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Back in May, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a new draft of his budget, based on the bleak financial outlook caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. California’s rosy fiscal position had evaporated in a matter of weeks and it was time for the bad news: Schools would take the biggest hit.
Newsom said he was left with no choice but to cut $7 billion from education. It was one of the biggest single year drops in funding ever proposed. Education leaders immediately compared it to the devastating austerity of the Great Recession.
At the time, the state’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego Unified, had been cultivating a partnership for weeks. And even though they had different purposes in mind for the new alliance, the moment of Newsom’s cuts was going to be a big moment for them.
“In the last recession, the entire education establishment rolled over,” said Richard Barrera, vice president of the San Diego Unified school board. “These big cuts were coming and everyone in Sacramento capitulated. Most districts were just waiting to be told, ‘Here are your guidelines. Here’s what you have to spend.’”
Barrera, a union organizer by trade, believed school districts should at the very least fight back against Newsom’s budget. Within days, Los Angeles and San Diego Unified wrote a letter saying they wouldn’t be able to physically reopen campuses if Newsom’s cuts went through. Other big districts signed onto the letter. School leaders pushed their local legislative delegations to restore the money.
The moment was ripe for a novel statewide organizing approach. Coronavirus had upended schooling and many important questions, beyond even money, would have to be answered over the course of the pandemic. In the absence of few concrete guidelines from the state, Los Angeles and San Diego Unified’s new partnership was actually setting them up to drive education policy across California.
“Education is a weird sector in that there’s all of this latent political power — because people actually care about schools more than anything else — and it never gets used,” said Barrera. “My experience with health care unions is you get in there and you fight like hell. So I was really focused on trying to get other districts on the same page and focused on this issue.”
Barrera, along with board president John Lee Evans, started working towards this group organizing effort shortly before the pandemic.
Back in December, in the normal times, the California School Boards Association held its annual conference in the San Diego Convention Center. Superintendents and board members from all over the state were in town. Barrera and Evans saw an opportunity to gather leaders from other big city districts.
For Evans, the meeting would be about money. California ranks among the bottom half of states in per pupil funding.
“We wanted to have a discussion about longer term funding. Because now we come back every year and just fight over pennies basically to get a little bit more,” Evans told me.
Evans and Barrera gathered together superintendents and board members from some of the biggest districts in California, including Los Angeles Unified.
“Fresno, Long Beach, Santa Ana. I think Sacramento. I think we had about seven districts total,” Barrera told me.
Kelly Gonez, a board member with Los Angeles Unified, was there with another board member and some staff members from the district. She has tried to facilitate school district collaboration in various roles at the Council of Great City Schools and the state school board association.
I asked her how other people took to the idea of advocating together for better funding.
“It seemed pretty novel [to some people]. Not quite revolutionary, but close to it,” she said. “We had each been in our own silos trying to advocate with our own local legislators. But it was really exciting for people to be part of this new coalition that was forming.”
Barrera said education leaders don’t often recognize their organizing power.
“Most superintendents are educators, teachers. They come up through that system. They tend to be, for most part, non-political, great, wonderful people who care about kids,” said Barrera.
The group left the meeting with a loose plan to advocate for more funding — not manage a pandemic. But an opportunity to leverage the partnership came sooner, and under different circumstances, than expected.
In March, as it became clear California was on the edge of a wide scale outbreak, no one was very sure what schools should do. Closing schools would be bad for vulnerable students. Not closing schools might be bad for everyone. If schools must close, when is the right moment?
School districts were scrambling — and they were getting very little guidance from state officials. Los Angeles and San Diego school officials started a dialogue. Ultimately, both districts decided it would be better to close sooner rather than later. On Friday, March 13, they issued a joint statement saying that physical campuses in both districts would close the following Monday.
Before the end of the day Friday, all of San Diego’s 41 other school districts had also decided to close. Most others across the state did the same. In a vacuum of no clear state guidance, Los Angeles and San Diego discovered they could set the tone.
“In the absence of other folks making those decisions we will go out and try to see if we’re on the same page and make a decision together,” Barrera said.
When it came to Newsom’s proposed budget cuts in May, the partnership also worked. This time, Los Angeles and San Diego brought in some of the big city districts they’d met with in December. Five other districts signed their letter demanding more funding from the governor.
After sending their message, each of the districts went to work on their own hometown legislators. After Newsom made his initial proposal, it was the legislators’ turn to negotiate with him on the parts of his budget they didn’t like. San Diego and Los Angeles Unified were banking on the fact that legislators could turn the budget back in their favor.
The districts negotiated aggressively. “Cuts will mean that the reopening of schools will be delayed even after… clearance from public health officials is given,” they wrote.
Essentially, they were saying to legislators, “If you don’t make this budget right, we will not open our schools.” Everyone had finally realized the true value of a publicly-funded education system, free to all. It was the biggest engine for the economy and an invaluable source of childcare and stability. The legislators listened.
By the time the Legislature and governor came to an agreement, schools would not take any budget hit at all.
“You’ve seen collective advocacy from big districts before,” said Carrie Hahnel, a fellow at the Opportunity Institute, who tracks state education policy. “But I’m certain that Los Angeles and San Diego’s joint decisions put more pressure on the state.”
Los Angeles and San Diego had clearly implied they would physically reopen if the state came through with more money. But in retrospect, they were making a commitment they had no way of knowing they could keep.
They got the money they asked for — the federal government also seems poised to kick in more money for schools — but, in their latest joint decision, both districts decided they would not physically reopen on the first day of school.
As the pandemic worsened over the summer, the lack of clear state guidance about how and if to reopen schools was creating another vacuum.
Each of California’s 1,000-plus school districts — some have dozens of students, others tens of thousands — were forced to decide individually whether or not to open. The message from the Governor was clear: The decision is yours. We won’t tell you what to do or how to do it.
“The reality is that we are school districts, not public health experts,” said Gonez. “We had to step up, in the absence of clarity at the state level.”
On July 13, the districts jointly announced they could not safely reopen on the first day of school. They would start the school year with online learning. Again, other districts quickly followed their lead.
Coronavirus cases were increasing. The first day of school was coming very near. Barrera said he and other leaders felt the moment weighing on them. “We felt like we had the responsibility to inform parents, teachers, students and the whole community. People have to be able to prepare,” he said.
Even though they got the money they asked for, Los Angeles and San Diego school officials ultimately didn’t believe they could create a safe environment on such short notice and with so little guidance.
This time it wasn’t just other school districts that followed. Days later, Newsom announced new rules that supported Los Angeles and San Diego Unified’s decision. Schools would be ordered to close in counties with a certain minimum number of new coronavirus cases. Those counties included San Diego and Los Angeles.
“I hope maybe there will be less of a need for us to step into that void, as the state steps up a little more,” said Gonez.
But if Newsom and the state Department of Education don’t step up, Los Angeles and San Diego schools have made one thing amply clear: They can and will make decisions together. And when they do, those decisions will have massive impacts for the state’s 5 million other students.