On Thursday, Feb. 21, thousands of teachers in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) went on unpaid strike to demand a livable wage, smaller class sizes, more support for students and a moratorium on school closures. The protest also affects 36,000 students among the 86 schools currently run by OUSD.
“It’s exhausting and stressful, but also really inspiring and heartening to see the community of teachers and kids and parents come together to support public education,” Miles Murray, Oakland High School English teacher and Union Representative, said. He is also faculty sponsor of the school’s Adventure Club.
The Oakland Education Association (OEA), a 3,000-member labor union, has been negotiating a new teacher’s contract with OUSD for two years. The last one ended in 2017.
“The district has not invested to make class sizes more conducive to teaching and learning and provide our students with the supports they need to thrive,” OEA President Keith Brown said during a press conference to announce the strike. “The only option that Oakland teachers, parents and students have left to win the schools Oakland students truly deserve, and to take control of our school district back from the billionaires, is for the 3,000 members of the Oakland Education Association to go on strike.”
In part, teachers are requesting a 12 percent retroactive raise, from 2017 to 2020, to help keep up with the cost of living.
In negotiations on Wednesday, Feb. 20, OUSD offered a seven percent raise over three years and a 1.5 percent retroactive bonus. Prior to this, the district initially proposed a five percent raise over three years. The union rejected both offers.
“People forget that teaching is a skilled profession that takes training and work,” Oakland High School Public Health teacher Roxanne Clement said. “It’s undervalued.”
Oakland teachers’ salaries are among the lowest for their profession in Bay Area public schools. The annual salary for an Oakland educator is $46,500 to start and then $63,000 on average. For comparison, in Berkeley teachers earn $51,000 to start and then $75,000 on average. These figures come from the OEA.
Furthermore, the Oakland-Freemont area is ranked the third most expensive metropolitan area in the country, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition study Out of Reach . To be able to rent a two-bedroom apartment, without spending more than 30 percent of income on housing, an Oakland resident needs to earn $44.79 an hour or about $93,000 a year. This is 47.6 percent more than the average annual salary of an Oakland educator.
“I definitely wish that I was able to pay my bills a lot easier, and I have this loan that I took out directly from Mills. It was $2,500 that I cannot pay back,” recent Mills alum and Oakland High School special education teacher Whitley Gilbert said. “Every single month I get a letter from Mills. ‘You owe us $2,500.’ I can’t, I don’t have any money.”
Compensation disparities between Oakland and neighboring school districts has led to problems retaining and attracting experienced teachers for OUSD schools. During his press conference, Brown said that one out of five Oakland teachers leave each year.
“The thing that is still hurting Oakland High School, and I think every school in Oakland, is the teacher retention crisis where we lose almost 20 percent of our teachers every year,” Payton Carter, Oakland High School Resource Specialist and faculty sponsor of the hip hop club, 5th Element, said. “I hope that we can get Oakland teaching wages up to at least a median so that teachers aren’t tempted to leave our district for a higher salary somewhere else.”
In addition to low salaries, OEA reports that large class sizes are also a central cause for the lack of teacher retention and harmful to long-term student success.
“[Classes] are supposed to be capped at a certain number and often times we have more students than we have desks. I’ve been in classes that are like 36 plus students to one teacher,” Gilbert said. “It’s just unsustainable. Kids don’t get any kind of individual contact with the teacher; their classroom management becomes so difficult at that number.”
OEA proposed reducing each classroom by two students for every grade level, implemented over two years. Then, in schools where more than 80 percent of the students are below the poverty line, an additional class-size reduction of two students to allow for more teacher attention.
The Oakland Fund for Children and Youth found in their 2017 Oakland Demographic Profile  that 28.6 percent of minors come from households below the federal poverty level. This is disproportionate to the national average of 21 percent. The federal government quantifies $12,490 as living in poverty for a single person and $25,750 for a family of four.
Additionally, Oakland teachers are asking for the district to hire more student support personnel, such as guidance counselors and full-time nurses. The union notes that there is only one nurse for every 1,750 students in the district and one counselor for every 600 students.
“There’s always somebody there [in the school’s nurse office] at my high school. So, if that’s not available to you, you’re probably just not going to go to school when you don’t feel well,” Gilbert said. “If there is no guidance counselor to monitor what classes you’re taking it makes it really hard to graduate, because they [students] don’t really understand these requirements for graduation.”
