An education leader from the Bronx, fighting for Alhambra public schools

With her fiery red hair, no-nonsense Bronx accent and healthy dose of charisma, Rosalyn Collier, PhD, has been a prominent figure in the Alhambra school system for more than 25 years. The president of the Alhambra Teachers Association, Collier is on a mission to inform parents about the state budget crisis and its implications for local schools. Last month she stood in opposition with hundreds of Alhambra teachers, parents and students at a Town Hall Meeting, in an attempt to create a unified front against California cuts to public schools. This Friday she will join teachers from across the state at a rally in Pershing Square in Downtown Los Angeles.

Why was it important for you to join the Teachers Association?

I think anyone who gets involved with union activity gets there because they have experienced some kind of injustice. I know as a child of poverty what public schools mean to me. I grew up in a project in the Bronx. I lost my father when I was five or six; my mother died when I was 17. If it weren’t for the public school system in California, I could never have achieved what I achieved. I could never have gotten a PhD. Never.

What brought you from New York to California? And what were the education opportunities you found here?

I came to California on a vacation and found out about the school system. At that point I was paying through the nose to go to night school at City University of New York. So when I came out here and found it was free, I took every class I could take at community college.  Whenever there was a scholarship, I became the financial aid genius. But it was there for me to do. It’s not there anymore. Sometimes, an injustice is so big that you can’t fight it yourself, so you link to an organization that has a philosophy and ideology that are in tune with yours. I felt that the Association gave me a venue for expressing and working against things I felt were unjust.

What progress has been made during your first year as president of the Alhambra Teachers Association?

Right now we’re facing a budget crisis. An association’s role is to educate and call a community to action – and that’s exactly what we’re in the throws of right now.

What can people expect from the Pershing Square Rally?

There will be teachers from throughout the state of California at this rally. From 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., there will be a call to action: We not only have to educate the parents but we have to educate the teachers – Why did we get here? How did we get here?

What are the major issues facing Alhambra schools right now?

One major issue is the budget crisis. Governor Brown is going to face the end of the four tax extensions that began in 2008 – they are going to expire in June. Without those taxes, the state of California will be in about a $20 billion deficit, and education is expected to take more than a $2 billion hit out of that deficit. Alhambra could take as much as $17 to a $23 million hit. We’re looking at massive teacher layoffs, increases in class size, and furlough days.

The second is that public education for decades has not had a stable funding source. As of this year, the state of California is 47th in the nation in terms of funding public education. Over the past years, we have steadily decreased funding even though we have the third largest economy. The state mandates through the Constitution that students have the right to a free, quality education – but it doesn’t fund it.

How has the Alhambra Unified School District changed since you became a teacher 26 years ago?

There have been two major changes. One is decreases in funding. Now, you have a kindergarten teacher that is allocated $225 for her classroom in supply money. That allocation was given 20 years ago – that allocation has not changed in 26 years. You cannot buy the same thing for $225 now that you could 26 years ago. For a long time teachers pulled that extra money out of their pocket, but now it’s getting to the point where they can’t do that anymore and they have to hold fundraisers.

The second is the impact of former President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and its continuation under President Obama. There is a huge thrust in this economy toward the privatization of public education by people like Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Wal-Mart Family. They’re reformers. They’re education reformers my foot. They want to privitize the system and that’s what’s going on. You’ve got to go into the schools. You’ve got to talk to the teachers. To the students. They’re getting robbed and they don’t even know it and that’s the problem. This is not documented in our regular media, but people like Chris Hedges bring attention to it. This movement has taken decades, but now the media asserts “Teachers can’t belong to unions,” and “All teachers are bad.” That is a move to break public education. This is part of the movement, because if you can break the collective bargaining of the teacher’s union you can break public education.

You've been a teacher at Alhambra for more than 25 years. What brought you to the district?

Total fluke. My son was an infant and I did not want to work full time. They ran an hourly position. I was called a Chapter 1 teacher: I helped students who were at risk. I live in Bakersfield. My husband works at Chevron Texaco and he had to be out there. I stay down here at a place during the week.

What makes Alhambra schools different from neighboring school districts?

Alhambra is a very close community in the sense that the people in charge of this district totally understand the community and connect and have a relationship that has been honored. We are not that large – so you develop a sense of who you’re teaching and whose part of this community.

What can parents do to get more involved?

You can’t ask anyone to do anything until they understand what is going on. I think parents have to be taught how to take action. How do you fight a state and federal government that have consistently defunded public education? My one message is that I truly believe that if the public does not pay attention to what is going on with public education they will lose it within 15 years.

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