The California Teachers Association has long been one of the state’s most powerful political players. This year, the organization has thrown its weight behind Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to raise the state sales tax, in part to fund education. We sat down recently with CTA President Dean Vogel to discuss that support and other critical issues surrounding California schools.
Comstock’s: Briefly give me your perspective on the condition of California’s schools.
Vogel: Pedagogically, I think it’s interesting to note that, at a time when we’ve lost $20 billion in funding over the last four budget cycles, reading and math scores are still relatively flat. That really is a testament to the people working in the buildings because you shouldn’t be able to maintain that level at the same time resources continue to dwindle. Where you used to have class sizes ranging from one to 20 students in a kindergarten or first grade class, it’s now closer to 30 or 35. We used to be able to routinely expect comprehensive middle school and high school programs, meaning that, besides having strong language arts and math, you would also have the arts, pottery, drawing, painting, music, all of that. That whole thing is starting to narrow, a lot of it borne out of the budget. So, the short answer is that we’re in trouble.
Comstock’s: The governor has been pushing his own tax proposal, Proposition 30. But civil rights attorney Molly Munger has a competing tax proposal on the ballot. CTA has come out strongly in favor of the governor’s proposal. Why?
Vogel: Proposition 30 says we’re going to start paying attention to the needs of communities because that money not only funds public education but also community infrastructure, police and fire protection, transportation infrastructure, health and human services. Kids don’t live at school, so we’ve got to look out for a way to protect the whole community. The governor’s initiative, by putting money toward paying for special services, does that. The Munger initiative puts the money in a trust outside the general fund, so right off the bat it doesn’t deal with community infrastructure. It basically focuses on [pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade], which basically creates a wedge between them and community colleges and higher education. We really believe that public education is pre-K through graduate school.
Comstock’s: CTA also supported the governor doing away with redevelopment agencies. What did that mean for education?
Vogel: Fundamentally, it’s about the fact we’re in crisis. We can’t be doing what we want to do in schools because of a lack of resources. In the best of circumstances, the idea of redevelopment money is great because it provides housing and opportunity for those who might not have that option. But we’re not in the best of times. We’re not even in average times. This is when everybody should be saying, ‘This is what we’re going to give.’ Do I think that’s difficult? Absolutely. Do I wish it were different? Absolutely. But the budget the governor has proposed and Prop. 30 are only going to help us hold our own until we get back on our feet. Everybody’s got to pitch in. Everybody’s got a part to play.
Comstock’s: The Obama Administration is granting states waivers to the strictest elements of the No Child Left Behind law. California has a waiver request in, but it is a little different than other states. How critical is it that California receives a waiver?
Vogel: The fundamental question is who should be driving the change pedagogically in public schools — the Department of Education or local governing boards working with the administration and the teachers and the communities in which they live. We have a fundamental difference of opinion with Education Secretary (Arne) Duncan over this. What happens in local communities should be determined by the people that work there and live there and put their kids there and teach those kids there. But all of a sudden, we have the Department of Education, starting even before (President George W.) Bush, switching to, ‘If you’re going to get [education funding] you have to compete for it, and some people are going to win and some people won’t.’ In California, what we’re saying is, ‘OK, we’re not going to go there.’ But if you allow us to say, ‘This is the way teacher evaluations are going to work, this is the way we’re going to handle people leaving the profession, this is the relationship we’re going to have around issues like seniority,’ then we’re interested. Whether or not that’s going to play out is hard to say.
Comstock’s: To get those waivers, many states are now grading teachers based on student performance. What about our teacher evaluation system?
Vogel: I believe the system we have right now is inadequate and needs to change. Teacher evaluations should be primarily about the teacher building their practice. Period. You’re teaching for what reason? To help students learn, to move them from place A to place B. The system we have currently is basically designed to measure you, to judge you. Are you hitting this mark, yes or no? If it’s yes, great, we stroke you. If it’s no, we hit you somehow. The California Teachers Association just approved a landmark teacher evaluation document that addresses this whole idea — this difference between helping you build a better practice and determining whether you should stay in the profession. And if you shouldn’t, then what do we do about that? And if you stay in the profession, maybe you should be doing something different. Everything is starting to line up in California to say, ‘If what we’re trying to do is create positive, effective learning environments for children, what’s the role of teacher evaluation in that plan?
Comstock’s: Many states are looking at expanding their number of charter schools as a means of providing a quality education. Why not here?
Vogel: Here’s what we know about effective teaching and learning: You’ve got to have a quality teacher in front of kids. You’ve got to put the teacher and kids in a clean and safe environment. You’ve got to give the teacher the resources necessary to get the job done. And you’ve got to give that teacher the opportunity to work collegially with their peers to do the kinds of data analysis and teaching analysis necessary to build better practices. You put those four things together, everything works. Our position is, if it’s in a charter school, then let’s keep it going. Our policy even supports charter schools. The predicament is that charter schools changed, right around the time [No Child Left Behind] started. Under that law, one of the four interventions for a struggling school is changing to a charter. But most charters are now for-profit companies. If you’re a for-profit company, who do you answer to? You answer to whoever is managing you making money, which is a board or, in some of these things, shareholders. What’s the focus of for-profit? Do things as cost effectively as possible, run it like a business. So the pedagogical need of the individual child is secondary to the profit, and that’s a huge problem for us.
Comstock’s: The California State Teachers Retirement System, CalSTRS, is facing a $56 billion funding shortfall. What are teachers willing to do to help solve this problem?
Vogel: I don’t know where this started, but the very first thing you do in our culture now is try to say, ‘Who’s to blame for this?’ Okay, so we are? Well we didn’t really have much to do with decline of the housing market or the downward spiral of Wall Street. So what are we willing to give to help here? Well, think about it. Look at what we’ve given so far. I don’t think there’s a group of people that have sacrificed as much as public school teachers over the last 10 years. When we say we’ve given five furlough days, or 10 or 15, the typical voter doesn’t translate that into a loss of salary and benefits, but that’s what it is. What teachers are going to give, they’ve been giving for seven or eight years already. Even so, they’re going to stay in it, committed and determined to keep this system alive because really what should be happening is it should be crumbling, and it’s not.
Thomas Hanns was homeless when he first enrolled in classes at Sacramento City College, one of four main campuses that make up the Los Rios Community College District.