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CFT’s Jeff Freitas on recall, pandemic, teacher attacks

Twenty-five years ago, Jeff Freitas began his career as a math teacher in the Carpinteria public school district and most recently was re-elected president of the California Federation of Teachers. The CFT is a union of 120,000 educators and classified professionals. Classified professionals include bus drivers, custodial staff, secretaries, and other school employees from early childhood through higher education.

An affiliate of the American Federations of Teachers, CFT is also active in statewide politics. This included Proposition 15 last November, which narrowly lost. This would have eliminated decades-long property tax protections for commercial properties and provided an additional revenue for local public schools and community colleges. Freitas touched on this and other education topics in the following Q&A.

Sacto Politico: Let’s start with an obligatory recall question. You recently issued a statement that you and the CFT “emphatically oppose the recall campaign of Governor Gavin Newsom.” Beyond this, how active does the CFT plan to be in the recall?

Jeff Freitas: Yes, we did take a formal position against the recall and will continue to defend the governor through this process. The timing of a series of elections starting with the recall, and then proceeding into the normal election cycle for 2022 – are all scrunched up together. We take the recall seriously, but we are managing our resources as we have multiple fights ahead of us.

It’s important to note this is not like the last recall. Governor Newsom has overwhelming support. Trump roughly got only 33% of the voters in California. That was about 6 million people. To get this recall on the ballot, they needed less than a third of that third. So it is a small minority of Californians who favor this. Sometimes people do things that are improper that may merit a recall, but this just seems like a joke.

Moving forward, we need to raise the number of signatures needed to get a recall, and it needs to be for a real serious violation a person has committed. Plus, we voted on a lieutenant governor who is there to fill a vacancy if one occurs. So there should be no second question on the recall ballot. It should just be, “Do you want to recall the governor or not?”

S/P: The pandemic required individual schools, teachers and parents to adapt in ways they never anticipated. At your administrative level, what was the most challenging aspect for your team, and how did you adapt to keep serving your membership?

Freitas: We need to emphasize this was a crisis, and we are still kind of in this crisis as it could flare up again. The attacker was unseen, easily transmitted, and so much was unknown. We were learning as we tried to battle it, and there was so much high anxiety throughout this entire process. That is where the challenges came in.

At CFT, we had to adapt to the virtual world to discuss ideas and transmit information. Just like everyone, we saw the novelty of Zoom beforehand. We were kind of dabbling in that, but then it became our world. We were doing webinars with our members, telephone conference calls – which are much more expensive – virtual town halls, virtual conferences. Even our convention was virtual, and it was successful. We did all these things virtually to make sure we were listening to and informing our members.

We got adjusted to that part, but the hardest thing was always the changes [to school guidances] that were ever coming. We were, unfortunately, forced to build that airplane as we kept going. I feel we were successful, and our members feel we were successful.

The other thing that was challenging was the socio-emotional effects. There is Zoom fatigue of course, but we are social animals. While we see each other, there’s just that missing component [of being in person]. We are all eager to get back, but we are also cautious to get back in person.

S/P: School unions insisted teachers be offered prioritized vaccinations before public schools reopened. Do you have stats on what percentage of your represented members ultimately got vaccinated or were infected?

Freitas: We don’t actually have tracking data of educational personnel who got vaccinated, but we did a poll in the early part of the vaccination rollout. This showed 87% of our members – which includes classroom teachers, classified employees and higher ed personnel – would get vaccinated as soon as possible. At the national level, the American Federation Teacher had a very similar report that nearly 90% of members have or will soon get vaccinated.

We were very involved in the rollout to help our members schedule vaccines. From the anecdotal reports, people were eager to get vaccinated and use that opportunity.

We don’t have numbers on how many of our members were infected. I am unfortunately aware of a handful of our classified members and early childhood workers who did die. I do know that those individuals were at the worksite. It’s not confirmed it was contracted at the worksite, but some of the things we were worried about early on occurred. For example, one person who thought they were just dealing with allergies and came into work. The employer didn’t inform parents, and the union didn’t even know until well beyond the first two weeks. The strict rules we have been trying to push are because of some of these anecdotal situations where the employer didn’t do the right thing.

S/P: During heated contract negotiations, it’s not unusual for unions like yours to be attacked as not working in the best interests of school children. But the fact these criticisms also came during a massive public health crisis, did this sting or hurt more than usual?

Freitas: When you are in the union business, you need to have tough skin. We expect it, especially over the last four years when things have been highly elevated. It really is from the right-wing activists and not every day parents who are attacking our public education system. This comes from the likes of [former U.S. Education Secretary] Betsy De Vos and those who really want to privatize our education system.

