'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dance of the Lemons 

Every now and then, I run across a piece of quality journalism in one of my northern California newspapers, one that goes beyond the immediate subject and provides real social insight. Invariably, I find them in the San Francisco Chronicle, and not my local one, the Sacramento Bee, which has become an embarassment.

Today, I ran across this story in the Chronicle:

A group of Oakland parents, frustrated by a nearly two-year battle to remove a reportedly abusive teacher, went on strike Thursday, pulling their children out of school and onto a picket line at the district's downtown headquarters.

Close to 80 percent of Lazear Elementary School's 300 students didn't show up for school Thursday - a loss of almost $9,000 in state funding for the day - and apparently a wake-up call for district and teachers union officials who met with the parents Thursday afternoon to try to resolve the issue.

The boycott was a last resort for the parents, who were tired of the time-consuming and egregious process of getting rid of someone they say is a bad teacher.

In nearly two years of teaching at Lazear, the veteran third-grade teacher has repeatedly left his pupils unattended in the classroom and on the schoolyard, physically manhandled students, told children to shut up, and at one point locked a girl in the classroom because she wasn't moving fast enough, said Olga Galavíz González, a parent organizer at the school.

As you might have guessed, Lazear Elementary serves a predominately lower income population, in this instance, a Latino one. And, they have been forced to pull their children from school in order to protect them from someone they describe as an incompetent, abusive teacher. Turns out the people like the families at Lazear find themselves confronted with the worst teachers in their district quite often:

Thursday's strike exemplified one of the more common complaints in public education. Too often, the solution to bad teachers is to shuffle them to another school to avoid the costly two-year process to fire them - what is known as a dance of the lemons.

Lazear parents said they don't want the lemons landing in their yard. At the same time, many stressed that they love most of the children's teachers.

Our kids deserve better teachers, González said. Just because we're here and not up in the hills, they deserve the same teachers.

By here she meant Lazear, a predominantly low-income elementary school with a large Hispanic population on the other side of a chain-link fence from Interstate 880.

Schools like Lazear can feel like dumping grounds for tenured teachers the district can't or won't fire, said Oakland school board member Noel Gallo. The third-grade teacher at the center of Thursday's controversy had moved around the district before he arrived at Lazear in fall 2008, he said.

If the families don't speak English, so what? said Gallo, who stood with parents on the picket line. They deserve the same fairness, equity, treatment and quality.

Similarly, as revealed in the sad case of Zachary Cataldo in 2008, students threatened by the violence of their classmates face the same sort of problem. Cataldo, a 7 year old student in the same district at the time, was frequently bullied and eventually attacked by another student while awaiting the arrival of his caregiver to take him to day care after the school day had ended. His strategem of hiding in the bushes until the caregiver arrived finally failed. His school, Piedmont Elementary, was notorious for violent incidents among the students.

One might have thought that transferring Cataldo or the other child to another school was a possible solution, but, no, as with the teacher at Lazear, that's not nearly as easy as it sounds:

Piedmont Avenue Elementary appears to be a school of last resort in the Oakland district, one where your child ends up if you are still standing when the music stops. Once there, getting your child transferred to a safer school is about as probable as escaping a French tropical penal colony.

After all, if school district officials transfer your child, how can they explain not transferring the other 247 students with no record of violence? Of course, as previously reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the district is now willing to consider whether Zachary should be transferred after Cataldo sought legal representation.

In other words, if you didn't get it the first time, the district was only willing to consider permitting Cataldo to transfer only after he was attacked, and presented the district with the prospect of legal exposure.

Access to public education is one of the linchpins of the common belief that the US is a meritocracy, a place where one is rewarded for one's educational achievement and work ethic. But, as these incidents suggest, public education doesn't provide the same opportunities for everyone.

There have been a number of attempts to approve voucher schools through the initiative process here in California. They have failed, primarily because lower income people and people of color perceived these efforts, quite rightly, as partially motivated by the intention to even further segregate the schools and drain resources from the public system for the benefit of the upper middle class. But one wonders what would happen if a more egalitarian voucher proposal was submitted for public approval.

And, finally, there is the fact that California education is undergoing a remorseless process of budget cutting, necessitated by the economy and a state government that is unwilling to adopt solutions other than the neoliberal shrinkage of public services. For students like Cataldo, and those at Lazear Elementary, things look to get worse before they get better, if they ever do. Meanwhile, money flows liberally into the war on terror as manifested by the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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