Today, teachers in Oakland, California, are joining their #RedforEd counterparts in Los Angeles and across the nation in striking for better working conditions and fully funded schools. The city’s schools remain open as substitutes teach more than 36,000 students across 87 Oakland Unified School District schools.
The strike comes on the heels of West Virginia teachers’ second strike since they walked out of their classrooms a year ago this month. Teachers there demanded that lawmakers immediately kill an education bill the West Virginia Education Association and other unions oppose. Despite the Republican-led House moving to table the bill Tuesday, teachers remained on the picket lines Wednesday, holding out against any chance there could be further developments with the legislation.
In Oakland, the city’s teachers union has been unable to reach an agreement with Oakland Unified after more than two years of negotiations. The Oakland Education Association’s 3,000 members have been without a contract since July 2017, and overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization vote earlier this month.
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L.A. teachers’ successful six-day strike has reverberated loudly in the Bay Area, where educators face many of the same issues, including ballooning class sizes and meager support staff. The union is asking the district for more support staff, smaller classes and a 12 percent raise over three years for educators living in one of the most expensive areas in the country.
Oakland educators are the lowest paid in the Bay Area, where rents have risen 40 to 50 percent since 2012. The skyrocketing costs of housing has caused more than 18 percent of teachers to leave the district each year, according to a fact-finding report released Friday.
Also, as in L.A., the district has faced years of billionaire-backed schemes seeking to eliminate traditional public schools and replace them with charters, which often operate with public funds but are privately run as either for-profits or nonprofits, and are subject to fewer rules, regulations and statutes than traditional public schools.
“The superintendent and the school board are faced with a decision to either listen to parents, students and communities, … or take the side of the privatizers, which is an agenda of closing schools, making cuts and taking valuable resources away from students in public schools,” said Association President Keith Brown, who has been on leave from teaching at Bret Harte Middle School since July to work for the union.
Oakland Unified is facing a steeper fiscal crisis than what the Los Angeles Unified School District claimed to be facing. Unlike L.A., where the school district maintains a billion-dollar reserve, Oakland’s district is strapped with a $30 million budget deficit for the 2019-20 school year. To stave off this deficit, the school board hopes to cut $22 million in spending over the next year. While the district’s cuts factor in a 5 percent raise for teachers, it plans to lay off more than 150 administrators, impose cuts across every district school and close two dozen schools over five years.
Last month, the school board voted to close Roots International Academy, a middle school in East Oakland, despite outcry from parents, teachers and staff. Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell argues that consolidating schools is necessary to fix the district’s biggest problem: Across the district’s 87 schools, nearly 11,000 seats remain empty, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The district’s stagnant enrollment is largely due to a loss of students to charter schools — a primary driver of the district’s fiscal crisis.
On top of a record million spent by outside groups to support the pro-charter candidates in California’s race for state superintendent of public instruction last year, the East Bay’s state legislative race saw $1.4 million in spending from outside groups on behalf of the charter school industry. The race mirrored L.A.’s 2017 school board election — the most expensive in U.S. history.
After billionaire Michael Bloomberg donated $120,000 to an expenditure committee linked with a pro-charter nonprofit, five of seven seats on the Oakland school district’s board are held by pro-charter candidates. The expenditure committee spent more than $150,000 on Oakland’s 2018 school board race to expand charter schools there.
“Our school board, which is primarily backed by out-of-state billionaires, [has] really focused on charter growth, and in Oakland, charter schools cost [$57.3] million a year annually, so that’s $57 million a year that could go toward making sure our schools have nurses, librarians and counselors in the public schools. That money could go to lowering class size,” Brown told Truthout.
As in L.A., charter advocates hope to divide Oakland Unified into several smaller networks as part of a “portfolio model” that would decentralize the district, transforming it from a governmental oversight body into an entity that would simply manage the networks’ investments. Public school advocates say the model is a precursor to the total dismantling of public education, and is similar to privatization models employed in New Orleans, where a major public school district no longer has any real public schools.
Brown said the union is considering pursuing L.A. teachers’ strategy of asking for a moratorium on charter schools. At this point, though, it is more focused on bargaining to keep public schools open. “We want to, at the bargaining table, be able to say ‘no’ to school closures and ‘yes’ to investing in classrooms,” he says.
School closures, Brown argues, are a matter of the district’s priorities, and do not necessarily save large, urban districts tons of money when the costs of transporting students longer distances are factored in. Replacement by charters is another way public school closures can become a money sink, he says: “When you close a school, did you leave open a property that the charter school industry can take and bring in a new school that will continue to drain valuable resources away from our students in the public schools?”
As in L.A., charter teachers in Oakland are supporting this week’s strike. According to Brown, the city’s charter networks are just beginning to unionize and he expects, at the very least, solidarity actions by charter teachers as the strike progresses.
In January, charter teachers at The Accelerated Schools network in L.A. struck alongside United Teachers of Los Angeles in the nation’s second ever charter strike. Most recently, unionized educators at four Chicago International Charter School (CICS) campuses returned to their classrooms early Tuesday after launching the nation’s third such strike, which lasted nearly two weeks.
CICS teachers walked out of classrooms across the four CICS campuses, which are managed by Civitas Education Partners and serve 2,200 students. The strike was the city’s second work stoppage after teachers at Chicago’s Acero Schools struck in December.
Chicago Teachers Union negotiators bargained for months over pay, health care and class size, and like Oakland, the Civitas network has been plagued by a teacher turnover crisis. “One of the reasons I got involved in bargaining and am really passionate about having a fair contract is because I saw so many good teachers leave, and I saw how hard that was on the students,” said Jen Conant, who has taught math for more than six years at CICS Northtown and was a member of the union’s bargaining team.
Conant says CICS teachers have not only looked to Acero network educators who first struck there but also teachers across the country, including educators in Oakland. “It’s been really inspiring to see educators, not just in Chicago but across the country, in the past year stand up for better conditions for their schools,” Conant said. “We’re a continuation of that movement…. We see ourselves in that same vein.”
Association President Brown, who was raised in Oakland, attended the middle school he is currently on leave from as a student in the 1980s. He has watched Bret Harte and other Oakland schools’ resources dwindle over the decades as charter schools have moved in.
“I had a nurse in my elementary school. When I was sick, I could always count on a nurse being there to ensure that I would be healthy. There were multiple counselors, and we had instructional assistance. I had so many resources as a student,” Brown told Truthout. “But in 2019, in Oakland and across the country, our students and public schools are deprived of vital, essential resources that should be standard for any public school.”