Friday, January 18, 2019

Black Teachers Buck Beutner’s Billionaire Boys Club

By Sikivu Hutchinson*

While thousands of L.A. teachers, students, parents, caregivers and supporters took to the rain-soaked streets to strike and fight for the life of public education this week, LAUSD’s one-percenter superintendent Austin Beutner took to the op-ed pages of oligarch mouthpiece the Wall Street Journal to scold UTLA for bad math skills. The union’s challenge to Beutner’s privatization regime has been a national lightning rod for a revitalized resistance movement. 

Black teachers have consistently been on the frontlines of this resistance. A recent study on Black student achievement found that Black students who had just one Black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to go to college. Those who had two Black teachers were 32% more likely. Overall, having a Black teacher made students more likely to “ask questions and talk about school subjects out of class”. This is not rocket science for those of us who were fortunate enough to have gotten a solid foundation of Afrocentric pedagogy growing up or to have been raised in a community of conscious Black teachers who challenged us to think critically. Yet, many Black students aren’t exposed to Black teachers at an early age because of the overwhelming whiteness of the profession and racist, sexist barriers to Black recruitment and retention.

African American teachers are approximately 8-9% of the LAUSD’s teacher population. They are in the trenches of a district that has become a national symbol for the crippling effect urban apartheid, neoliberal control, and disinvestment have had on historically Black public schools and neighborhoods. This week, Black teachers walked the line and spoke, chanted and testified their truths on street corners and in traffic, driving one of the biggest public employee union uprisings of the decade.  As Dorsey High School English teacher Ashunda Norris commented, “We know that systematically, across the country, large numbers of Black students are not being adequately served in the public school setting. When the demands of this strike are met, it means a great amount of Afro American children will receive resources in their school communities that are, quite frankly, long overdue. In the spirit of Black educators such as Lucy Laney and Ida B Wells, we're simply demanding what rightfully belongs to our students: free and stellar educational opportunities.

At Seventy Fourth Street Elementary in South Los Angeles, fifth grade teacher Dr. Tammara Lewis slammed the pro-charter school board majority for taking a 174% salary increase (bringing their salaries to $200,000 a year) on the backs of children of color.  Students at her high-achieving school have reported seeing ants coming out of the classroom faucets, nurses are only on site once a week, and dated textbooks extol the conquests of heroic white historical figures in narratives spiced up with the occasional appearance of Black, Asian or Indigenous “mascots”.  As one of the few predominantly Black gifted magnets in the LAUSD, Seventy Fourth has an over 80% African American, majority female faculty. This week, the school had 100% faculty participation on the picket line. On the line, teachers spoke about providing their own funds for supplies, pushing for culturally relevant textbooks, STEM and music education, and fighting for more nutritious student food. 

Mr. Garrett Lee @ GHS
Walking the line at Gardena High School in South L.A., Restorative Justice and special education teacher Garrett Lee discussed the importance of mental health services for students of color coming from communities where there are few services, high rates of trauma and violence, and strong cultural stigmas around therapy. Nationwide, Black male teachers account for only 2% of the teaching population.  And Lee’s position is one of the scores of vital support jobs jeopardized by the district’s multi-billion-dollar police state apparatus. The district’s quiet push to phase out its already piddling restorative justice programming and ramp up funding for school police and surveillance would have the most harmful impact on Black students. As an adviser to the school’s Black Student Union and mentor to Black male students, Lee sees the strike as a continuation of the legacy of the civil rights movement and a platform for Black student organizing.  He noted that “It’s critical for Black students in particular to see this example from Black teachers and to know that their voices can be heard.” Across the district, African American students, who comprise 8.2% of LAUSD’s students, are the least likely to go on to four year colleges after graduation, the least likely to have access to rigorous A-G coursework, and the least likely to be placed in gifted and talented (or GATE) classes. Conversely, they are more likely to be “randomly” searched by school officials, suspended, expelled and permanently pushed out of school.

Walking the line at Seventy Fourth Street, fourth grade teacher Ms. Frierson stressed the need for a visible Black teacher presence to combat Black erasure: “How do we bring our best and brightest to the profession when teachers are constantly being marginalized, constantly being told ‘oh you’re just a teacher’ and constantly being forced to spend our own money just to ensure our students’ needs are met? For Black students to come to school and not see folks who look like them is problematic.  Why would they want to be a teacher if they don’t see people who look like them?”
Dr. Tammara Lewis @ 74th Street
Echoing Ms. Frierson, first year King Drew Magnet History teacher Brooke Moore-White said, “This strike is such a tiered issue for me. As a young black educator, I see few black peers in my credentialing classes. I see how hard it is for me to stay in the profession due to the low pay. I see how many students could benefit greatly from smaller classes. And I see a district that won't invest 
Ms. Frierson @ 74th Street ES

the resources it has, I think this strike is step one towards the changes that need to occur to save the district and possibly public education. Let's increase pay to make the job more attractive to qualified, culturally responsive individuals. Let's limit charter growth that has siphoned students and resources that desperately need to be reinvested in the district.” 

On her fourth strike day, Dr. Lewis, a former charter school principal, assailed Beutner's kleptocracy class agenda: “Our superintendent comes to work in a limo while students are catching buses to school. He has a strong friendship with billionaire Education Secretary Betsey DeVos. The district is trying to privatize education just like they did prisons. Board members have funneled money out of the district into charters and now their agenda is being exposed. Would this ever happen in Beverly Hills or Calabasas?” 

As the teachers go back into the streets for a fifth strike day a petition demanding that Beutner resign has already collected over 15,000 signatures.

Twitter @sikivuhutch

*Permission to use photos for reprint granted by author