Friday, April 1, 2011

From Pawns to Players: What if Public School Kids Had Their Own Union?

If I wasn’t so busy running a nonprofit, taking care of my family, and making my own art, I’d start a Kids Union. I have always wanted to do that. I researched this a few years ago because I saw it as the only possible way for kids to assert their rights for a decent education, since the status quo doesn’t seem to really care that much about them. Back in my Burning Mom days when me and my radical public school mom peeps were out on the streets, attending rallies, going to meetings, and protesting on the steps of the capitol in Sacramento with our kids, I learned about the beginning of the Teamsters union and the teachers unions (and some of the negative, unintended consequences of both). I researched Cesar Chavez and his leadership of the United Farm Workers union and was most inspired by them – regular people getting organized and confronting the status quo, and how the El Teatro Campesino, (the farmworkers theater) traveled from field to field and performed on flat beds of trucks to educate the workers and their families about their plight and their cause. And then there was Mother Jones, who fought for children’s rights, and the working conditions of factory workers. I was excited to learn that she led hundreds of kids on a march from Kensington, Pennsylvania, to Long Island, New York in 1903 where President Theodore Roosevelt was vacationing at his mansion with his family, to draw attention to the hardships of children who were forced to work in factories, deprived of an education, paid next to nothing because they were just kids, and were forced to work in filthy buildings with dangerous machines. Even with all the publicity that their demonstration generated, Roosevelt still blew her and the kids off after they walked ten miles a day for 22 days. He blew them off! He wouldn’t talk to them.

Sounds like what most of us here in L.A. experienced two years in a row with our California Children’s Rally at the state capitol, six hours away. Some of us, like me and my kids, were lucky enough to have a successful meeting with our assembly member after our three hour demonstration on the steps of the capitol. Our representative, Lloyd Levine, was a pro-public education legislator with an arts background. The experience was great for our kids who got some face to face time with their assemblyman, but we were preaching to the choir – what we really needed to do was take it down the hall to where the Republicans were. Others in our group were turned away or placated by a 20 year old intern who promised to take their concerns to their bosses. Even with all of our theatre, music, and out of the box demonstration antics starring our kids, we were pretty much ignored. We were organized, we had a clear message, we were entertaining, and we had fun, but the big shots still blew us off. Those two excursions to the state capitol have gone down in history not as the days that changed public education in California forever, but as educational family field trips with very little broad social impact other than our kids all got to see their parents taking action and exercising their American right to free speech, demonstrating for them how to be good citizens by participating in the democratic process. We didn’t shake the hill like we thought we would. State assembly members and senators just walked right past us, or stayed up in their offices. A typical day in Sacramento for most of them is stepping over demonstrators on all four sides of the capitol, with a latte in hand, on their way to “work”.

I am inspired by all of the historical movements and organizations which resulted in dramatic changes for ordinary people. With the so much attention on Wisconsin now, the time might be a ripe to get organized for public education in California – not on behalf of the status quo, but on genuine behalf of kids and the future of our state. The time has come. The teachers have their own union. The administrators have their own union. The bus drivers have their own union. The custodians have theirs. Nobody is at the table who has any real power to speak and act on behalf of the kids, who are getting ripped off by all of the political games the adults in charge play (especially at this time of year), who all use the kids as pawns in a tug of war of "who cares the most", and then drops them on their heads when the game is over. The kids need a union rep of their own who will tell the other union reps, LAUSD, and lawmakers that if the kids don’t get a decent education and are well cared for, that they will go on strike. And if the kids go on strike, then everybody is in really big trouble because they need as many butts in their classroom seats as possible, every day, because butts translate into dollars for the adults in LAUSD. No butts, no paychecks.

I really do believe that if parents got organized and pulled their kids out of school until their demands were met, that we’d see some real action, for we’d be able to choke the dysfunctional beast right where it lives and breathes – in the bank account. Money is the only thing the status quo really cares about. So if we starve it to death, perhaps all of the parasites who feed off of the beast will shrivel up and fall off. If there isn’t any money to pay everybody who is responsible for keeping the system so sick, then they’ll all just have to go away or find jobs in the competitive real world where workers need to do a good job if they want to stay employed. This is not a rant against bad teachers - this goes for everybody employed in LAUSD. Some of the rudest, laziest employees in the city can be found in our schools. Last year I delivered all of my newspapers personally to all of the middle and high schools in the Valley to meet people face to face and go over my mailing list with them to make sure all of the teachers and principals in my data base were accurate. One third of the front office personnel in these schools were professional and courteous, another third completely ignored me, and the final third were so rude to me that in the real world, they'd get fired on the spot. We have all heard stories or experienced for ourselves the dreaded drive downtown to have to deal with downtown employees who give people the run around, or many different answers to the same question. And we all know of numerous administrators, consultants and "coaches" who don't have much to do, but by golly, they have worked their way up the ladder and have earned their rest! They get away with acting like this because they can. Just more symptoms of a very big problem.

LAUSD is not going to fix itself. It can’t. Too many over paid adults benefit greatly by the system staying just the way it is. So the answer is to either organize a Kids Union and beat them at their own game, or outlaw private schools and force the elite to send their kids to public schools. That should do it!

All of the frantic outside fundraising that is being done now, the campaign for tax extensions, and new charters popping up on a regular basis, are temporary solutions and none of them are going to fix the real problems. They aren’t going to change the diseased culture of public education and the way business is conducted in Sacramento. They’re just quick fixes that will keep the status quo running for a little while longer. Parents taking back their schools with The Parent Revolution and the parent trigger law, is that the answer? No, but it is AN answer. El Camino Real High School going charter in order to save itself to maintain what they worked so hard to create over decades? Is that the answer? No, but it’s AN answer. Is home schooling the answer? No – just another possible answer. They are all options that give parents a choice, which they have a right to, but none of these options really fixes the real problem. Parents in L.A. today feel like they have no other choice but to go with some of these options, which weakens the entire system all the more. The majority of students who will be left in LAUSD schools in the very near future will be mostly English language learners and special ed students who are protected by law, and the kids who are stuck with parents who won’t or can’t look for other options. This makes everything that much more stressful and worse for the poor teachers and kids who are left behind.

The entire culture of how LAUSD functions needs to change. It’s so stuck in the past that Rip Van Winkle wouldn’t notice any changes after waking up on his elementary school playground after being asleep for 100 years. The campus would look the same and his second grade teacher would still be there because she has seniority! We’re just plugging up holes on a sinking ship with all of our desperate attempts to fundraise and look for someone or something on the outside to rescue us. By constantly going back to the parents to fundraise to save valued programs, RIF’d staff, or copier paper and supplies, we’re tapping our poor parents out. They can’t afford to keep patching up the holes in the sinking LAUSD ship to prolong the inevitable. The kids need to go on strike.

So concludes my rant against the paid adults in public education and politics. Next rant: "Do nothing parents".