News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

February 26, 2019

Oakland has a school-to-prison pipeline. The teachers’ strike is our best hope to end it.

By Shane Ruiz

When Los Angeles teachers won a crushing labor victory last month, wages and benefits were only a small part of their demands. Teachers made it clear they were on strike to improve conditions for all the students and communities they serve, and one of their most powerful racial-justice demands was calling for an end to the district’s policy of “random searches” of students.

The union made it clear that the searches both frightened and criminalized children, without making anyone any safer.

In winning this demand through their massively popular strike, Los Angeles teachers proved that a militant teacher movement, like the one that’s on fire this week in Oakland, has the power to unite communities, families, students, and workers into a mass force for justice. In Oakland, teachers are fighting to end school closures, which are designed to divide Oakland, disrupt the education of children of color, and pave the way for more charters. They are also demanding more services and supports for the students. Like in LA, these strike demands are Oakland’s best opportunity to reverse a condition known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

In 2007, the Children’s Defense Fund published a report titled “The Cradle to Prison Pipeline Crisis,” which outlined a series of social failures that funnel young people into the carceral system. Chief among these is a lack of resources in poor, particularly black, neighborhoods, which leads to behavioral problems at school. Students with behavioral issues are more likely to drop out, leaving them with few legal employment options.

Furthermore, the report outlined, the students with the most behavioral issues tend to need the most resources while getting the least. Low birthweight, lack of access to healthcare and mental health services, early childhood neglect and abuse, and underfunded public schools are all factors that contribute to academic disadvantages for poor and minority students.

The report lays out a searing indictment of our nation’s politicians and civic leaders, particularly the gap between how they talk about children’s well-being and where they’re actually willing to dedicate resources. It centers “poverty, exacerbated by race” as the key driver of the pipeline. The report offers several specific policy interventions, focused on reducing poverty, and calls for “a new civil rights movement” as the vehicle for achieving these goals.

Since the report, a new social movement, the Movement for Black Lives, has taken on the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) as a key issue. Many organizations in the Bay Area, such as the Black Organizing Project and the Roses in Concrete Community School, have focused on teacher training, restorative justice, and multi-cultural curriculum programs as keys to fighting the school-to-prison pipeline. While these struggles should be celebrated, they have, as of yet, failed to make a dent in the enormous problem. The dropout rate in Oakland has fallen only 2% in the last decade and prisons remain at 131% capacity, despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2011 mandating mass decarceration in California. The efforts of these local organizations and similar ones around the county are well-intentioned, but have so far unable to dismantle the STPP.

Socialists stand with communities of color and OEA in saying that every student in Oakland deserves a first-rate education. That public schools should be palaces, not prisons. Students deserve to come to a space that reflects the beauty and innovation of their spirit. Poor students don’t just need science, they need art. Black students don’t need to learn to be twice as good of workers, they need to learn to fight capitalism and white supremacy. They need history, literature, books and a teacher that believes in them.

So how can we build a mass movement that actually has the leverage to tackle this enormous problem? A militant teacher movement—and one that expands to workers in all parts of the economy. Labor, with its ability to disrupt the flow of work, offers an essential point of leverage for any social movement that wants to win for poor people of all races, particularly black and brown youth. Poor people, and especially poor black and brown people, have been systematically disempowered in our society. But by coming together to disrupt work, people have the ability to make society sit up and listen.   

Teachers are just the most important recent example. Where efforts from above to reform teachers working conditions have failed students, efforts by teachers themselves to reform the entire system have enormous potential. That potential has begun to reveal itself in the massive teacher strike wave that started in West Virginia in 2018, and shows no signs of stopping soon.

“Teacher Working Conditions Are Student Learning Conditions”

In its massively successful strike in January, UTLA won its demand that the district stop conducting “random searches” of students and teachers in classrooms, one of the more egregious examples of school policing. 

As LA teacher Grace Hamilton notes, these searches are far from random, but rather target non-magnet and non-honors classes, “which consist mostly of Latino students.” These embarrassing displays take rob students of educational time, normalize school securitization, and ritualize humiliation of those students that need the most support. 

By taking on this cause, UTLA built political coalition with their own students and families, hosting youth led events like a “Making Black Lives Matter in our Schools” rally and organizing families and teachers to attend school board meetings. UTLA tied the fates of students and teachers together with their inspiring battle cry, “Teacher Working Conditions are Student Learning Conditions.”

However, LA teachers did not stop at slogans. By withholding their labor and tying their struggle to their students’ community struggles, they won demands to begin decriminalizing the district’s approach to its most marginalized students while taking steps to give them more support. Students don’t just need to avoid imprisonment, they need a fully funded and just education. 

Similarly, the Oakland Educators Association (OEA) has called for several improvements that go to the heart of the school-to-prison-pipeline: ending school closures that will destroy working-class communities of color, increasing resources for high-needs students, increasing retention by paying teachers a living wage, and bringing equity in funding between the public schools in the hills (many with more middle-class and white students) and public schools in the flatlands (mostly poor black and Latino).

A living wage for teachers produces higher retention, and therefore less turnover for students. Additional funding means additional staff for high-needs students, which means those students aren’t left behind. Smaller class sizes mean more individual attention, a key driver of academic improvement.