But what hurt were the attacks on our rank-and-file members. The teachers in the classrooms and other school professionals are the ones feeling the criticism. It is coming from a small minority who don’t understand education, but it still hurts. As someone who used to be in the classroom, I know the work that is put in. That’s where it stings. From the beginning of this pandemic, they were still there trying to provide meals and opportunities for child care. And the teachers were doing their best scrambling to figure out how to do this remotely and safely when they were never trained on Zoom and the other technologies.

And they did this while fearful for their own lives. We know students spread diseases. When I was a teacher, I got the worst flus. As a parent, you know when they come home, they are bringing it all home with them. But when they bring it home, we don’t know who is at home. This is especially true for multi-generational families in our under-represented communities. So those were some of the safety concerns we were focused on.

S/P: The recent education survey by the Public Policy Institute of California shows these criticisms didn’t convert much of the public. Almost two-thirds support the governor’s handling of public schools and just 2% of respondents saw unions as the main problem. Still 83% of public school parents are concerned about students falling behind academically. Do you have any advice for them this summer?

Freitas: First, children are resilient. Human nature is just that way. Children heal faster. They learn quicker. They are definitely resilient. However, inequity was compounded by the pandemic, and we are trying to address a host of issues like getting broadband in those communities.

Second, parents should know the governor’s new K-12 budget includes massive additions in funding for summer school and afterschool programs. Those are opportunities to take advantage of, and we are working with schools to make sure they are in-person opportunities.

At the same time, we advise parents to let their kids this summer kind of recover from the socio-emotional impact of the pandemic and not put too much pressure on academic achievement. And make sure your kids play. For early childhood education, play is so important, especially play that doesn’t involve electronics. Even with older kids, board games and card games help develop good thought patterns. This allows for trial and error and feeling comfortable even when they may fail on something.

S/P: One benefit from the pandemic has been how many parents gained extra insight into their children’s education and developed new online skills at home. Might online parent tools remain important after we come out of the pandemic?

Freitas: There is a delicate balance here. I think the new online tools are great, and we may be able to keep using them for some communication. Say Back to School Nights or parent-teacher meetings when it isn’t easy for a parent to get away from work. It doesn’t need to be the primary way, but we want to keep that in the toolkit.

But we need to be careful too. There were pros and cons about Zoom calls, specifically when a parent accidentally walked by in their underwear. [Laughs.] We heard a lot of those stories. It has also been good for parents to listen in and understand what was going on, but we want to avoid what’s called “snowplow parents.” These are parents who try clearing the path of every obstacle for their kids. That’s because kids need to learn and develop how to move those obstacles for themselves.

S/P: The CFT is very active on California state propositions, but these are an extremely expensive business and no longer as citizen-driven as originally intended. For example, $800 million was spent for and against the 13 propositions on the 2020 ballot. What are your thoughts on this system and would you like to see anything changed?

I don’t think we have analyzed what should be changed about the process, but we certainly have been active in the ballot proposition process. It is a bit expensive. We represent 120,000 educators and classified professionals across the state, and when we join with other forces and community partners, it is really a voter-driven process. We also see the abuse of it from the wealthy side. For example, Prop 22 [the gig worker proposition] was a corporate-driven campaign, and we see that as the bad side of this process.

But we are proud that we have been at the center of a lot of propositions that have moved California forward in a critical way. We will continue to engage in ballot propositions. We were major founders of one of those 2020 propositions. That was Prop 15, and we have been major players in passing Prop 25 many years ago that changed the budget process for the legislature to a simple majority. We were also one of the primary backers of Prop 30 that taxed millionaires to fund our schools during the last recession.

S/P: Unions like yours are major political donors, especially to Democratic candidates and causes, but most voters of all political stripes favor getting big money out of politics on all sides. Would your group welcome banning all PAC contributions and independent expenditures as long as the Citizens United ruling was overturned and all corporate involvement eliminated?

Freitas: That’s a good question, but I don’t know I would say “all” [PAC contributions being banned]. We have tens of thousands of members contributing to our political efforts. Ours is a very democratic, transparent process. Compare that to a corporation taking the money out of their profits or an individual who is a multi-millionaire or billionaire. Those are very different situations.

It’s important to note we are a democratic organization. Our leaders are voted on by our members. Policies are voted on by our members. Endorsements are voted on. We aren’t a self-appointed board or a single person making these decisions. That is an important distinction, and one that makes us very transparent.

We also support candidates who support and defend public education regardless of their political party and want to see public education thrive. Although nowadays, the Republican Party is a monolith in its opposition to our public schools through its support of vouchers, privatization and other such policies.

But we absolutely support reversing Citizens United and putting more transparency in the system. Look at all the money that DoorDash, Uber and Lyft put into Prop 22 [supportive companies spent $200 million] versus what collectively labor and other groups spent [about $15 million]. And Labor means we had millions of individuals contributing to that, and you know where all our money comes from. It comes from our members, and we list all of them when we send our filings to the FEC. The other PACs don’t.

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