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Public Education - A Chat with Cecily Myart-Cruz

Cecily Myart-Cruz, the first Black Latina to lead UTLA, came to the job just as the Covid-19 pandemic began.
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Gaining an education through the methods we take for granted today like enrolling in school, attending class, and studying under the tutelage of a teacher wasn’t available to most people until relatively recently. For the greater part of this country’s history, education was almost the exclusive realm of the wealthy and their children.

Ironically, Thomas Jefferson, a man who enslaved over 600 people, said, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." For decades, proponents of public education argued that public schooling would create good citizens, unite society, and prevent crime and poverty - then in 1852, the state of Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school laws. By 1918 all American children were required to attend at least elementary school.

Today, in the state of California compulsory education law requires everyone between the ages of six and eighteen to attend school, except students who have already graduated from high school or passed the California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE) and obtained parental permission.

Since the passage of compulsory education laws, there has been a focus on the quality of education and the need to create equal schooling for all American children, no matter their race – hence the landmark supreme court decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

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Since its beginnings, public education has been a political football. And, in the past 50 years, the infusion of neoliberal ideology into the American body politic has manifested in the educational arena in a variety of ways including the push to privatize, corporatize and commercialize education with an emphasis on private sector management prioritized by bottom line considerations. That’s a long way of saying that we are seeing an explosion private corporate charter schools but no real improvement in the education they deliver to their students.

Billionaires love private corporate charter schools. Why do people like Michael Blomberg, Betsy DeVos and Bill Gates involve themselves in this debate? Because, for them, the debate is not about the quality of education but about the labor movement -- the billionaires’ primary adversary. Public sector collective bargaining empowers workers to demand and negotiate for fair wages, benefits and to resist exploitation – that is true for both union and non-union workers. 

With that as a backdrop, I had a conversation with Cecily Myart-Cruz, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). UTLA is the nation’s second largest teachers’ union local with more than 35,000 members including teachers, health & human services professionals.

Myart-Cruz, the first Black Latina to lead the union, came to the job just as the Covid-19 pandemic began. She speaks frankly about the challenges she faced/faces, her triumphs, and the areas where there is need for improvement.

I learned a lot from Ms. Myart-Cruz and hope you will too. Enjoy.