March 2005 Vol 5, No. 3
Following in the Footsteps of MLK:
Education is a Civil Right
I am the son and a grandson of high school English teachers. My family has over 35 years of public school teaching to their credit. My daughter is a 2004 Benicia High School Graduate and I am the product of public schools.
I, like many others moved to Benicia, CA not just for its fine weather and water views but for her schools. In fact, my wife and I invited her sister and two children to come live with us while her husband, who joined the army out of economic desperation, endures his tour of duty in occupied Afghanistan.
You see, the schools in Hawaii, where they are based, are so bad, that we urged her to come live with us, save some money and enjoy our schools. Little did any of us realize the magnitude of not only Benicia’s scholastic crisis, but of Vallejo’s, Oakland’s and scores of other communities across California and this nation. The Benicia School Board just decided this past Friday to close the school my niece attends.
Our schools’ funding crises is simply a reflection of the larger economic crises that de-funds our critical social infrastructure while at the same time implementing massive corporate tax cuts and bloating military budgets. In the face of these attacks, our local officials offer us nothing but hand wringing at best and hatchet wielding at worse.
To focus merely just on one’s own district or city’s educational crises and pretend that the crises are not national in scope and deserving of a national solution is dangerous and self-defeating. We will never be able to adequately address these crises without bringing in the larger regional, state and national perspective. Yes, we must confront problems in our own backyard, but when the neighborhood is burning down, it would be wiser to work with all of your neighbors to put out the fire.
There are few short-term solutions other than raising local taxes via ballot initiatives. Yet, beyond stealing precious resources and time, these ballot initiatives rarely pass and when they do, they are regressive property taxes on the citizenry rather then progressive taxation of corporate wealth. Local parcel taxes are a false promise as they ameliorate only local conditions at best leaving the larger and poorer population in the lurch.
Yes, I supported the last parcel tax in my home town as its passing would have prevented the closure of my niece’s school, the funding of dozens of programs and the saving of teachers’ pay and healthcare. Yet, I could never again support a parcel tax because of their fundamentally regressive and provincial nature. There is more than enough wealth not only in Benicia, but California and this nation to fund free quality education and healthcare for every single person.
Our hands are tied via Proposition 13, which requires any new taxes not implemented by the legislature to be passed with a 66.7 percent super-majority. So even when a majority of the population chooses to tax either themselves or corporate wealth, they cannot. Moreover, state government and ballot initiatives are largely manipulated and controlled by corporate interests. We have seen several populist initiatives both on the local and statewide level on issues like healthcare and the environment, defeated by money pouring in from Wall Street and local big business.
Yet, we still have the capacity to achieve stunning victories like: integration, the 40-hour-week, employer paid healthcare, the lunch break, etc. None of these victories were gained simply through parliamentary politics or disconnected local actions. These victories were forged through struggle by the efforts of thousands of parents, students and workers joining together to demand justice.
Our local school districts operate like little serfdoms with each community tilling its own soil trying to grow an educated population. But we know that some serfs had better soil and others have poorer soil simply because of where they were born. As long as serfs fought among themselves over their landlord’s crumbs they continued to live in servitude, alienated from their natural ally, their neighbor. The serfs only became free when they realized that when they worked together, planting and harvesting the entire field together, they produced a better and larger bounty with less effort. Together they achieved more than working separately. They achieved their very freedom.
In summary, the de-funding of education and healthcare should be answered with defiance, not cuts. To insist on working solely within the system of local school board meetings, lobbying and initiatives is to accept defeat as the system is rigged in favor of the status quo—the status quo which says schools should be closed, oil refineries should earn billions in excess profits and wars should be paid for on the backs of our children.
Martin Luther King Jr. would have never integrated the Montgomery, Alabama bus system through ballot initiatives or meeting with area politicians or founding private foundations. King and the thousands of other parents, teachers and workers, who took part in the Civil Rights struggle, knew that the racist and bigoted system that controlled local, state and national governments would never be opened via traditional parliamentary procedures. Hence, marches, pickets, strikes and sit-ins were used and successfully pressured the status quo from the outside, to change. The institutional opposition King faced to integration is similar in nature to the ax wielding and school closing efforts of local and national politicians and school boards. Remember sometimes the best defense turns out to be the best offense. We must organize to stop all closures and demand more funding locally, statewide and nationally.
We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the suffering of our neighbors and their children. Our strength and the solution to these crises rest upon us working together. Specifically, I ask all those in the San Francisco Bay Area to consider joining with members of the Vallejo Teachers Association, Oakland Education Association, the California School Employees Association (CSEA-Vallejo), Service Employees International Union (SEIU 250), parents, students and the Community-Labor Alliance in organizing a regional “Unity Rally to Stop Attacks on Education and Healthcare.”
Any support committee or foundation must focus resources on defending our teachers and students from attacks by Sacramento and Washington. Funds provided should be used to support local participation in a coordinated regional, state and national campaign to fully fund education and healthcare and fight back. The idea of creating foundations simply to solve local problems will only create worse problems for us all by polarizing and fragmenting our neighborhoods and society and sapping the collective strength we must bring to bear to end these attacks once and for all.
There are solutions. The money to fund our educational system exists; the will to claim that wealth, as of yet, does not. Parents, teachers, students and workers must join together not only for support and solidarity but to work together to fight back. We need look no further than the mirror upon which we gaze each morning to see our solution. We are the ones we have been waiting for!
For further information, please contact the Community-Labor Alliance.