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Opinion: Trustee Bennett Kayser Occupies LAUSD

Silver Lake resident Kayser represents Los Angeles Unified School District 5, which includes Northeast Los Angeles. He sent this Opinion piece

I am an admitted sympathizer with the Occupy movement. Recently individuals set up tents on the sidewalk outside the school district headquarters.  I said to Peggy, my wife of 40 years, “Load up the Prius while I get the tent.”  Then it occurred to me, I had already taken the most important step to “Occupy LAUSD,"  I was successfully elected to be an educational leader at the Los Angeles Unified School District.  To the surprise of many, I defeated a better-funded opponent, giving me and others concerned with the fate of public education in our community great hope.

Everyday, I am working to support public education and the children of our community.  I am a warrior against the status quo.  We are in a battle against a well-funded opposition interested in privatizing education that has millions to spend promoting an Orwellian doublespeak that claims reform as their own and paints those who have actually worked in a classroom as defenders of the status quo.

Fellow activist Sue Peters of Seattle described the sorry situation we find ourselves in saying, “the status quo is currently a beleaguered, under-funded system…ravaged by damaging policies...pushed by those who want to privatize our public schools.”  I am for properly funding education, hiring the best teachers, and for serving all of the nation’s children; the poor, the recent immigrant, the advantaged and the disadvantaged. I am saying out loud that we have a great school system filled with caring adults who could do better if better supported.

All children deserve the education currently reserved for those who already have every opportunity.  My work will be done when every child can “choose” to attend a public neighborhood school that is funded as well as Phillips Exeter.  That will be real public school choice.

Our schools and teachers are targeted as those responsible for a society that is failing our children.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I have never met a teacher who did not enter the profession with the single purpose of helping children.  Teachers are the warriors by my side giving their all for children. Yes, they are not all the best, but most of them want to be.

My fellow activist in New York, Leo Casey, has identified that 9 of the 10 billionaires on the Forbes’ list of the richest Americans are “engaged in active political warfare against public school teachers and teacher unions.”  They are joined by a host of financial players who, in a demonstration against any principle of accountability, brought the world’s economy to its knees and then profited again from a taxpayer-funded bailout. 

While teachers and public employees are vilified for having retirement plans, bankers and CEO’s are receiving bonuses and income at the highest levels in history while we have a staggering unemployment rate and increasing child poverty. In 2007, the US Department of Education spent $14.8 billion on disadvantaged children, less than the net worth of school privatization proponents Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison that year.

New Jersey activist Stan Karp put it best when he stated, “The same people and politicians who accept no accountability for having created the most unequal distribution of wealth in the history of the planet, an economy that threatens the health and well being of hundreds of millions, want to hold you (teachers) accountable” for student test scores. 

Study after study indicates that poverty is the real problem creating educational inequity.  It is the dividing line of the “achievement gap”.  It explains the distance between suburban and urban achievement and the disparity between suburban and rural educational success and the difference in race and ethnicity.  Yet, even in the highest levels of LAUSD we have people saying, “poverty is not destiny”.  Well, poverty is sure an important factor.  As Karp says, “Saying poverty isn’t an excuse has become an excuse for ignoring poverty.”

As the Occupy movement forces are indicating, if the billionaires really want to do good, they would advocate for good paying jobs.  They would advocate for a retirement system that rewards those who have dedicated their lives to public service with an opportunity to step aside for the next generation to take their place.  Instead, they seek a villain as they advocate for raising class size, taking teachers away from children that need a hug and replacing teachers with “technology”. 

They advocate for a rapid expansion of the yet to be proven turning over schools to unaccountable private organizations, the closing of “low performing” schools which face overwhelming difficulties; more testing; elimination of seniority and tenure which came into existence to protect teachers from mercurial political forces; and test-based teacher evaluations, which everyone acknowledges uses testing instruments in ways they were never designed.

If these so-called “reform” policies were enacted today, they would do little to close the achievement gap, nor increase the college-going rate, attendance, safety at schools, or raise parent engagement. We really know what to do, give parents jobs and put children into nurturing, rich academic environments and they will exceed all expectations.

