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Hungry for a Better Education: Teachers, Parents Lead Hunger Strike Protesting Cuts, Layoffs at LA Schools

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Teachers, parents and community members are on a hunger strike protesting cuts and layoffs at Los Angeles schools, which have come as part of a statewide effort by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to reduce education funding by nearly $1 billion. We speak to LA high school teacher and “Hungry for a Better Education” participant Sean Leys, now on his fifteenth day of the hunger strike. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, we remain in Los Angeles. We turn to the public school system there, the second-largest school district in the country, which is facing an uphill battle against budget cuts. After months of protests, two weeks ago teachers, parents and community members began a hunger strike protesting cuts and layoffs by the Los Angeles Board of Education. These include the layoff of 2,500 teachers, a proposed increase in class size and the cancellation of summer school sessions. In April, the board voted for the cuts to close the $596 million deficit in next year’s budget.

Last week, Governor Schwarzenegger emphasized the need to make drastic cuts to the state budget.

    GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: The immediate task before us is to cut spending to the money that is available to us. We have no time to waste. The controller has told us that we have fourteen days to act, or California is at risk of running out of cash. I have already used my executive authority to reduce the state payroll. And I’ve proposed the necessary cuts to the three largest areas of our budget, which is education, healthcare and prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: The Governor’s proposed budget would cut nearly a billion dollars to schools across the state.

Well, a group of teachers, parents and students are demanding that the Los Angeles Unified School District use all the federal stimulus money it received to keep class sizes small and retain teachers instead of firing them. The Los Angeles teachers’ union filed fourteen complaints against the school district on Monday, claiming it allowed schools to spend too much federal stimulus money on out-of-classroom jobs, which would increase classroom size.

Well, our last guest is the group staging the Hungry for a Better Education Fast. He has been on a hunger strike for fifteen straight days to oppose the cuts and layoffs. Sean Leys has taught in the Los Angeles public school system for ten years. He’s a debate coach. He teaches ninth and tenth grade English at Lincoln High School in East Los Angeles. He joins me now from Los Angeles.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s good to have you with us, Sean.

SEAN LEYS: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we only have a few minutes. Explain what is happening now and why you’re on a hunger strike.

SEAN LEYS: Well, I believe that we’re at the beginning of what’s going to be a several-year-long attack on public education in Los Angeles, in California and across the country. And we, who have organized a hunger strike, and we’ve been taking over public space, having campouts at different schools, and what we’re trying to do is set a tone and start a movement and build a base that is going to be able to defend the schools for the next couple years and, in the short run, try and hold onto over 2,500 teachers who are being laid off right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you do have a budget crisis in California, so what is your proposal?

SEAN LEYS: Well, we do, but one of the things we have right now that’s giving us the ability to hopefully make some short-term positive changes is nearly a billion dollars in federal stimulus money, half of which the Los Angeles Unified School District has decided to put in a savings account and save for next year. So we want to use a portion of that money to save the jobs right now, try and, like I said, build a base, build a movement and look for new revenues. There’s no way we can possibly continue keeping our schools running, even at the level they are, if we’re looking at the cuts we’re facing over the next couple years.

AMY GOODMAN: You have been on a fast for fourteen days. How many of you are fasting? And what has been the response of the school district, of the mayor, Villaraigosa, of the state?

SEAN LEYS: Two of us are on our fifteenth day starting today. Yesterday, over a hundred other teachers and janitors and teachers’ assistants joined me for one day at my high school, at Lincoln High School, and there have been a hundred more across the school district who have been doing rolling solidarity fasts. So, that’s the sort of support that’s kept the two of us, who have been going for over two weeks now, strong.

The community support has been great. A lot of people in Los Angeles, even within the political establishment, are absolutely on our side. The position we’ve taken for it, of spending the stimulus money and recognizing the need for shared sacrifice on the part of teachers and the labor unions and everybody else, is a position that’s endorsed by the teachers’ union. It’s also endorsed by the mayor. Maria Elena Durazo, who’s a powerful figure in Los Angeles, wrote an opinion piece in yesterday’s LA Times calling for exactly that.

To be honest, the only place, it seems, that this idea is not moving forward is with the school board and with the superintendent.

AMY GOODMAN: Sean Leys, I want to thank you very much for being with us, teaches ninth and tenth grade English at Lincoln High School, has been on a hunger fast for the last fourteen days, protesting layoffs, cutbacks and increased class size proposed for the LA school system.

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