The Fractious Politics of Education

I’m glad to join the vigorous community at orgtheory.  This first post (from politicsoutdoors) starts with local concerns, but the issues here are, obviously, much broader.

Hundreds of California teachers, declaring a state of emergency, demonstrated in Sacramento yesterday, marched on the Capitol building yesterday.  According to The Boston Globe(!?!), more than 100 rallied in the Capitol rotunda, resulting in 65 arrests.

There’s a lot to talk about here, telling us about protest politics, state budget crises, media, unions, and the troubled state of education in America.

Should we start with the media?  Bizarrely, while the Boston Globe published a good story (from AP) on the first day in a planned week of protests organized by the California Teachers Association, and several local papers picked up on it–and sympathy events across the state (e.g. here and here) , the Los Angeles Times, the biggest paper in California, missed the event altogether, leading its California section with the news of former Governor Schwarzenegger’s separation from his wife, Maria Shriver.

The decline of the LA Times, in terms of budget, circulation, quality, and coverage, has been as dramatic as that of any national paper still operating, surely part of the story here.  But the paper did cover education–and teachers protesting:

The protest story (embedded in a video) focused on Los Angeles teachers protesting against the Times itself; the paper has been publishing “value added” scores rating the effectiveness of all teachers in the city’s system.   The local union sees these scores as an attack.  The other education story covered the district’s plans to overhaul the staff at Huntington Park High School, one of the largest in the district; the district expects to replace at least one-half of the teachers.  The union is, understandably, concerned about this move as well.

But the bigger story is about massive budget cuts facing all public school districts in California.  Governor Jerry Brown’s budget plan was to retire the state’s $25+ billion dollar state deficit through roughly 1/2 cuts and 1/2 taxes.  (The tax part would come through a referendum to postpone planned tax cuts.)  If the voters failed to approve the tax extensions, Brown will cut, severely, spending on prisons and public schools.

It seemed like a clever plan.  Voters generally like the ideas of educating children and keeping felons in jail; additionally, Governor Brown would be able to count on two powerful unions, prison guards and teachers, to spend on the referendum campaign, and mobilize their members.  What Brown could not count on, however, was the votes of two Republican state assemblymen and two Republican state senators, which he needed to reach the 2/3 vote to put the question on the ballot.  (Insert your favorite rant here; the ones that come to my mind are about supermajorities, term limits, California politics, and Republicans.)

The Census Bureau reports on per pupil spending across the American states.  For 2007-08, the most recent data available, it lists a national average of about $10,000 per pupil.  New York and New Jersey spend the most, up to $17,000 per pupil.  Individual districts in affluent areas may spend as much as twice that amount.  (You can look up your district and its spending here.)  California is listed at about $9,800.  Since 2007-08, California has cut per pupil spending by more than $2,000.  California now spends less than most states, has larger class sizes than all of them, and lower test scores than almost every other state.  Governor Brown estimates that without the tax extensions, the new budget cuts will amount to something over $800 per pupil.

Local school districts will find their own ways to respond, and more affluent areas will try to raise independent funds–but they already do.  On the agenda in most districts are layoffs, program cuts, increases in class sizes, and reductions in the school year–already shorter than the academic year in any other rich country.  None of this is likely to improve public education in California.  Money isn’t the only thing that matters, of course, but it’s silly to pretend that money doesn’t matter.

The teachers’ union cares about this, of course, and the fact that jobs are part of the story, intensifies those concerns and makes them mobilizeable. Their answer, based on polling data: raise taxes on the rich.  Staging a week of protests is a way to try to draw public attention to the problem, and demonstrate their seriousness.  Given the 2/3 rule and the composition of that state legislature and the electorate, the demonstrations themselves are unlikely to matter all that much.  It’s not that the protest strategy is particularly likely to be effective so much as that everything else the teachers can do is even more unlikely to work–particularly without protest.

Maybe, however, at least in areas served by papers other than the LA Times, it can clue other Californians into the magnitude of the unfolding crisis.

To the extent that parents are tuned into what’s happening, they’re concerned and angry, and like most Californians, oppose the cuts.  Most Californians, however, also oppose any new taxes–except on the rich.

I suspect most parents are also trying to figure out solutions that spare them from engaging in the California budget process.  They can help raise independent funds for their district–or school, contract private services to help their own kids with music, art, and math, or leave the public schools altogether.  If they can’t afford any of these alternatives, they can fume privately, whine publicly, or urge their children to make the best of a bad situation.

