School Beat: No Strike!

by Lisa Schiff on April 13, 2006

It’s finally happened. Public school teachers have a long-overdue contract with a much deserved pay-increase. On Tuesday, the Board of Education, district administration and the teachers union held a press conference announcing they had reach a settlement. Although the terms are confidential as union members have yet to ratify the agreement, various media outlets have reported that the contract includes a 8.5% raise over two years.

This figure falls in between the last public offer of the district (7.5%) and the goal of the union of reaching 10% to 12%. It’s not the high double-digit raise that we all agree they deserve, but it does put them near or just above the increase in the cost of living since the previous contract ended. Hopefully after ratification further information will describe a contract that addresses some of the non-financial issues too.

With the preparations of Oakland teachers for a potential one-day strike on April 20th reminding us of what we might have been facing next week, all parties should be congratulated on finding a place of agreement. Some of us were already starting to plan for what might have been, including looking into Oakland’s recent pass with the successful strike-schools that teachers put together during the 1996 walkout. Fortunately that can remain a history lesson for another day.
We have spent this year paying mightily for past avoidance of resource planning. Crafting a new contract with the teachers was the last of a series of steps that could no longer be delayed. Not all of those steps ended in outcomes that made anyone happy. Many are still smarting from the school closure decisions and some, notably the John Swett Elementary School community and supporters, are continuing to organize on that front.

Now that the negotiations are over, the public discussion has turned to how to pay for this new contract. That seems to be precisely the wrong question. The new salary schedule for teachers is not a special line-item that was thrown into the budget. It is a necessary component on par with other necessary components, including but not limited to attracting and keeping a top-notch Superintendent. All of these things cost dollars, big dollars. All of them should be equally up for review in times of financial crisis, but none of them should be initially singled out as the primary reason for the need to either cut expenses or raise funds.

Without a solid understanding of the internal finances of the district, there is no way for the public to know if there is an imbalance in costs or spending in any given area of the district. Taking the most generous reading of the situation, if we assume that all of the costs presented in the current budget are essential, from central office expenditures to classroom supplies, then we should take that number as an irreducible unit expressing the bare-bones “cost of doing business.”
It’s not teachers’ salaries or lunch-server wages or paper for schools or even the Superintendent’s paycheck that is the problem. The problem is that the cost to educate children to the expectations we currently hold has simply increased, just like everything else. Gas costs more, building supplies cost more, food costs more. Teaching children costs more too. It’s just that simple.

The challenge is making an effective political argument that can be turned into a legislative and financial reality resulting in more dollars for all schools. In San Francisco, the call for a parcel tax is on, which is excellent. We shouldn’t wait for changes in Sacramento when we have the ability to make changes here.

But a parcel tax is insufficient for the revenue we need, and it is a local and partial solution to a state and federal level problem. Our goal should be to sufficiently fund all schools, not just our own schools. In that way, we help everyone and help ourselves too.

Two interesting developments have recently come about in this regard. The first is the formation of a new research project titled “Getting Down to Facts: A Research Project to Inform Solutions to California`s Education Problems.“ Lead by a Stanford education and economics professor and including notable researchers from all over the country, the effort’s far-reaching goal is “…to identify what reforms are needed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the school system and to assess how much it should cost to provide every child in California with a good education.” (http://ed.stanford.edu/suse/news-bureau/displayRecord.php?tablename=susenews&id=147)

Three main questions will be addressed:
1. What do California school finance and governance systems look like today?
2. How can we use the resources we have more effectively to improve student outcomes?
3. To what extent are additional resources needed so that California students can meet the goals we have for them?

The charge is similar in nature to that of the Quality Education Commission, which the Governor killed with neglect. Hopefully this effort will stay on track and will finish by the end of the year as mentioned in some reports. These questions are right on target and the answers should provide the details needed to a engage in a successful political program to support public education.

The second interesting development concerns the potential influx of money from the Governor related to the Proposition 98 take-aways, as reported in the Sacramento Bee just recently (http://www.sacbee.com/content/opinion/story/14241711p-15061119c.html). While not all of the money is on the table, a significant portion, about 2 billion, is.

Obviously last year’s Special Election made a big impression on Schwarzenegger and he’s finally realized that education issues can turn people out. With his poll numbers steadily dropping, he needs us and is telling us what we want to hear.
While there’s a certain amount of gratification in being paid this kind of lip-service, it is just that. Only the most naïve among us could believe that there isn’t a double-edged sword out there which will cut us deeply as we accept whatever portion of our state funds the Governor has finally decided to return.

Still, money is money. We need it and are in no position to be righteous, proud or pure. But we can remember and remind others that if and when these dollars actually show up , that they belonged to the schools to begin with and are in no way due to the Governor’s purported interest in education. We can’t let his partial fulfillment of a promise be turned into a successful campaigning ploy. If we’d had what was ours to begin with, schools might still be open and teachers might have a truly excellent contract to celebrate.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (http://www.ppssf.org).

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