Back during the 1960s and 1970s, in cities, suburbs, and small towns across the United States, teacher strikes made headlines on a fairly regular basis. Teachers in those years had a variety of reasons for walking out. They struck for the right to bargain. They struck for decent pay and benefits. They struck for professional dignity.
Now teachers in Los Angeles, America’s second-largest school district, are striking, the latest high-profile walkout in a new surge of teacher strikes that began last year. L.A. teachers are striking for the same dignity and decency teachers sought in the mid-20th century. But the L.A. struggle, many observers believe, amounts to much more than a battle over how school officials treat teachers.
Teachers in L.A. are striking, in a most fundamental way, against how unequal America has become. They’re striking against our billionaire class.
In Los Angeles, our billionaires have been up to no good. They’ve essentially staged an unfriendly takeover of the L.A. board of education, shoveling mega millions into the campaigns of school board candidates pledged to advancing an agenda that funnels public tax dollars to “charter schools” that have next to no accountability to the public.
The newly elected billionaire-friendly board majority then proceeded to hire as superintendent a billionaire investment banker with no background in education. That billionaire proceeded to go about making L.A. a model for privatizing big-city school districts the nation over. Teachers in Los Angles are striking to stop him.
The demands of striking L.A. teachers “for smaller classes, more support staff, safer schools, community schools, and charter school oversight,” explains Peter Greene, a long-time union activist with 39 years experience teaching, “are not about making their working conditions a little better, but about keeping public education alive and healthy.” Public education and plutocracy, educator activists in L.A. and nationwide increasingly understand, do not mix. Public schools do not thrive when billionaires prosper.
But why should that be the case? Why should billionaires represent a threat to public education? Why should billionaires even care about public education? The super rich don’t, after all, even send their kids to public schools.
True enough, and therein lies a good part of the problem. The ultra wealthy don’t send their kids to public schools. They don’t use public parks either or ride public buses. They have no need for basic public services, period, and resent having to pay taxes to fund them. Historically, this resentment has ended up having deep-pockets bankroll tax-cut initiatives that hollow out public school budgets and leave teachers feeling perpetually squeezed.
The animus to public education that so many super rich feel has a more ideological driver as well. The right-wing rich—the billionaire Walton family heirs to the Walmart fortune, for instance—essentially see public schools as “an island of socialism in a free-market sea.” Their free-market fundamentalism recoils at the thought of any sort of public enterprise.
Still other deep pockets see public education as a vast profit opportunity. Why cede all those billions that go into education to the public sector? Why not open up school management to private business?
The charter school movement speaks to all these billionaire preoccupations. Charters can give private, profit-making businesses direct access to public tax dollars. They also reflect basic “free-market” ideology: Instead of having communities democratically decide how their schools operate, let’s have charter schools—operating “free” from government interference—compete for students!
Charter schools deliver the billionaire class a special political benefit as well. The vast majority of public school teachers belong to teacher unions. Charter schools remain largely unorganized. By shifting tax dollars to nonunion charters, billionaires sap the strength of teacher unions and undermine their capacity to support the causes—like higher taxes on the rich—that the rich find so distasteful.
So billionaires have plenty of reasons to subvert free, universal public education. And the rest of us have plenty of reason to support the striking teachers of Los Angeles. We ought to see their struggle, as former teacher Eric Blanc notes, as “a strike for democracy—against the plans of a tiny clique of billionaires to unilaterally impose their vision for the world.”
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Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book, The Case for a Maximum Wage, has just been published. Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.