OEA is negotiating for 1 counselor for every 250 students.
Educators are also calling on the district to retain schools designated for closure under the OUSD “Community of Schools Policy.” The plan is for as many as 24 schools, mainly located in African American and Latinx neighborhoods, to be shut down in the next several years. For instance, Roots International Academy in East Oakland has been confirmed to close at the end of the 2018-19 school year.
“They’re starting to close schools, which I really stand against. Partially because they’re more [often] than not reopened as charter schools,” Murray said. “We lose $57 million dollars a year to charter schools, which are publicly funded but do not serve the same high needs populations as a traditional public school like Oakland High.”
There are 37 OUSD-authorized charter schools. Since 2002, per OEA, 14 out of 18 schools closed by OUSD have reopened as charters.
OUSD could use the annual $57 million going to charter schools to reduce their class sizes to eighteen students and fund more core services, such as doubling the number of guidance counselors and full-time nurses. This is from a 2018 study titled Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts . In The Public Interest (ITPI), an Oakland-based think tank, commissioned the report.
Charter schools are public schools that get government funding but are privately run by organizations, which can be for-profit, with their own self-appointed boards. They are exempt from many of the state laws and regulations that govern traditional public schools, which was conceived to foster more educational experimentation and innovation.
The “charter” is a contract that details the school’s mission, academic goals, fiscal guidelines, and rules of accountability. In California, local school boards, the county board of education and the state board of education can authorize a charter. Once approved, a charter school is bound to the terms of its contract.
“Most public school districts aren’t given adequate resources to oversee operators, especially large charter management organizations (CMOs), while all lack the statutory authority to effectively monitor and hold charter schools accountable,” concluded the 2018 ITPI report Fraud and waste in California’s charter schools . “Due to this lack of oversight, an untold amount of public funding is being lost.”
The district has lost students to charter schools and families departing Oakland. About a third of all Oakland students attend a charter. At the same time, the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), an independent state agency, also faulted them for budget mismanagement in a 2018 report.
In 2003, OUSD collected a $100 million state bailout loan that is still being paid off. There is a state trustee in place to manage their spending and has veto authority on financial decisions.
Then in 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed Education trailer bill AB 1840 and approved $34.7 million to assist OUSD’s budget shortfalls. Under the terms, the district is required to create short and long-term financial plans and meet certain criteria and benchmarks.
“I think that everyone across the country—parents, and teachers, and students alike—recognize that our public schools are being starved,” Murray said. “At the local level, at the state level and at the federal level the priorities are not valuing educating our future leaders and humans.”
OUSD plans to cut $30 million to mitigate a reported ballooning multimillion-dollar deficit and balance their budget. John Sasaki, OUSD Director of Communications, points to declining enrollment as the cause and need for better state funding. According to them, enrollment has dropped from 51,000 to 37,000 students in the past fifteen years.
“We agree that our teachers deserve to be paid more,” Sasaki said to the San Francisco Chronicle . “It’s just a matter of how much can we pay, given our financial reality.”
Oakland public schools are remaining open during the strike and staffed by non-union employees and substitute teachers. OUSD communicated to parents that it will not be teaching as usual.
“Mills College seeks to be a good partner to our local public schools, honors the valuable work of teachers, and recognizes the importance of public education,” Mills College Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students Dr. Chicora Martin said in an e-mail. “We understand the impact a strike can have on students and families and recognize that this may directly affect the daily lives of members of our community.”
Mills is creating a formal policy for allowing children in college classrooms.
“I would love to see some solidarity from the School of Education at Mills, because here’s this entity in Oakland who’s popping out teachers, but are they concerned with the teachers that they pop out and what their quality of life is going to be?” Gilbert said. “I think that if they came and helped join this fight it’d be very meaningful.”
Questions about the Mills policy for allowing children in college class rooms can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Information and updates about the strike can be found on https://oaklandea.org .
Negotiations between OEA and OUSD resumed on Friday, Feb. 22.
“I’m striking, especially for my son, because I want him to have the best education possible,” La Escuelita Elementary School Computer and Tech Skills teacher and parent Amara Lisy said. “It’s about the future, and it’s about making sure that teachers have the tools they need, and whatever [else] they need, to do the best job possible.”