But the fact that most families will try to avoid dealing with a collective problem as a collective problem makes the political work of the teachers union–and the professional work of the teachers–all that much harder.

Written by David S. Meyer

May 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Posted in uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. As someone who has 3 kids in California public schools (LAUSD) I would argue that a large reason for the failure of parents to join collective forces is actually the Teachers Union. The Teachers Union is no more on the side of parent than the auto workers union is on the side of shareholders of GM. In this case the Parents are the principals and the Teachers are the agents in the traditional principal/agent problem, unfortunately separated by many layers of powerful bureaucracy.
    In fact, it is often the very frustration and futility of fighting the teachers union that discourages many efforts of parents that I know. At the school my kids go to invariably as we get close to the better teachers that we want to support, we find that they are frustrated as they are not rewarded for their effort, and they consistently see lazy, but more senior teachers get rewards and help that they want and need. (I will vouch that the senior teacher in question are indeed lazy and it is not just bitter teachers complaining)
    In fact, the biggest concern I have about the cuts, is it is likely to keep many of the teachers parents dread, while removing those young energetic teachers I dearly hope my kids will have. This is unfortunately what we have already seen occur.
    Also, the preferences of parents are far from aligned. To truly have collective action, there would need to be compromise over a great many of issues, and logrolling to get alignment does not really work in this type of situation without already established groups with defined preferences.
    Further, those parents most likely to be able to make a difference find it cheaper and easier to just send their kids to private school etc as you mentioned.
    This is compounded by the proven ability of Californians (and the politicians they elect) to be rational and recognize that either taxes must go up, spending go down, or most likely, as Gov. Brown tried to propose, both.
    However, this does raise what I think are many interesting questions about how people with varied preferences in many dimensions can work together outside the common political parties. I unfortunately have yet to get my head around that aspect.




    May 10, 2011 at 8:40 pm

  2. David – To what extent are teachers and parents unified on the same issues? I can see that one of the advantages to organizing the anti-tax crowd in this setting is that their point of agreement is pretty clearly defined: they want to lower taxes. Is there a frame that unifies the pro-education side?


    brayden king

    May 10, 2011 at 9:44 pm

  3. When I was a child in California in the 1950s and 1960s, California schools were among the nation’s best. It’s a sad decline.

    Regarding teachers unions (and other unions) I wonder whether there is research that investigates the dynamics Jim brings up, which I have heard elsewhere, both about teachers and other workers. On the one hand, unions are necessary to prevent worker exploitation. (I remember when and why public workers unionized.) On the other hand, the stress on seniority really does protect bad workers, teachers in this case, and that alienates not just the public or customers or management, but also the other workers. I don’t really know the union literature on these points.



    May 11, 2011 at 3:35 am

  4. Jim sees the teachers union as an obstacle to parents–and others–stepping up to defend public schools in California (and America), and every particular complaint he makes is likely right. This is, as olderwoman notes, hardly unusual in the US. For the past 50 years (at least), organized interests have vilified labor. And labor, in this case, the teachers union, has given them enough ammunition to do so. As I noted in the post, the LA teachers union is in the news the same day attacking the LA Times for publishing the effectiveness ratings of every teacher in the district—but the Times isn’t the main villain here.

    Brayden asks whether teachers and parents have the same interests. Almost. Teachers have a professional obligation to look out for their students–and some of them do it quite well. Teachers’ unions have an obligation to look out for their members, including those who don’t do as good a job with the students. I’d guess that you can find a story in mass media almost every day detailing some hideous example of a conflict between those constituencies.

    Here, the teachers union is the first, most powerful, and most aggressive defender of public funding for public schools. If that fact tars the cause for parents and others, we risk sacrificing all our children’s education on the basis of something that looks like spite–or, minimally, short-sightedness. There’s no way that cutting funding for public schools will improve public education.

    (There’s an obvious sociological question here–and a research program.)


    David S. Meyer

    May 11, 2011 at 3:45 pm

  5. We get nutty propositions on the ballot all the time from signatures gathered outside Walmart. If Jerry B can’t get the votes he needs in Legislature, could a group turn the bill into an initiative? Btw, my son’s 4th grade class in CA was 37. On sabbatical in NJ this yr, and his class size is 17. Plus he has separate teachers for art, music, and Spanish.



    May 11, 2011 at 5:58 pm

  6. […] The Fractious Politics of Education ( […]


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