A palpable wave of relief passed through the crowd during the Feb. 4 meeting when the representatives of the City of Richmond announced their bailout of four schools potentially slated for closure. While not looking a gift horse in the mouth, however, the community understands that one-time bailouts from the cities won’t put the West Contra Costa County School District (WCCUSD) in the black. Without a commitment for another $2 million from somewhere, prior to Feb. 11, the School Board sees no road to a balanced budget other than closing the doors of a number of our neighborhood schools.
To make matters worse, California Secretary of Education Jack O’Connell has announced that $10 billion will be cut this year from state payments to the school districts. Because of the state budget stalemate, the governor has threatened to shave five days off the school year, and he plans to lift state restrictions on how school funds are spent, freeing our School Board to use state money to pay debts instead of funding education. So even if the City of Richmond money holds off some of the closures temporarily, we will be back in the same position before long.
Thirty years following the passage of Proposition 13, the simultaneous impact of a California budget crisis rendered intractable by the two-thirds majority rule, and the worldwide breakdown of financial institutions, has created a perfect storm raining debt and empty promises on our children. This crisis appears to be unrelenting, unstoppable, and beyond the ability of the best and brightest to solve. All the institutions of democratic governance, from the lowly School Board to the state Legislature and the mighty Senate of the United States, are incapable of addressing the concerns of working people and the needs of our children.
Rather, these august institutions are poised as one to enforce the greatest wealth transfer ever from the working class to the elite. Cutting schools is only one of the ways the working class is being forced to bear the burden of fiscal mismanagement and unrestrained wealth appropriation by the elites. The elderly, the uninsured, the unemployed, subprime mortgage holders, state workers, the disabled, and the indigent have all been abandoned along with the students. Millions have seen their life savings and retirement or pension plans wiped out.
The safety net has been shredded, and the specter of a full-fledged depression looms over the economic forecasts. The promoters of deregulation, tax breaks for the rich, and unrestrained markets, who during the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush years promised unending prosperity, have been exposed as the self-promoting hucksters that they are.
The federal government has shown that its first loyalty is to the very bankers, speculators and war profiteers who brought the growing economic crisis to its inevitable head. The bailout of the banks in October 2008 was opposed by the grassroots, who flooded their representative with phone calls and e-mails. Against the better judgment of the American people, the bailout passed in two short weeks with bipartisan support and Obama’s blessing. Four months later, it has been revealed that not only did the bailout not work but in addition millions of bailout dollars were used to pay outrageous bonuses to the very speculators who fueled the economic meltdown. Despite the proof that the bailout was a failure, which will result in lowering the worth of the dollar and incurring debts our grandchildren will be paying for decades to come, the current administration has refused to stop the bank bailout disaster and is poised not only to release the second half of the money to the banks but also to institute a new plan to buy their toxic assets, shifting the risk of loss from the bankers to the taxpayers. In response, working people around the country are asking, “Where is our bailout?”
When working people lose their jobs, their homes, their health care, and their schools, the economic elite, the pundits, and the government either ignore their plight altogether, blame the victim, or pose and posture but provide no relief. Inversely, when the fat cats of finance destroy the economy, they are quickly bailed out by the average taxpayers, against their will. Rather than nationalizing the failed financial institutions, or letting the “free market” take its course, the elite deem the speculators “too big to fail.” At the same time, our children are deemed too burdensome to teach.
If cuts in social programs and education are not opposed vigorously, they will be made now, under the guise of the current crisis, and the funds will never be restored even if the economy recovers. Yet finding, printing, or borrowing money is no problem for politicians when their puppet masters in banking and big business deem it necessary. It all comes down to a question of whose priorities do the institutions of governance serve?
Working people can’t compete with the corporate elite in the effort to buy politicians. Despite the millions in small contributions to the Obama campaign, the biggest contributions were bundled by the corporate elite. Not surprisingly, then, the new administration is loaded down with bankers and speculators, including many of the same players who helped deregulate and bring down the system in the first place.
The working class has little recourse via the polite civic process of petitioning the government for redress. It will take a social movement unlike anything seen in this country for generations to defend and expand social programs and public education during this crisis.
However, we are not powerless to force a reordering of priorities. The working class has enormous power. We have the power to build roads, railways, planes, power and steel plants, auto factories, hospitals, and schools, and to teach the workers needed for these projects. We also have the power not to work. When we choose not to work, our real power is felt in the pocketbook of the business elite, as the profits they usually derive from our labor stop flowing. Our power not to work, if used to its fullest, can paralyze the economy and force the ruling class to meet our demands.
Strike action is the most powerful weapon in the working class arsenal. However, the leaders of our organizations have become too enamored of the corporate model; of their Democratic Party “friends”; and of the irrational and misguided belief that justice can be won in the bosses’ courthouse. Diverted by their illusions from their proper role, our union leaders refuse to prepare their membership for strike actions. Our organizations need to prepare the community for direct action up to and including mass demonstrations, student walk outs, teach ins, teacher strikes and possibly occupation of schools slated for closure.
Quality public education and an endless war economy are incompatible. Quality public education and a prison economy are incompatible. Quality public education and government dominated by corporations, bankers and speculators are incompatible. Once we recognize the problem and the obstacles, the solution becomes self-evident. When we come together as a community of working people, and forge organizations based on solidarity and democracy, there is no force that can withstand our power.
Consider the WCCUSD. The school board does not answer to the parents, the teachers, the school staff, the students, and the community. It answers to the trustee, who in turn is an unelected bureaucrat accountable only to the agents of the ruling elite. The school board’s response to the financial pressure has not been to fight for the interests of the students and their teachers and parents, but to close schools and reduce programs, balancing the district’s budget at the expense of our children’s education. If our schools were controlled by the teachers, staff, and parents, who are intimately connected with the students and their educational needs, instead of politicians and bureaucrats, we would be working to find a way to keep the schools open and flourishing rather than trying to con the community into accepting the closures as inevitable.
No to school closures. No teacher layoffs, no cuts by attrition. Fill vacancies, restore cut programs, reduce class size. Restore quality education; bring back music, art, and sports. Hands off staff and teachers’ wages, benefits and retirement. Place schools under direct teacher, parent, and staff control.
Charles Rachlis is a Richmond resident.