While OEA has not made the STTP an explicit part of its campaign, funneling resources to the students that need it most would mitigate the need for securitization, improve the quality of education, and strategically align teachers and students, enhancing the chances both will win. A successful OEA strike will be a bulwark against further austerity in Oakland, and will lay the groundwork for a full community assault against the billionaires that want to privatize our schools and imprison our children. 

The Need for Robust Public Schools

One of the key points that OEA continually returns to both in its outward messaging and its negotiation with OUSD is the profound segregation of our public schools. Schools in the flatlands continue to get significantly less funding per student than schools in the hills. That makes some people in the flatlands become jaded with the public-school system all together and acquiesce to the alternative that’s increasingly promoted by opportunistic elites: shutting down public schools and opening privately-run charter schools.

Charters, which suffer from weak oversight, lack teachers unions, and implement restrictive enrollment policies that potentially violate state and federal law, are also culprits in spreading the gospel of “zero-tolerance” policies, a key driver of the STPP according the Children’s Defense Fund Report.

The zero-tolerance philosophy, borrowing from the “broken windows” philosophy of policing, argues that minor infractions, like dropping a pencil or having an untucked shirt, lead to worse behavior without strict discipline. In schools that practice this philosophy, students are reprimanded, suspended, and expelled for minor offenses. Many students dropout long before expulsion, with full knowledge that their society does not value them. Students in poor communities of color, which have the highest need for empathy, resources, and patience, are instead told that they are the culprit if they fail.

They get funneled into the pipeline.

Moreover, the public schools that remain have the highest-need students (charters often have selective enrollment), but decreasing funding to care for them as money flows toward private charters and the wealthy white district schools. The students remaining in public schools in the flatlands are left with dilapidated buildings, multiple teachers in a single year or a string of substitutes, books in tatters and a lack of supplies. They are left with the obvious impression that their community does not care about them.

They get funneled into the pipeline.

Despite significant evidence that the “improved performance” that some charters claim is in fact a result of restrictive enrollment policies, charter schools have become ubiquitous in California. Indeed Jerry Brown, who opened the first charter schools in Oakland as mayor, and who prided himself on being an “education governor,” consistently sold out public education to private interests. PACs like Govern for California, funded by charter companies, have made it their mission to buy off Democrats like Brown and the newly elected East Bay assemblywoman Buffy Wicks. With 1,275 charter schools now open statewide (the most in the nation) it appears that the charter companies have succeeded.

Militant Teachers Are Key

To be maximally effective, mass movements must have a militant labor component. This is not because workers are magic, but because they have the power to stop production, or in the case of schools, what Marx calls “social reproduction.” By social reproduction, Marx was referring to all of the work and resources that go into reproducing the actual people in a society, i.e. healthcare, education and childcare, domestic work, etc. He also meant “reproducing” workers’ ability to do their jobs day-to-day by making sure they had enough education, food, and other necessities to do their jobs and show up ready to work.

Over the last century, as American women have left the home and moved into the labor force, almost all the work of caring for our children has moved to schools. Teachers, not coincidentally, are overwhelmingly women, and are starkly underpaid given the importance and difficulty of their work. We should not, though our state governments have, let their low paychecks blind us to the enormous significance and power of teachers in the basic functioning of our society. Not only do they shape the minds of our children, but corporations need teachers to take care of the children of their workers. Without schools, the basic functioning of corporations becomes a crisis they — and the politicians who listen to them — cannot ignore.

As we’ve seen in the teacher strike wave across the country, particularly in red states like West Virginia and Arizona, strikes are incredibly effective not just at winning concessions for teachers, but in stopping the expansion of charter schools and increasing public school funding. That is because by denying their employer their labor, they created a crisis in society, at least in the locations in which they lived. Not only were teachers not working, but thousands more people had to rearrange their lives; this kind of disruption is bad for business.

But as Arizona Educators United leader Noah Karvelis said after their strike victory, “The war is not over.” More strikes and budget negotiations will create opportunities for more strikes and more victories. The #RedforEd wave, as it’s sometimes called, has shown us that strikes produce victories. So what victories will we fight for?

Structural Change, Not Reform

As the Movement for Black Lives showed, ending the STPP is of paramount importance to poor black and brown communities. There is enormous popular movement on the issue of police brutality and mass incarceration, more than at any time in American history, and the STPP has emerged as a major flashpoint for activists.

But nonprofits and community organizations seeking to reform teachers and administrations is not enough: we need deep structural change, starting with funding. In order to truly obstruct the STPP, we need to end school privatization and tax the wealthy to pay for quality pubic education for all. And the people who are best positioned to make those demands are teachers themselves, through their unions.

Teachers will continue fighting for better working conditions for themselves and better learning conditions for their students. In the process, they can center ending the STPP as a key demand. In doing so, they can earn the trust of poor black and brown community members for whom this is a major issue. They can also, because of their unique position and leverage, win meaningful victories that materially intervene in the pipeline.

For example, they can continue to demand more resources for the most marginalized, and build on the work of local activists to eliminate “zero-tolerance” policies and replace them with restorative justice models. Teachers can also push even further, arguing that their students need robust public services outside of school to succeed in school. And because they can create a crisis of capital by withholding their labor, they stand a chance at actually winning these demands.