Anti-Austerity Fight Crosses Borders

In the three member nations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), austerity is the buzzword in public education. But in Canada, Mexico and the United States, popular mobilizations continue in support of the right to a quality public education.

On a visit to Mexico this past week, a Los Angeles teachers’ union leader criticized California classroom conditions many Mexicans are long familiar with in their own country. Due to recent budget cuts, the average classroom size in the United States’ second largest school district has increased from 22 to 30 students, said Juan Ramirez, vice-president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).

“We accepted (higher class sizes) because there had to be an effort made so the students did not go without attention,” Ramirez said, “but it goes against the quality of education.”  Ramirez maintained that budget cuts and bulging classrooms are disproportionately impacting immigrant and Latino students. At least 70 percent of the students in the L.A. district are of Mexican origin, he said.

In the ongoing fiscal crisis that is gripping California, Ramirez said teachers have sacrificed not only their working conditions but their wages as well, accepting salary reductions equivalent to four to ten days of pay.  Millionaires, meanwhile, have seen their taxes go down during the last 30 years while 1,500 Los Angeles teachers are on the verge of losing their jobs, he added.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is currently running a budget deficit of $390 million, and plans on closing early education centers beginning next school year.  Adult English instruction and art in elementary schools could also fall under the budget axe. According to the LAUSD’s website, the huge district counted 919,930 students in October 2011.

The LAUSD is far from alone in its financial woes. On May 22, the San Diego School Board voted to lay-off 1,500 teachers. School Board President John Evans called on the local teachers’ union to accept concessions in order to help the district dig out of a projected $122 million deficit for the coming year.

This week, Tom Torlakson, California’s superintendent of education, said one-third of his state’s pupils, or 2.6 million students, attend schools swimming in financial crisis.

“This is the type of precedent that nobody likes to impose,” Torlakson was quoted. “All across California, parents, teachers and administrators ask themselves more and more how to maintain schools with the lights turned on, how to pay the bills and how to keep the doors open.” The Golden State’s education chief appealed for more resources so schools could return to “financial stability.”

In the current set of circumstances, the teaching profession is under a wide-ranging assault, L.A. union leader Ramirez contended. Many young, inexperienced teachers consider their employment to be “temporary” in nature and move on after a couple of years on the job, before any real bond with students and the broader community can be established, the activist said.

Originally from the Mexican state of Jalisco, Ramirez is a 30-year resident of the United States. He has been active with the UTLA on bilingual education and many other issues.

Ramirez’s made his comments while he was in Mexico City to attend the 10th Trinational Conference for the Defense of Public Education in Mexico, the United States and Canada. The gathering was sponsored by unions and education activists from the three NAFTA countries.

Since 2009, pro-public education struggles by teachers, students and parents have intensified as the budget crisis triggered by the Great Recession shows no signs of relenting.  On May 10, hundreds of students walked out of Los Angeles’ Huntington Park High School to protest budget cuts.

In Canada, a long protest by Quebec university students against austerity and tuition hikes turned into a massive public demonstration May 22, when as many as a quarter-million protesters jammed Montreal in repudiation of a new law, Bill 78, that criminalizes unannounced protests and bans demonstrations within 150 feet of school campuses. Solidarity actions were held in New York, Paris, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver.

On May 23, police arrested 518 people in Montreal and 170 in Quebec City on different charges, including failure to give advance notice of a public protest. In response to Bill 78, Montreal residents have staged nightly pot-banging demonstrations from their homes during the past week.

Sources: Montreal Gazette, May 24, 2012, Article by Max Harrold. (Los Angeles), May 22 and 23, 2012. Articles by Esmeralda Fabian and the Associated Press. Gazette/Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, May 23, 2012. La Jornada, May 22, 2012. Article by Ciro Perez Silva., May 10, 2012.

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