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District’s ‘Hire Them Cheap’ Philosophy Wears Thin

<i> Rodolfo Acuna is a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge</i>

The controversy between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the union representing teaching assistants is an affront to the Latino community that goes beyond normal wage and benefit disputes. It reflects the historical pattern of Anglo-Mexican relations, whereby Anglos almost always expect to get Mexicans on the cheap.

Consider that the impact of the strike falls almost exclusively on the one in three public school students who speak limited English and who are overwhelmingly Latino. In many cases, the teacher assistants, most of whom are Spanish-speaking, have more contact with Latino students than certified teachers. Even under the best of circumstances, the learning time of the limited-English speaker is confined to the few hours when the Spanish-speaking assistant instructs them in math, reading, English and science.

The assistants are central to the education of Latino students. In a system where few teachers speak Spanish and fewer are of Mexican or Central American extraction, the assistants are often the students’ only role models. They are a symbol for the student that si se puede (it is possible). The school board’s refusal to upgrade the job security and benefits of this corps of paraprofessionals makes no sense.

The treatment of the assistants is patently racist and sexist, resembling the treatment of teachers before World War II, when women subsidized education by accepting sub-par wages. The public attitude was that women could afford to work for nothing because it was a family’s second salary. But for the teaching assistants, who are mostly women and about 70% Latino, working is not a luxury. More often than not they are the sole support of families.

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If there is any doubt about the board’s disregard of the Latino community, consider that the assistants’ salaries are primarily paid from special state and federal funds, making the refusal to invest any more district funds all the more grating. Contrast this with the board’s support of and lopsided investment in magnet schools, which were established primarily to stem the flight of middle-class whites from the system. Relatively few limited-English speakers are even served by the magnets.

The implications of this strike for the Latino community are far-reaching. Like women in the teaching profession, Latinos are attempting to break a syndrome that keeps them marginalized. What the assistants are asking for is the upgrading of education in the communities where they live and teach.

This struggle is urgent because it is increasingly clear that the system has no intention of significantly increasing the number of Latino teachers. The school district would apparently rather recruit Spanish-speaking teachers in Spain than educate California Latinos for the job.

The teaching assistants are tired of being taken for granted, and want to end the myth that Latinos can live on beans alone.

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