The United States government is in headlong retreat from the principles of quality education, racial integration, and equal opportunity in the public school system.
The political reactionaries who serve the needs of capitalist economics have targeted education for massive, crippling cutbacks.
Crisis-ridden Los Angeles schools are no exception.
The battles being fought in LA between teachers and community activists on the one hand, and the sexist, racist Los Angeles school board on the other hand — battles over bilingual education, busing, overcrowding, and teachers’ job rights — are critical to public education nationwide.
Anti-bilingualist doubledealers. Chicanos make up the majority of students in the LA school district. And the 1846 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, under which the U.S. wrested California from Mexico, established California as a bilingual state.
But it took more than one century, and the pressure of the powerful Chicano and Black movements in the 1960s and ’70s, before federal aid was finally used to set up bilingual education programs in the LA schools. Now, under the aegis of the Board of Education, these programs are being dismantled.
In many schoolrooms where the children’s primary language is Spanish, the teacher speaks only English. Bilingual teachers aides’ benefits and hours have been cut drastically in the last year. And bilingual teachers are forced to work overtime at less than basic pay, under threat of transfer.
Flunking the race question. Not only Chicanos, but all people of color in the LA school system, are shafted by the Board of Education. In 1978, the Board was a prime mover in passing Proposition 1 which outlawed mandatory busing in California. The state Supreme Court’s recent upholding of the Proposition sets an ominous precedent nationally against desegregation busing.
Busing exists in California now only as a means of alleviating tremendous overcrowding. And it mandates one-way shuttling of children of color into white areas.
School facilities for students of color are wholly inadequate. But rather than build new and better schools, the district is setting up “temporary” bungalow classrooms. It is also putting 25% of existing schools into year-round use in order to shove one-third more children through the educational mill and out the door of the system.
Virtually all the children affected by the year-round program are Chicano and Asian American, who sit confined all summer in poorly maintained classrooms with no air-conditioning.
Not surprisingly, the district fails miserably in imparting the basic academic skills which would help counter some of the class and race inequalities the students face.
And the students know it; the high school dropout rate is very high.
Chicano protests. School deterioration and attacks by the school board have not gone unopposed.
Last summer, hundreds of Chicano parents protested the year-long schedule and won a reduction in the number of schools subjected to it. Parents organized a boycott of classes at one year-round school, and activist teachers and blue collar employees picketed another, notoriously overcrowded school.
These actions were reminiscent of the 1968 Chicano student walk-outs, which won some redress against inadequate school facilities and racist neglect of Chicano culture in the curriculum.
Education is a labor issue. Teachers — traditionally low-paid workers in a “woman’s” field — are being heavily victimized by the Board of Education. B
ut while the United Teachers of Los Angeles struggles against the Board, its support for bilingual education and integration has been lukewarm and it has refused to take a stand against year-round schools.
Although the union has a progressive past, and is unique in allowing substitute teachers full union membership, it is currently saddled with a stagnant, bureaucratic leadership that is selling out the teachers bit by bit.
In recent years the union has settled for contract “raises” at far less than the rate of inflation. Its most recent wage settlement mandated a pay cut for substitutes.
Sellout measures like this have lost the union over 1,000 members in the last two years! And barely 50% of LA teachers remain in the union. It has become too weak to stage a strike.
Union rank-and-filers are increasingly restive. Some fought bitterly with the leadership during the last contract dispute, and supported substitutes’ job rights.
Heading up the resistance is a small progressive caucus in the union, Teachers for Change, which opposes the bureaucrats with a program based on bilingualism, integration, union democracy, and teacher/community cooperation.
These teachers are working to convince their natural allies — the labor movement and the minority community — that the public interest is best served by united opposition to attacks on teachers’ jobs and school services.
This move toward unity, and the relentless exposure and defeat of the bureaucrats’ fainthearted sellout to the school board, are the only way to build the union’s strength.
One last battlefield. The LA Board of Education has turned the schools into a battlefield and the students into cannon fodder.
This only reflects the capitalist decree that war, not social welfare, be the nation’s overriding priority for the ’80s.
In the long run, in LA and everywhere, only independent, anti-capitalist political power, hooked onto the struggles of the most oppressed, can defeat the war priority and extend the benefits of quality education for the children of this and every nation.