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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Day Higuchi : On Making Education a Priority in Tax-Phobic California

June 23, 1996|Harry Bernstein | Harry Bernstein covered labor issues for The Times for 32 years

Day Higuchi, president-elect of United Teachers-Los Angeles, was born in a Japanese Relocation Center on the Pomona Fairgrounds in 1942 during World War II. He and his parents were moved to what some still angrily call America's first concentration camp. It was better known as the Heart Mountain, Wyo., Internment Camp, one of the camps where Japanese Americans were sent because many doubted their loyalty to America.

Racial reverberations from those ugly war years were harsh for many. But Higuchi said he was too young to have negative memories of his parents' internment; he was back in Los Angeles at the age of 3. Since then, the third-generation Japanese-American said his heritage has had no noticeable discriminatory affect on him. As he often does in conversation, though, Higuchi added a caveat to his observations: "But it may have. I'm a pretty thick-skinned person. If it had an affect on me, I probably just haven't noticed the insults."

If not as a Japanese-American then as a teacher and union activist, the 53-year-old Higuchi has needed a thick emotional skin. He has had some arguments with students, battles within UTLA, but far more trouble with Los Angeles school administrators as a union activist helping fight for better salaries and working conditions for teachers.

While he received bachelor and master's degrees in philosophy at UCLA, he studied other subjects for his teaching credentials including math, chemistry, English, physical science and the humanities. Higuchi used those and other subjects while he taught junior high school students for 20 years in East Los Angeles. His union activities take all of his remaining time. His first union job was as a school representative and he assumes the union's presidency July 1. He is also a vice president of the California Federation of Teachers, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. UTLA itself is unusual. Representing more than 32,000 teachers, it is one of two local teacher unions in the nation that belong both to the independent National Education Assn. and the AFL-CIO American Federation of Teachers which have been trying for years to merge into a single union.

His wife, Charlotte, is also a teacher and educational researcher. Their daughter, Kerri, is an aspiring film and theater director. He was interviewed at his union office in Los Angeles.

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Question: Do you think Los Angeles residents understand the problems of the city's school system enough to agree with you that there is a need to spend more money to correct them?

Answer: No. There is a glut of information and misinformation about our schools and it seems almost impossible to explain our problems briefly enough to get people to understand them. But I'll try. For starters, school districts get almost all of their money based on the number of their students. Currently, the basic amount number in California is about $4,200 per student, plus another $1,000 if they are eligible for various special needs funds known as inner-city "categoricals."

Q: How does that compare with other states?

A: Rotten. Our students in California get about $1,200 per student less than the national average which is about $5,400.

Q: Why is the money coming to our schools so far below the national average?

A: Because California taxpayers are not willing to pay the taxes to provide each student with a quality education that is at or above the national average; and I think that's because they don't understand the problem, a major one being Proposition 13, which sharply curtailed property taxes that go mostly for schools. Ever since Proposition 13, it's been very difficult for California districts to raise money.

Q: How does California compare with other states?

A: As a straight amount of money per kid, we're probably two-thirds of the way down the list of the 50 states. In terms of the amount of money that we invest in our children as a percentage of our wealth, we're probably in last place. In terms of the classroom size--the number of students that each teacher has to face--we have the largest class sizes in the nation.

Q: Wouldn't those statistics motivate voters to approve more spending for schools?

A: They should, but they are being bombarded by antitax propaganda and nobody likes to pay taxes. Yet as a state we're paying less per-capita on the basis of our share of income than any other state, including Mississippi, which is a very poor state compared to our own. Our state is in the top 10 in wealth. We have a bigger economy than all but about eight nations in the entire world. It is absolutely criminal not to spend more for education.

Q: Do you blame it all on Proposition 13?

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