Everyone that I know wants to get California’s 6 million-plus public school children back in school as quickly and as safely as possible.
If we’re really going to get there though, state leaders, starting with Governor Newsom, are going to have to think out of the box as this once-in-a-century pandemic continues unabated.
The governor deserves praise for his recent budget and school reopening proposals, but schools aren’t going to reopen anytime soon across the state if the details and agreements on in-person instruction have to be reached through local collective bargaining agreements and memoranda of understanding in more than a 1,000 school districts.
I offer this point of view knowing that, in a career that has spanned more than fifty years, I have been a consistent advocate and champion for local control of schools.
Governor Brown’s historic embrace of a return to local control through the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAP) extended my career measurably through service on his State Board of Education and as the launch executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE), a new state agency designed to get the right kind of help to districts, charters and county offices of education.
I also know that in my role as superintendent of two of the largest districts in the state (Long Beach and San Diego) for more than 12 years, whatever good things we were able to accomplish were done in close collaboration with our CTA and CSEA labor partners.
I count CTA stalwarts Marilyn Bittle of Long Beach, and Terry Pesta and Dick Gale of San Diego, in my personal pantheon of heroes for all that they did to partner in the interests of school children on a daily basis during my time as a superintendent in two very challenging assignments.
And, for the past two years, I’ve been honored to serve as a community member of CTA’s Institute for Teaching board, their foundation arm, which has given me an up close and personal view of the remarkable work that they’re doing statewide to support innovation at the classroom level, where the real work of rescuing historically underserved students is done on a daily basis in our state from Siskiyou and Modoc counties in the North all the way to the Mexican border on the South.
Having said all that, I believe that Governor Newsom should use his emergency authority during this pandemic to temporarily suspend local collective bargaining, and that he should sit down with the leaders of CTA, CFT and CSEA to negotiate a safe statewide reopening of all public schools for in-person instruction.
Yes, this is an out of the box and unconventional proposal, but it may be what’s needed if we’re really serious about reopening schools in a timely way this school year. Without getting into the weeds of a pact that is to be negotiated by the parties, the agreement should include guarantees with regard to cases, testing and contact tracing, vaccinations for all school employees, PPE, and thorough cleaning and sanitation of all school facilities on a regular basis.
So often as leaders, we give in to what I call the “you can’t” thinking when that kind of analysis is usually wrong. I remember back in the 90s working with the Long Beach school board on improvements that were designed to improve the school system in a community that was threatened by economic collapse and permanent gang warfare. We were often met with “you can’t” do that in the public schools.
Whether it was required school uniforms, single gender instruction or ending social promotion, the constant refrain was that we could not do any of those things in the public schools. It turns out that we could, and we did and, as they say, “the rest is history” with Long Beach ultimately winning the Broad Prize as the best urban school system in America.
I’m not downplaying in any way the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic presents leaders with an emergency for which there is no existing playbook with regard to solving the biggest challenges, but I do know that we won’t get there without leaders taking risks and not getting stuck in conventional thinking.
I think the governor has excellent resources in the Legislature’s education committee chairs, Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell of Long Beach and State Senator Connie Leyva of Chino. O’Donnell, a former classroom teacher and CTA ally, has advocated for a state level checklist with clear health metrics for reopening public schools for in-person instruction, while Leyva, a former labor leader in her own right, has pointed out that our school children learn best in in-person settings.
A statewide collective bargaining agreement is also important because it would free up superintendents and their staffs to work on the critical and emerging local workforce issues that haven’t received a lot of media attention so far.
Several superintendents have told me that their substitute teacher lists are depleted, classified health aides — so critical for supporting high need special education students — are not available, and record numbers of employees are taking leaves of absence. Addressing all of these critical workforce elements is essential for a safe reopening for in-person instruction in all of our schools. The state agreement that I’m proposing should include additional money and incentives for this.
I’m not arguing for a permanent abandonment of local collective bargaining agreements at the K-12 level, but all education policymakers are aware that our California State University system, the largest public higher education system in the country, has had statewide collective bargaining for decades and remains a healthy robust system that serves students well.
If we’re serious about a timely return to in-person instruction for our younger students this school year, state leaders need to roll up their sleeves and think out of the box.
Carl Cohn was formerly executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a member of the California State Board of Education and superintendent of the San Diego Unified and Long Beach Unified school districts.
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