By Otto K.
March 12, 2020
SAINT PAUL – Earlier this week on Tuesday morning, St. Paul, Minnesota teachers and educators began the first day of their planned strike, establishing their picket lines at all St. Paul Public School (SPPS) sites with a march and rally at the Global Arts Plus Upper Campus which followed later in the afternoon.
The strike, which is supported by the broad majority of the community, comes after lengthy contract and budgeting negotiations with the Saint Paul Public School district (ongoing since May of 2019) have continued to stagnate as the district refuses to budge on many of the demands of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE), the union body representing the teachers and support staff of SPPS. While the demands of the SPFE do include pay increases for teachers and support staff, many of the demands represent the teacher’s union attempting to leverage their collective bargaining strength to better meet the needs of their students in the face of the ongoing neoliberal attacks on public education and gutting of public school funding, following trends observed in other recent teacher’s strikes, such as those in Los Angeles last year.
Specifically, the chief demands in regards to student wellbeing include addressing the dire need for greater mental health services in schools with the proposed establishment, at each school, of a Mental Health Team comprised of licensed social workers, psychologists, and counselors. They also propose that each school site be staffed with at least one full time nurse as well to better address the physical health needs of students. SPFE points out that many St. Paul public schools have effectively no mental health support staff, and provide a shocking figure that there are 20 St. Paul public school sites don’t even have an on-site nurse available at all, and another 10 which do not have a nurse on site full-time. They also cite that amongst 8th grade girls in SPPS, an astounding 1 out of 5 students have reported that they “seriously considered suicide” in 2019. Teachers point out that the lack of these supports are especially dire in a district such as Saint Paul, in which a relatively high proportion of students come to class attempting to contend with various stressors and traumas related to poverty such as exposure to chronic community violence, housing insecurity, food insecurity, etc – two-thirds of SPPS’s student body live in poverty.
Another proposal includes provisions for increasing funding allocated to special education programs and instructors in order to address the under-developed special education infrastructure currently in place in the district. The teachers correctly cite the difficulties students have in coping with these problems as key structural barriers for educational attainment and criticize the SPPS for either ignoring these needs during fund allocation or dragging their feet in the process of implementing corrective measures, and additionally that teachers and support staff are not asked to provide any input on related policy, despite the fact that they are those closest to SPPS students on a day to day basis and are thus most in tune with the educational needs of their students – teachers state that their complaints and suggestions for improving the school environment for these students are often ignored or brushed aside by district leadership; many prior proposals that they have submitted to the district related to these issues have gone un-acknowledged for months at a time, some which have yet to garner a response from the district.
Teachers also cite a priority to work towards closing the district’s racial and national disparities in educational attainment and disciplinary action, and have operationalized this priority in the form of proposals for increased funding for educational programming for multilingual students and the hiring of more multilingual support staff in order to ensure that students for whom English is not a first language have greater access to educational material and/or staff support that can provide instruction in their first language. There are 129 languages represented amongst the student body of SPPS. As part of the same commitment they are also demanding that school policy shift away from punitive discipline and towards restorative programs and models of collective accountability.
The SPFE point out that students of color generally, and Black students in particular, at SPPS sites experience notable greater rates of disciplinary action and suspension for relatively minor behavioral infractions compared to their white peers, and correctly ascribe this disparity to the uneven application of existing punitive disciplinary measures influenced by the conscious or unconscious personal biases of school administrators, and hope that their calls for a move towards restorative practices can work to close this disparity by providing better alternatives for enforcing behavioral infractions that don’t involve isolation/separation of the student from their peers and suspensions that largely serve only to disrupt a student’s academic routine.
The superintendent of SPPS, Joe Gothard, is, quite predictably, blaming a lack of funds to justify the district’s refusal to implement the much-needed programs proposed by the SPFE. However, the SPFE isn’t buying it, and for good reason – they point out that, despite declining enrollment, revenue at SPPS has actually increased by $38 million since 2016, and that their proposals only constitute about 5% of the total annual budget for the district. Also pointed out is that in 2018 a city referendum added $18.6 million in funding to SPPS. The SPFE have rightly characterized the reluctance of district officials to implement their proposals as being clearly rooted in the budget’s lack of prioritization of the quality of student education and support programming, not in an immediate lack of funds.
