Image Credit: Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education

A student does their homework online from home.

Image Credit: Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education

A student does their homework online from home.

January 13, 2021

Everyone I know wants to get California’s 6 million+ public school children back to school as quickly and safely as possible.

If we really want to get there, starting with Governor Newsom, leaders will have to think outside the box as this one-time pandemic continues unabated.

The governor deserves praise for his recent budget and school opening proposals, but schools won’t reopen anytime soon across the state when the details and arrangements for in-person tuition are reached through local collective agreements and letters of intent in more than 1,000 school districts.

I offer this standpoint knowing that I have been a consistent advocate and advocate of local control of schools in a career that has spanned more than fifty years.

Governor Brown’s historic acceptance of a return to local control through the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAP) extended my career measurably through serving on his State Board of Education and as the Executive Director of the California Collaborative launch for Educational Excellence (CCEE), a new government agency designed to provide the right help to districts, charters, and district offices.

I also know that in my role as superintendent of two of the largest districts in the state (Long Beach and San Diego) for more than 12 years, all the good things we have been able to achieve have been done in close collaboration with our CTA and CSEA staff became partners.

I count the CTA stalwarts Marilyn Bittle from Long Beach and Terry Pesta and Dick Gale from San Diego in my personal hero pantheon for everything they did two times a day during my time as superintendent to work together in the interest of the school children very challenging tasks .

And for the past two years, I have had the privilege of being a member of the community of the CTA Institute for Teaching Board, whose founding arm has given me an in-depth and personal look at the remarkable work they are doing nationwide supporting innovation at the class level where the the actual work to rescue historically underserved students in our state is done daily from the counties of Siskiyou and Modoc in the north to the Mexican border in the south.

Even so, I believe that during this pandemic, Governor Newsom should use his emergency services to temporarily suspend local collective bargaining and that he should sit down with the leaders of the CTA, CFT and CSEA to negotiate a safe nationwide reopening of all public schools for personal Classes.

Yes, this is an unconventional and unconventional proposal, but it may be necessary if we are really serious about reopening schools in time for this school year. Without falling into the weeds of a pact to be negotiated by the parties, the agreement should include guarantees regarding cases, testing and contact tracing, vaccinations for all school employees, PPE, and thorough cleaning and sanitation of all school facilities on a regular basis.

So often, as leaders, we give in to what I call “you can’t” when that type of analysis is usually wrong. I remember working with the Long Beach School Board on improvements in the 1990s to improve the school system in a community threatened by economic collapse and perpetual gang war. In public schools we have often met that you cannot do that.

Whether it required school uniforms, single-gender tuition, or cessation of social advancement, the constant refrain was that we couldn’t do any of these things in public schools. It turns out we could and did and, as they say, “the rest is history,” with Long Beach ultimately winning the Broad Prize for best urban school system in America.

I am in no way downplaying the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic is providing executives with an emergency for which there is no playbook to solve the greatest challenges, but I know that without them we will not get there executives who take risks and don’t get stuck in conventional thinking.

I think the governor has excellent resources in the Chair of the Legislature Education Committee, Rep. Patrick O’Donnell from Long Beach and Senator Connie Leyva from Chino. O’Donnell, a former class teacher and CTA ally, has advocated a state-level checklist with clear health metrics for reopening public schools for personal instruction, while Leyva, a former labor supervisor in her own right, has advised that ours Schoolchildren learn best in personal settings.

A nationwide collective bargaining agreement is also important as it would allow superintendents and their staff to work on the critical and emerging problems of the local workforce that have so far not received much media attention.

I have been told by several superintendents that their replacement teacher lists are exhausted, classified health aids – so important in supporting special needs students – are unavailable, and record numbers of staff are taking vacation. Addressing all of these critical elements of the workforce is vital to the safe reopening of face-to-face teaching in all of our schools. The government agreement that I am proposing should include additional money and incentives for it.

I am not advocating permanent abandonment of local K-12 level collective agreements, but all education policymakers understand that our California State University system, the largest public higher education system in the country, has been nationwide bargaining for decades and remains a healthy robust system, that serves the students well.

If we are serious about getting our younger students back to face-to-face tuition in good time this school year, heads of state must roll up their sleeves and think outside the box.


Carl Cohn was formerly the executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a member of the California State Board of Education, and superintendent of the San Diego Unified and Long Beach Unified school districts.

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