By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
CTA members made history by taking over the state Capitol during the State of Emergency week. They lobbied, marched, prayed, sang “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “graded” legislators on their ideas for solving the state budget crisis. They became known in the halls for their blue shirts, and legislators got the message that educators will fight for adequate school funding. This was a collective action that saw results, but it was also a collection of individual stories.
Becoming an advocate
KENNETH TANG ventured to Sacramento because his school in San Gabriel is closing.
Students in his class at John Marshall Elementary School are devastated. It will be the third school closed in five years in the Garvey School District. Last year a beloved teacher died just before retiring, and students planted a tree in his memory. Students asked Tang tearfully: What will happen to that tree when our school closes?
“When they asked me that, I decided to become an advocate for public education,” said the Garvey Education Association member. “And that meant going to Sacramento for a week.”
Tang marched, lobbied and chanted “We Are One.” He discovered it was more than a slogan when fellow protesters were arrested. Feeling deeply anguished, he prayed for them during a candlelight vigil outside the jail. It ended at midnight, but he stayed awake all night and vowed not to eat until they were released. He rushed back to the jail when he heard they were being let go.
“When [CTA Board Member] Larry Allen walked out of the jail the next morning, I grabbed him and hugged him,” said Tang. “He had tears in his eyes, and I just lost it. To me, the candlelight vigil was as meaningful as if I had been arrested myself.”
JULIA CERVANTES ESPINOSA wrestled with the decision of whether to come. She had just received her third pink slip and hoped to be rehired once again at Stanford Elementary School. She was worried about leaving students during testing week.
|Julia Cervantes Espinosa |
“It was a difficult decision,” admitted the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) member. “My students are English learners and need me. But I decided my students — and the next generation of students — would be better off if I came to Sacramento.”
She spoke with her parents and then told the youngsters she was leaving to try to get more money for schools. She reminded them to eat breakfast every morning and begged them to do their best on the test. She sent letters to parents explaining her decision, and most of them supported her for taking a stand.
In Sacramento, Espinosa spoke with her students daily on the phone. “I miss you,” she said. “I’m thinking of you. Study hard!”
All doubts vanished once she arrived. She led marches, including a “Republicans pass the buck” exercise. She was interviewed on TV. She visited legislators in their offices and told them that students weren’t getting the education they deserved. She became empowered.
“I’m ecstatic to be here,” she said. “I can feel so much positive energy. It’s almost like going to church. I know that I’m here for a good reason for the kids.”
Just the beginning
DEWAYNE SHEAFFER simply got tired of waiting.
|DeWayne Sheaffer |
“We can’t sit around waiting for someone to save us,” said Sheaffer, president of Community College Association’s Long Beach City College chapter. “We need to get active and explain to legislators what’s happening not only to K-12 schools but higher education, which is moving more toward privatization. Pretty soon it will be more like a privilege than a right to go to school.”
Colleges are turning students away, and have pink-slipped so many professors that students can’t get the classes they need to graduate. As head of the counseling department, he has seen counselors dwindle and individual counseling being replaced with “group” sessions, much to the dismay of students with individual needs.
Enough, he said, is enough.
“I wanted to model the behavior I want from my members instead of just telling them about the behavior they should have,” said Sheaffer. “I think that what happened in Sacramento will be the shot heard round the world. But it’s just the beginning.”
Across party lines
JOHN KENNETT proudly calls himself a “conservative evangelical Republican.” But that didn’t stop him from joining his fellow CTA members in Sacramento.
|John Kennett |
Kennett teaches low-income special education students at Paradise Hills Elementary School just seven miles from the Mexican border. His school’s budget for supplies has been cut 25 percent every year, and is now almost nothing. He pays for his own paper. He enthusiastically joined fellow protesters in lobbying, marching and waving signs at passing cars, wearing his black fedora at all times.
“I don’t agree with all the policies that CTA stands for, but I love kids, and want to make a difference in their lives,” said Kennett, a member of the San Diego Education Association. “I am disappointed with the political leadership of both parties and want to tell them so. I want to be part of this historic event and tell my grandkids about it.”
He went to the offices of Republican legislators and “talked Republican” with them. He hopes they were listening. “I tried to build some bridges,” he said. “Politicians have to stop trying to stare each other down, waiting for someone to blink first. The rest of the state is going blind.”
TERI ROOTS came to Sacramento to represent classified employees hit hard by budget cuts. She is the president of the Ventura Classified Employees Association and a secretary at Buena High School, which has lost classified staff and gained furlough days.
|Teri Roots |
“I’m angry and scared,” said Roots. “I have a granddaughter I’m helping to raise, and I’m scared about what kind of education she’ll have if we don’t fix things now.”
The phrase “We Are One” has new meaning to her.
“It was such an amazing feeling to be part of an event where all forms of educators unite and see the importance of standing as one in this fight to preserve the right of every student to an excellent public school education,” she said.
“I will never forget the feeling of standing in the state Capitol rotunda and everyone singing together. All you could feel in that room was unity. We are indeed One.”
A retiree’s perspective
PAUL MARKOWITZ came out of retirement to participate in the historic event.
|Paul Markowitz |
“I’ve gone to Sacramento and participated in various activities before, but nothing like this,” said Markowitz, who taught in the Las Virgenes School District for 34 years and belongs to CTA-Retired.
He is especially angry that legislators are cutting school funding and blaming the problem on teacher pensions. Teachers, he said, are not the problem, they are the solution. For years they contributed to their pensions, and they do not receive Social Security.
“The general understanding is that if you go into teaching, you won’t make the kind of money you’ll make in other careers, but there’s a livable pension at the end if you stay in the system long enough,” he said. “Without that, who’s going to go into teaching? I’m frightened for the next generation of teachers — if there is a next group of educators coming into the system with the cuts that are happening.”
Markowitz stayed for the week with wife Renee Lancon, a retired UTLA member. They marched around the Capitol at a brisker pace than many younger protesters huffing and puffing to keep up.
No choice but to protest
DAVID GOLDBERG, a CTA Board member, felt he had no choice but to come to Sacramento. And he had no choice when it came to being arrested.
“The economy has devastated families,” said Goldberg, an elementary school teacher and member of United Teachers Los Angeles. “Schools are having the worst cuts in history. Students have more intense needs than ever before. There’s an unprecedented assault on union members. No one who’s alive today has ever seen these things happening at the same time. So we need unions to engage in the most meaningful and impactful way possible to make a difference.”
On May 12, he refused to leave the Capitol at closing time unless Republicans agreed to pass the temporary tax extensions. Police told Goldberg and 25 others, including CTA President David A. Sanchez, they could leave or be arrested. Goldberg stayed and clapped loudly as each CTA member was led away by the California Highway Patrol. In the spirit of social justice, Martin Luther King Jr. and César Chávez, Goldberg went willingly to jail.
As he was being led away, he had some last words for a reporter who asked him: “Why?”
“I’m doing this because it’s not fair to balance the budget on the backs of kids,” he stated. “It’s a travesty, and it’s the least I can do.”
Upon his release the next morning, he had no regrets.
“Jail can either be very empowering or very terrifying,” he said. “For us, it was empowering. We all looked out for each other and took care of each other.”
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