Worse yet, the district is already trying to strike-break by issuing a threat of retaliatory layoffs to all teachers assistants working in SPPS. The notice sent to teaching assistants reads that “. . . as a result of the current strike of St. Paul Federation of Educators you will be placed on layoff status. The purpose of this communication is to notify you that should the strike continue, your last day of employment will be March 23rd, 2020.” This is a clear attempt to break the momentum of the strike by trying to pit teachers against their support staff, who are represented by a different union. However, the teacher’s assistants, represented by Teamster local 320, stand in total solidarity with the striking teachers, and are themselves picketing alongside teachers before and after work, and during lunch breaks (as the teacher’s assistants themselves are not currently on an official strike). While the final outcome of course remains to be seen, it currently looks that their efforts to sow discord amongst the strike camp will largely fall flat. The district has also sent out notices seeking substitute teachers to work as scabs during the strike. The SPPS should be vigorously and forcefully denounced for such blatant strike-breaking attempts.
We’ve all heard this “lack of funding” excuse over and over whenever there are proposals to expand any sort of social support or public service, yet, when the needs grow great enough and enough people organize around pressuring the implementation of said measure, somehow the money needed always seems to suddenly become available. Hopefully the fact that the SPFE have had to push this hard for what should be the most basic considerations for student health and wellbeing, for a public service as fundamental as public education reminds and reinforces in the minds of St. Paul citizens that the bourgeois state and its apparatuses, even those nominally intended to benefit the public good for all of society such as the public education system, will not pursue even the most basic of needed reforms unless pressured through struggle – especially in this era of neoliberal belt-tightening and divestment in the public sphere. As communists, we also cannot avoid emphasizing that, as commendable as the intentions and proposals of the SPFE are, they can only go so far in eliminating the problems they seek to ameliorate – for as long as American settler-colonial capitalism remains intact, so too will racial disparities and achievement gaps, for they are rooted in the national oppression of the groups in question at the hands of white power; so too will schools remain underfunded due to class- and race-based residential segregation and the primary basis of educational funding in property taxes resulting in wildly inequitable funding for majority working class, majority oppressed-nationality schools; so too will so-called “non-essential” services and programming programming be perpetually placed on the chopping block because the ruling classes of capitalist society only desire to provide *just enough* broad educational access to reproduce the skills they need in the working class to continue commodity production, and little more.
The reason the SPFE is needing to struggle for these proposals as much as they are is because, despite the fact that the historically capitalist class was eventually driven to provide public education as a result of previous class struggle forcing their hand, broad social programs like public education can only do so much when they are still situated in a larger capitalist context in which private commodity production happens and distribution of that output (and then that of the investment of extracted surplus value) is ultimately placed at the whim of market forces. In the last instance, the contradictions between capitalism and socialism as distinct modes of social and economic organization are always antagonistic and there are no pro-worker reforms made within the context of capitalism that can ever be totally and permanently secured against the interests of capital. Public education can be best administered and made truly equitable only in the context of a socialist planned economy in which all facets of social production and their interactions with each other are consciously quantified and managed in totality and with decisions about resource allocation made in the interest of the broad masses of society as a whole. Keeping this in mind, we as communists should therefore both support the SPFE in their strike (particularly their continued emphasis on leveraging their collective bargaining power for their students’ needs as much as their own), while also urging them to bring the primary role of settler-colonial capitalist-imperialism in creating these problems to the forefront of the discussion, and to link their specific grievances with the larger, more fundamental structural impediments that capitalism in general poses and will always pose to achieving a truly robust public education system.
Despite the cancellation of regular classes while the strike is ongoing, the SPFE have coordinated with St. Paul city government as well as local chapters of organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club in order to continue to provide vital services to their student body, such as continuing to serve breakfast and lunch to meet the needs of students facing food insecurity, widening public library and rec center operating hours, and providing daytime childcare services with academic programming to ensure as little disruption to the students’ education and daily lives as possible.
More information on the strike and the SPFE’s demands can be found on their website, www.spfe28.org.