Teacher retirement fund divests from private prisons, amid Berkeley advocacy

Via BerkeleySide | Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley teachers Josh Austin (left) and Alex Day at a CalSTRS board meeting in Sacramento in July to call for divestment from private prisons. Photo: Courtesy Josh Austin

California’s teacher retirement fund voted Wednesday to divest roughly $12 million from private prisons. Many Berkeley teachers have been advocating for the divestment since the early summer.

Over the next six months, CalSTRS will divest from private-prison owners and operators CoreCivic and GEO Group, according to a press release.

CalSTRS, the state’s teacher pension fund, began actively exploring divestment on July 20, “after the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy for border crossing led to the separation of children from their parents,” the release said. Many of those immigrants have been held in private detention centers.

CalSTRS staff then visited prisons and met with operators before releasing a report that did not take a position on divestment, but found it would not have a significant financial impact on the fund’s portfolio.

“Like our members, staff was affected by the headlines and images of family separations and…bothered by the possibility that CalSTRS’ investments were supporting those actions,” the report said.

Berkeley High School history teacher Angela Coppola first raised concerns about the fund’s investments to her colleagues and CalSTRS in June, right after school closed for the summer, she said. Coppola was about to get on a plane to spend the summer on the East Coast when she saw a tweet from human rights lawyer Emily Claire Goldman that laid out where public retirement funds were invested.

Coppola spent an hour on the phone with a CalSTRS staffer that day.

“I earn my income by caring for the children of the state, and the pension is using my money to abuse the children of the state,” Coppola said. “Children from these camps will end up in our classrooms” and teachers will be tasked with “trying to undo the trauma.”

The discovery led around 90 Berkeley teachers, as well as Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Cathy Campbell, to sign a letter written by BHS math teacher Masha Albrecht, demanding CalSTRS and CalPERS, the classified staff fund, divest their retirement money.

The teachers called for divestment from CoreCivic and GEO Group, as well as General Dynamics.

General Dynamics is a defense contractor that played a role overseeing migrant children separated from their families and in the reunification process. In a report, CalSTRS staff said they determined the company was not involved in the “physical detention” of the children and that it does not make most of its money doing business related to prisons, unlike CoreCivic and GEO Group.

CalSTRS has divested teacher retirement money from two private prisons. Berkeley teachers have been advocating for the move. Photo: Courtesy Josh Austin

Some of the Berkeley teachers then linked up with Goldman and the California Federation of Teachers, and met privately with CalSTRS staff in Sacramento on July 20, just before a board meeting where they presented their letter.

Meanwhile, a former community college professor in the South Bay had begun a parallel effort, teachers said.

“A lot happened in a short time,” said BHS special education teacher Josh Austin, who created a second petition with Goldman after the meeting. That petition had collected around 270 signatures by Wednesday’s board meeting, but the teachers still did not anticipate the outcome of the vote.

Austin felt “shock and disbelief and elation” when the board decided to divest, he said.

Goldman, whose organization, Educators for Migrant Justice, is beginning to work on similar campaigns across the country, said CalSTRS was strategically selected as “the first target.”

“CalSTRS has a reputation as a leader in responsible investing,” the lawyer said. “In order to maintain that, it needs to respond to these sorts of issues. I could not be happier with the decision.”

Goldman said she doesn’t believe the pension fund would have made the decision to divest without “this huge advocacy push.”

Michelle Mussuto, CalSTRS spokeswoman, said the choice to divest was based on the staff report and the fund’s policies. CalSTRS has written investment principles relating to the risk associated with investments as well as the ethics and practices of the companies it invests in.

“While board members did receive feedback from teachers, their decision was not based on teacher advocacy, but on their duties as fiduciaries to the Fund,” Mussuto wrote in an email to Berkeleyside.

While teachers in Berkeley, as well as the California Federation of Teachers, are celebrating the divestment, some are eager to continue the advocacy work.

“It’s a victory to have divested, but there are still children separated from their parents,” Coppola said.

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