Anyone scrutinizing photos of those picketing the current teachers’ strike in Los Angeles may have seen a familiar face (and clothed head) Wednesday: Steven Van Zandt. The strike, which involves 30,000 teachers and affects about 350,000 students, is centered around issues like charter schools (Los Angeles has 224, a huge number for a major city), class size and funding for more staff.
Van Zandt, who has just launched TeachRock, an education program that uses the history of rock as a way into American culture and history, shares his front-line memories to Rolling Stone.
I happened to be here; I was finishing a new record, and someone said, “By the way, people are striking here,” and I said, “I might as well join them. Get some action here.” This celebrity thing is really only good for a couple of things. You can get into a restaurant, and you can do something that’s actually usable.
It’s the unsexiest issue ever, but we’ve been engaged with teachers for a couple of years, trying to raise awareness. Teachers are an underfunded and underappreciated part of our working class. We just finished a tour [the Teacher Solidarity Tour, with free tickets for educators] and everywhere we went, there were teachers on strike — West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma. Teachers are right there on the front line fighting against ignorance, and, boy, do we need that right now.
There was a lot of good energy out there. People were holding signs that said, “Beep if you support the teachers,” so it was one big beep-fest. I was on the picket line with a kid who spent last year on the floor in chemistry class. There weren’t enough desks in the room. Jesus Christ! Dozens of teachers told me they’re buying pencils and paper for their classes or starting GoFundMe campaigns for a class trip. These are things we took for granted growing up, but it’s not that way anymore. They have to pay for those things out of their $40,000-a-year salary.
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“Teachers are right there on the front line fighting against ignorance, and, boy, do we need that right now.”
The most classrooms in my day would hold was 30. That’s already too many. But in Los Angeles, they’ve got 45 in a class. How can you teach 45 kids? Come on. Eighty percent of the schools here don’t have a full-time nurse or psychologist. I never heard of things like that in my life. They don’t have basic things like librarians. I was the worst student [in Middletown, N.J.], but the school librarian was great. She turned me on to Allen Ginsberg and things like that.
The big-picture philosophical thing is privatization. It’s happening in every single town. The privatization of education is almost two steps better than the privatization of the prison system, which is the single most insane thing in our society. It’s fine that charter schools exist. I understand some of the reasoning of trying to raise the standards and have a more protected situation. It’s the world in between private and public school. But it’s not an equal-opportunity situation. It’s a more selection version, and who gets left out are the poor, the homeless and the handicapped. Charter schools pick who come in, and they’re taking a lot of the [public] funds and leaving behind the poorest part of our population. So it’s a philosophical question: Do you believe in the public school system or not?
Like almost everything else these days, it’s a war of the rich vs. the poor. And it’s not going to help our society to keep separating the distance between them. We’re going to become India in a minute. For the first time in my life, we are going backwards in every single way, and you have to say, “Enough is enough.” Where will this be in 20 years? We need to make some serious adjustments. So you do what you can do.