Democrats in California need to lead on education

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If the blue wave our nation just experienced doesn’t address public education and how we educate our kids, we will miss a generational opportunity to make major gains in this country – particularly in places where Democrats control all branches of government.

In California, a blue state got much bluer as the Republican Party became irrelevant in ways that it was hard to imagine in the days before the election. Not only did Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom win in a 60 percent landslide, Democrats have also secured two-thirds Democratic supermajorities in both bodies of the legislature.

{mosads}Importantly, many of these winning candidates were heavily supported by the teacher unions, proving once again that labor is the most powerful political force in the state.

It is for this reason of Democratic dominance that we must now hold Democratic leaders accountable to provide public schools with the funding that they so desperately need.  In a state that is the fifth largest economy in the world, the per pupil spending is lagging behind much of the country.  It is a place where policy makers spend $75,000 per year on each prisoner in the state but only $16,000 per year on each student.  We can do much better.

So despite the fact that Sacramento now has an overwhelming number of legislators they helped elect, the leadership of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) is seriously considering a strike

Those who have been paying attention to this have been inundated with contradictory and misleading information.

Here are the facts.

Los Angeles Unified has a budget crisis. The district is spending half a billion dollars more each year than it brings in and is headed toward insolvency in about two years if nothing changes. The California state superintendent, along with several independent commissions, have noted the perilous financial condition that Los Angeles Unified is in. It simply does not have the money to fund UTLA’s demands.

On class size, Los Angeles Unified has an average of 26 students per class. Of the 10 largest school districts in California, only one has a smaller average class size than Los Angeles. There isn’t a parent or educator or student in the country who wouldn’t want smaller class sizes, but smaller class sizes won’t help if we don’t have a high quality teacher in each of those classrooms. As a parent, would you rather have your child in a class of 26 students with a highly effective teacher or a class of 22 with a less than effective teacher?

Finally, when it comes to teacher pay, Los Angeles Unified has offered teachers a six percent raise, which builds on the ten percent raise they received in 2015. It’s the exact same size of the raise that was agreed to by every other union that the district works with. Teachers deserve to get paid even more; it is an important statement on the value of their work. But paying teachers more and hiring more teachers to reduce class size costs money, money Los Angeles Unified does not have.

These issues are not limited to Los Angeles. Local school districts are facing similar problems across the state. In large part, that is because 90-percent of the funding of local school districts comes from Sacramento. Local school districts, from the smallest, like Desert Center Unified with about 20 students, to Los Angeles Unified do not control their funding. Only the Democratic majority in California’s capital can truly solve the financial issues. 

Imagine the power of Los Angeles Unified walking hand in hand with UTLA and going to the state capitol to demand, together, more money to serve California students.  What is the point of fighting so hard to elect legislators but then not working together to solve these problems on behalf of California’s children?

Let’s never forget the impact of a potential strike on Los Angeles’ most vulnerable students. Students who live in poverty and who are already behind will spend days or weeks not learning in the classroom. And we are talking about children who rely on school for two meals a day and whose parents are counting on those schools to be open so that their kids can be in a safe place while they’re hard at work.

It’s just like a family, when adults fight, it’s kids that lose.

California is a state near the bottom of when it comes to school funding and performance. Fixing this crisis is going to require great teachers and more resources. Now that Democrats are in charge in historic proportion in California, it is up to the Democratic state leaders in Sacramento to lead on education. 

Duncan is former Education secretary. 

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