Friday, June 7, 2013

Word to Castlemont Rally Organizers: Stand Together or Hang Separately

by Jack Gerson

Yesterday I attended a rally organized by a group of teachers and administrators at Oakland's Castlemont High School to protest cuts to important programs and support services -- special education, security, and technology. There were about 75 to 100 present at the rally, including at least 50 students.  Many, but not all, Castlemont teachers were at the rally -- but not all were enthusiastic about the rally and its organizers. I talked to several teachers -- I was the teacher union rep (shop steward) at Castlemont for several years before retiring three years ago. Some teachers grumbled that the rally organizers were an "in crowd" of teachers and administrators, and that while their demands were OK they failed to take up the most important issues: egregious union-busting, favoritism, and the systematic cuts, school closures, privatization, and overall strangling of public education throughout all of Oakland.

To understand this, some background is needed. Last year,  Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Superintendent Tony Smith unilaterally imposed a union-busting reorganization on Castlemont and the two other high schools that serve the lowest-income areas in Oakland (Fremont High and McClymonds High).  Smith's plan forced all teachers at Castlemont, Fremont, and McClymonds to reapply for their jobs every year, a blatant violation of union due process rights and seniority.

The Castlemont faculty was divided on the reorganization. Some Castlemont teachers -- including several veteran black teachers -- argued that this was outright union-busting; that it went hand-in-hand with punitive measures taken against teachers who spoke out against the reorganization or stood up against the school and district administrators on other matters; and that it would very quickly lead to more cuts and even more top-down control by district administration.

But others saw it as an opportunity to gain a measure of autonomy: more freedom to design curricula, collaborate more closely with colleagues, eliminate bureaucratic red tape and make better use of resources. Most of these teachers had less than five years' teaching experience. They were cultivated by OUSD and Castlemont administrators, who told them they were "awesome" and "brilliant" and far superior to more experienced veteran teachers. Many of them worked closely with Castlemont's administrators. Some of them were named "head teachers" in the redesigned schools.

The opponents of the plan were right. Even the reorganization's supporters now recognize that they are suffering more cuts. And they also realize that the district's promise of more autonomy and more freedom was a ruse. Indeed, the main organizers of yesterday's rally were teachers and administrators who had supported the union-busting reorganization.

It's good that they've had one eye opened. But they still won't oppose the reorganization. They still won't call for putting an end to teachers having to reapply for their jobs. And they won't give up the notion that they're somehow special: they claim that Castlemont is "the exception", being treated more shabbily than all the other schools in OUSD. But badly as Castlemont has been treated, McClymonds and Fremont have been treated just as shabbily. So have many middle schools and elementary schools in the low-income, overwhelmingly black and Latino sections of Oakland.

To get support, it's necessary to give support.  That won't happen until the rally organizers and their cohort oppose the reorganization that forces teachers to reapply for their jobs every year at Castlemont (and at Fremont and McClymonds Highs) and until they demand adequate support, resources, and funding for all Oakland students at all Oakland schools (not just at Castlemont).

I want to address one more question: Why did the rally organizers support the reorganization in the first place? What impelled them to look for a special solution for their school alone, repudiating job security and due process rights, lining up with -- and, let's face it, cutting deals with -- district and site administrators? A good part of the blame for this has to be attributed to the failure of the local, state, and national teacher unions to adequately respond to and beat back the assault on teachers and public education.

For the past ten years, Oakland public schools have been relentlessly attacked by the corporate forces out to decimate, privatize, and ultimately destroy public education.  In other pieces I've written -- for this blog and elsewhere -- I've detailed the savage cuts inflicted on Oakland public schools under the state takeover of OUSD (2003 - 2009, when the district was essentially handed over to the minions of Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad) and then deepened in the past four years by OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith after the state takeover officially ended. Enrollment in Oakland public schools declined from 55,000 to 37,000 over the past decade, while charter school enrollment quadrupled.  Outsourcing to private consultants and contractors soared, as did spending on compensation for district administrators. School libraries were closed; the Adult Education program was annihilated; many elective programs were eliminated. Oakland teachers have been without a contract for the past five years, and are now among the lowest-paid teachers in the state (earning on average more than $12,000 a year less than the state average).

This did not have to be: a determined campaign by OEA, backed up by the vast financial resources of CTA (the statewide teacher union) and NEA (the national teacher union) could have beaten back the attacks and inspired others elsewhere to fight too. But OEA, CTA, and NEA did not fight. Instead, OEA's primary leaders insisted that OEA was too weak to fight, and that it was essential to collaborate, cooperate, and act as team players with the Oakland school district leadership. Many teachers -- particularly younger, newer teachers -- concluded that since the union can't or won't defend them, their best bet was to seek out individual solutions. That's what happened at Castlemont. But it doesn't have to remain that way. If the union will take the lead in building a united fight with parents and community, it can build support and assert the kind of power in the streets that we saw from Chicago teachers and parents last September.

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