Op-ed in today’s LA Daily News
The women and men who clean classrooms, drive school buses, maintain security on campuses, assist students, greet parents, prepare and serve food in cafeterias, maintain and repair schools and assist teachers in the classroom are the glue that keep our schools and public education working.
Unfortunately, not only do these indispensable education workers fail to get the recognition they deserve, they are also the first group to be laid off during budget cuts and the last to be rehired when school funding picks up. As the state economy continues to rebound and Proposition 30 puts more money into public education, it’s time to restore classified positions and make school environments safe and conducive to learning, teaching and working.
From 2007 to 2012, California’s teacher workforce declined by approximately 11 percent, or 32,000 teachers, and school districts eliminated courses, cut programs and services, and increased class sizes.
During the same time period, at least 50,000 classified employees lost their jobs. Our students and schools were hurt by these layoffs as well, and yet the media said little. But the reduction of classified jobs goes back even further.
As a teacher for more than 20 years at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, I saw a systematic elimination of classified jobs, including custodians, cafeteria workers, gardeners and other jobs that were essential to maintaining a safe, clean, well-run school and providing services to students, parents and teachers.
When I first began teaching in the early 1980s, Mr. Brown, the custodian on my floor, cleaned my classroom nightly, dry mopped the floor and had the room ready for the next day. With each passing year and cuts to custodial care, Mr. Brown and the people who replaced him were given less time to spend per room and despite their hard work, couldn’t maintain the room as they had in the past. When a custodian was ill and unable to go to work, there was no replacement worker. That meant the already overworked custodial staff had additional work, making it even more difficult to keep the rooms and school site clean.
Over the years, cafeteria workers have also seen the elimination of jobs and a de-skilling of their profession. Those of us who attended public schools in the 1960s remember school cafeterias that served wholesome meals and prepared fresh baked goods. Even in my early years of teaching, the school cafeteria at Manual Arts served quality food and was a hub of activity during nutrition and lunch breaks. Little by little, fewer meals were cooked at the school site and increasingly cafeteria workers were serving prepackaged food sent by the district. What had once been a vital part of the school community had been effectively eliminated in the name of efficiency.
The elimination and contracting out of classified jobs, like bus drivers, has a negative ripple effect on the economy. In K-12 and community college districts, classified workers are overwhelming unionized. When these jobs are cut, workers have to scramble for non-union, low-wage jobs with fewer benefits. This has a disproportionate impact on working-class neighborhoods and communities of color.
All children, not just those in affluent communities or those who go to private schools, deserve to attend clean, safe, well-maintained schools. The education of a child does take a village and that village has gardeners, custodians, cafeteria workers, and aides as well as teachers. California’s school districts need to recommit to making our public schools attractive, safe and inviting learning communities for the millions of children who attend them every day.
Joshua Pechthalt is president of the California Federation of Teachers, representing more than 120,000 members. CFT will hold its Classified Conference Dec. 5-7 in Irvine.