Perhaps touching the charged rail won’t be as hazardous as people believe, a long as we’re careful. In addition, we’ll have to reassess the value of the 2/3 vote in the State legislature on issues of taxation and spending that maintains the tyranny of the minority over California’s resource allocations.

We can’t continue a political system which works against the will of the majority of the state’s citizens, it’s time to return to a democracy.

Innovative Education and California Budget Cuts

The following are my remarks as Santa Barbara Teacher of the Year, at the Grant Recognition Dinner on the 25th Anniversary of the Teacher’s Network.

February 25, 2009

Thank you. It is an honor to be here with all of you in this celebration of all that is good in education. I’m proud to be in the company of so many innovative educators, and all of you who support our field.

From the time I began my career as a teacher, I wanted to be an innovator. I saw education as a broken machine that needed to be fixed. I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to do them better. But, I also assumed that no matter what experiments I tried, or new methods I developed, I would face conflict and resistance from my colleagues and administration at every step of the way.

As is the way of youth, I was wrong, about many things.

My initial forays into innovative education included teaching kindergartners about astronomy, turning a junior high math class into a stock market, and having my science class spend weeks building insect collections. I was never quite sure of the kind of reaction I would get for my different approaches, so I didn’t always advertise what I was doing.

I was shocked at times by the degree of autonomy I was given, and the latitude I had for experimenting with pedagogy and content. I was strongly supported by my colleagues and my administration. I discovered that many of my peers had been innovative teachers for decades. I learned that there are many ways of being a great teacher. I was surprised that people had faith in me.

One day, while my students and I were on an unscheduled field trip to the park across the street, swinging around homemade insect nets, my principal came walking across the street. I was sure I was in trouble. But then she took out her camera and started taking pictures. She was so excited to see the kids outside, exploring their world. She said this was the kind of thing our students needed more of.

I took this to heart, an continued to develop my teaching skills and acquire resources that would help my students learn things they might not learn anywhere else. Working with technology. Building robots. Learning to program. Camping. Visiting colleges. Making movies. All of these things became a regular part of my work.

There’s a Sidney Harris cartoon, where two scientists are facing a blackboard, on which, there are two sets of equations. There is a tangled web of mathematics on the left, and another on the right, and in the middle, bridging the two sets of irreconcilable equations are the words “Then a miracle occurs.” The mess of mathematical expressions on the left side of the board can be imagined to be public education: the courses, curriculum, and structure of schools. The right side of the board and its formulae can be imagined to be one’s life and career.

This is an apt analogy for our system of education.

We provide a certain finite set of inputs through the structure in schools, often insufficient resources and offerings —and then a miracle occurs, —and then our students are ready for college, careers, and their lives.

But what is that miracle?

It’s the work of dedicated teachers; like those of you here tonight.

You are the teachers that go around fixing the school’s outdated computers, or the ones who still take kids on science field trips, or you grow plants from seeds- even when science has been alloted no time in the school day.

These teachers are the ones who apply for grants. They look beyond the day to day obligations and see the bigger picture. They do the things they know are right. They do what’s best for kids. They make miracles happen.

These teachers don’t have to do these things, but they do them anyway.

The teachers in this room, and countless others like them, recognize that in order for us to truly prepare our students to become lifelong learners, we need to provide a wide variety of curricular and extracurricular learning opportunities.

We need to instill the love of learning, and appreciation for the full spectrum of the human experience. We would be foolish to teach only the skills needed for today’s workforce, or to limit our instruction to serving some ideal of the past. We need to teach ingenuity, creativity, and problem solving. As recent history has shown, the skills our students may need 10, 20, or 30 years from now, will undoubtedly be quite different from those they need today.

In high school, I got D’s in Math and English. I credit band, auto-shop, and theater classes with keeping me interested in school and teaching me to appreciate learning. It was these classes helped me stay in school and continue my education to become the teacher I am.

Many of our most vital programs, exist on the fringe of education, outside of conventional funding streams. They continue to exist by the labor of ambitious teachers, and through the encouragement of organizations such as The Teacher’s Network.

We teachers tend to be lousy economists. I’ve estimated that I could cut out half of my work, and still collect 95% of my pay. This is not uncommon. We invest our summers, weekends, and our own money to provide for the needs of our students and classrooms that are not met by the formal structure of education.

I call this “faith-based education”. I don’t mean faith in the religious sense.

What I mean is that, commonly, education policy neglects to provide much needed resources- or fails to institutionalize curricula that students need. For example, in many schools today, we provide very little direct instruction in the accessing, evaluating and proper use of digital information from the internet, yet this is a vital skill for life and knowledge-based careers.

Instead of formally addressing issues such as these, we take it on faith, that somewhere out there, some courageous teacher will pick up the ball and fill in the holes that were made by our omissions of policy or shortages of funding, or that kids will find some way to teach themselves the things they need to know, like the way they’re teaching themselves instant messaging.
But there are some fundamental flaws in a system that relies so heavily on the self-sacrifice of individuals, the altruism of a few.

When we rely solely on faith, that all these wonderful things will continue to happen, sometimes they don’t. In schools where morale is low, where salaries are insufficient, where class sizes are unmanageably large, sometimes the miracle doesn’t happen. Volunteerism thrives in a stable environment.
We should not have to rely on faith that good instruction and a comprehensive curriculum is being taught in all public schools. We need to ensure that this is the case. We need to invest adequate resources, distribute those resources in an equitable manner, and be careful not to impose draconian policies that will inhibit innovative instruction.

I would like to close by drawing special attention to the current budget crisis.

Education is in a precarious position that not everyone is aware of. While the housing market soared, and the stock market was riding high, schools saw little or no economic benefit.

Teachers weren’t collecting massive bonuses or redecorating their offices (we don’t have offices). In fact, many schools throughout this period were dealing with overwhelming class sizes, crumbling infrastructure, and ongoing struggles to provide basic services. Teachers were lucky to get cost of living adjustments, and were even luckier if they managed to keep some health care. Many of us saw real wages fall.

At the policy level, we had to fight tooth and nail to prevent proposed cuts at the State and federal level every year. Unlike the housing market, the stock market, and government revenues, education didn’t benefit from the economic gluttony of the last few years, but when everything came crashing down, the funding for schools went with it.

The current cuts to education are having devastating impacts in schools across the State and in our region.

The Obama administration and the new congress have already begun a massive reinvestment in education at the Federal level, but California’s self imposed cuts may erase any potential benefit from these federal funds. If California cannot find a way to markedly increase investment in education, we may look back on these times and laugh that we were actually trying to improve schools. We might be more likely to reflect on this time as the golden age of education, where every school was labeled as “failing”, but they were all better than what followed. Remember when we only had 35 students in each class? Do you remember art class?

I want to give a special thanks to the administration and board of directors of the Santa Maria-Bonita school district. In the last several weeks, they have done an amazing job limiting the adverse impacts of these midyear cuts. Our administration has managed to find ways to save millions of dollars, largely by altruistically taking on multiple jobs themselves, and by delaying filling vacant positions. They have insulated classrooms and students from this round of cuts, and avoided layoffs of teachers.

Thank you.

Finally, I would like to make a plea to administrators and school board members from all school districts to the same, now and in the future. Do whatever you can to keep these cuts as far away from direct student services as possible. Delay, at all cost, making the cuts that you can’t take back. I didn’t get pink slipped in my early years. I had the stability, encouragement, and time to become the teacher I am today. Please do whatever you can so that others can have that same opportunity.

Be innovative, and maybe we can still have miracles.