There’s a class war in our schools, and the rich are still winning

September 14, 2023 8:00 am

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As the academic year start back up, it feels like a good time to step back and take stock of what is really happening in public schools across our state and nation.

I’m proud to be the leader of a union that represents nearly 10,000 education support professionals across Minnesota. Our members are the backbone of their schools, working as bus drivers, special education paraprofessionals, food service workers, engineers and more. They also are parents of students in our schools. They care deeply about the success of our students and our schools, but they’ve seen the challenges piling up on educators, students and our whole school systems.

Whether you focus on the ongoing challenges facing education workers who lack the respect, pay, benefits and job stability to support their own families, or you look at the fringe extremists who are trying to ban books and block the teaching of our country’s history, our schools are facing many challenges. And we know that all of these issues are tied together.

While Minnesota politicians have made big pushes to invest in education, including record levels of funding during this last legislative session to try to catch up for decades of underinvestment, we know we still have work to do to build the schools our students and educators need.

And you know who is stopping us from having what we need? The ultra-rich, the corporations, and the politicians they back, who would love nothing more than to end public education as we know it.

The education crisis is real and it is harmful for families in every corner of our state. For decades, anti-public school politicians slashed public school funds and diverted money from our schools. The result? Crumbling buildings, school staff leaving in droves from overwork and extremists working to use the challenges caused by these intentional choices to try to end public schools as we know them.

Our children and education workers are bearing the weight of racial and economic disparities. In the years following the Great Recession, disinvestment has robbed our children’s education of a staggering $600 billion nationwide. Almost 70 years since Brown v. Board of Education, non-white students are getting $2,200 less in investments than white students, a national problem we know is especially dire here in Minnesota given our huge racial disparities.

The gap between funding for white and non-white school districts remains at $23 billion. The rich thrive while people struggling to make ends meet suffer from crumbling schools that often don’t have enough staff to do the work they need to do. While our communities are facing these huge crises, corporate taxes plummet, with some billionaires shamelessly avoiding federal income taxes, while the top 1% evades $160 billion in owed taxes each year. Who pays the price? Working families. Kids. Education workers. All of us.

Minnesota can and must be a leader in showing a path forward.

Minnesota is one of the richest states housed in the richest country in the world. We have one of the highest per capita collections of Fortune 500 companies. We have the resources to create the highest quality child care system, the best K-12 schools, and debt-free higher education. But that push has to include all of us demanding change.

Here’s the good news: That’s exactly what SEIU Local 284 members are doing as we speak. Our members, along with our students, families and communities, are at the heart of a revived movement for strong public schools and winning racial and economic justice for everyone in our state. SEIU members are on the front line of a push by workers for unions for all, for transformational investment in our children, and for respect for the people who educate and care for them.

Right here in Minnesota, the members of SEIU Local 284 fought hard for a better education system. We won free meals for Minnesota students and unemployment insurance for hourly workers so we can make sure schools retain talent over the summer months. We helped make sure we sent part of the record budget surplus back into our schools. We have raised our voices to say that every student — no matter their zip code, wealth or race — deserves a world class education. We know that this isn’t possible without amazing school staff like our members.

This past year the DFL House and Senate, along with Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, made steps towards building the schools our families need. Now we all need to come together again and demand those who have seen their wealth skyrocket during and after COVID-19 pay their fair share so we can go beyond just fixing the harm done in the past, and actually build the world-class schools Minnesotans deserve.

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Kelly Gibbons
Kelly Gibbons

Kelly Gibbons is the executive director of SEIU Local 284, the union of nearly 10,000 school employees across Minnesota.