Jose J. Perez November 25, 2011 at 09:39 PM
I admire Mr. Keyser for standing up to the status quo. The wealthy don't really care about our school sytem, they care about attaining more wealth and keeping the middle class and poor away from them.
Carmela Gomes November 27, 2011 at 01:36 AM
Thank you, Bennett, for commenting so eloquently concerning the selling of the American Education System in order to fulfill the mantra "of the corporation, for the corporation, and and by the corporation".
Susan Andres November 27, 2011 at 03:03 AM
Yay! When I voted for you, Bennett I wasn't sure I was making the best choice, since I knew nothing about you or your opponent. But after reading all the election messages, I felt you would represent my interests better than your opponent. Now I KNOW I made the best choice!
Susan R November 27, 2011 at 03:22 PM
Well, that is very refreshing that you admit that your teachers and public employees are the highest paid in the nation. And, you have the best pension plans and vacations and sick leave. And, then your complaining about it? And you do not mention anything about reforming the school system. If you really want more money in the classroom get rid of all the excess employees that have nothing to do with the classroom and just push paper. That means getting rid of all those administrators that are not needed. Oh, but you will not do that, will you? No, that would mean getting rid of union employees that can not be fired. And, how about getting rid of bad incompetent teachers, vice principals, princpals and any one else that does a bad job? Can not do that either. They have union jobs too and can not be fired. So, where is the education reform? There is none. Money is not the answer. Less waste, better employees, more quality are.
Alberto November 28, 2011 at 06:05 PM
"Us vs. Them" talk is fine for those who aren't in positions of authority with the ability to affect change but from a successfully elected education leader I want to see, "that's why I have already done/proposed the following". There are many among who you consider the enemy who "have actually worked in a classroom" and still do; you alienate them in your battle cry instead of being a leader who includes their voices, their work. “Jobs for parents and nurturing environments” are sorely lacking for many, yes, but the job of the teacher is the same regardless: use tools at hand to reach your charges and produce the best results, without fail. All who serve, from soldiers to doctors, are faced with this impossible challenge. Stand with Occupiers regarding larger issues but when you speak, please speak about what you are doing, formally proposing – about what you are accomplishing. You were not elected to paint people as “They” and “Them” - to forget “they are us”. You were not elected to serve “best intentions” or a desire to “do better”. Your fight is not against billionaires but with ALL those who want to best serve the Immediate Needs of children in the classrooms Now. State your support against the greater ills but when you say what you are for, please then say when you are formally doing about it. You have ideas for what billionaires should do and say they seek villains. You seek villains, too, but forget to tell us what you are doing.
Elijah H November 28, 2011 at 10:43 PM
You narrowly won a "special" election with one of the poorest turnouts, based on the power of turnout disproportionately weighted to favor the union vote. You have some hefty shoes to fill, most of the usual voters in your district adored your predecessor, and favored her forward-thinking policies. Unfortunately, your union-backed efforts to shut down the charter movement are misguided. Your "Us vs Them" rhetoric paints all charters with the same brush, including many outstanding charters in your own district, who are in the midst of some amazing innovations. You rail against "turning over schools to unaccountable private organizations", a weak straw-man argument if I've ever seen one. Charter schools are held to a much higher standard than public schools. Charter schools need to continually request re-approval of their charters, repeatedly making a case for their continued existence. Traditional schools are permitted to fail unchecked until those failures become egregious... and you would have even those failures glossed over with no systemic remedy available.
Elijah H November 28, 2011 at 10:45 PM
You and your union allies rail against the choice charters provide, arguing that they favor the upper-middle class. Meanwhile, you gloss over the choice magnets provide, with an admission/point system that is so impossibly convoluted that Moms groups hold "Lunch And Learns" to share tips on how to work the system to their advantage. The magnet admission process is even more stacked against the working/lower non-English speaking parents who don't have access to these social circles. At least the charter admission process, with its simple lotteries, is easy to understand and implement. While sitting in those fancy offices downtown, you might wonder whether efforts to streamline the bureaucracy would benefit the students and families you aim to serve more effectively than reducing school choices. Unfortunately, you represent a step backward, and a return to the status quo. I'm looking forward to seeing how this pans out in your next election.
Susan R November 29, 2011 at 05:57 AM
Elijah H, I totally agree. What you wrote is absolutely true and very well written. You truly know the system very well. It would take someone like you to really get the system changed. But there is very little hope that will happen. I just want to reinforce what you mentioned about charter schools and the magnets. Magnet schools have fake sign up lists. And, low income people never can get an opportunity to get into the magnet programs. And, that is what the magnet program was designed to do, give low income students more opportunities. Instead the magnets are full of middle to upper income kids that have connections.

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