Are Oakland teachers next?

January 11, 2019

With a rally to save public schools coming this weekend in the latest stage of the teachers’ fight in Oakland, Ann Coleman reports on the background of the struggle.

THE STRUGGLE of Oakland teachers to win a just contract and improve conditions in the schools their students learn in is coming to a head.

Attention is focused on Southern California where Los Angeles teachers are preparing to go on strike next Monday in the second-largest school district in the country. But a similar battle has been brewing in Oakland for some time, and the Oakland Education Association (OEA) is getting ready for a possible walkout coming in February.

After a one-day wildcat strike of high school teachers in December, the next show of strength for the OEA and its supporters will be the “Rally to Fund Public Education Now” on Saturday, January 12, at 12 noon on the doorstep of Oakland City Hall, in Oscar Grant Park downtown.

On December 19, the OEA Executive Board voted unanimously to give power to OEA President Keith Brown to call a strike authorization vote. But teachers, parents, students and supporters haven’t been waiting for a ballot to voice their ongoing frustration with the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), the city of Oakland and the state of California.

Teachers and students hit the picket line in Oakland, California
Teachers and students hit the picket line in Oakland, California

On December 10, more than 75 of the 90-plus teachers at Oakland High School staged a one-day wildcat strike and a march to City Hall to protest low wages and the OUSD’s stonewalling in bargaining.

The teachers at Oakland High organized under the banner “Wildcat Underground.” They are all members of OEA, but they organized the action on their own, outside of the union, to show OUSD that teachers are motivated and organized.

Cole Margen, an Oakland High history teacher, union rep and Wildcat Underground organizer, said the inspiration for the sick-out came from the experience of the West Virginia and Oklahoma teachers’ strikes last spring.

“We had been talking about the sick-out strategy in our union rep meetings since those strikes,” Margen said in an interview. “In October, one of our teachers sent an e-mail saying we should do a sick-out, and that’s how we got started organizing.”

OEA is preparing for a potential strike next month, but Margen said the Wildcat Underground teachers “wanted to be seen and put pressure on the district to come up with a fair contract with us that gives us what we need to survive here in Oakland.”

Oakland public school teachers have been working without a contract since July 2017.

OUSD has offered a paltry 5 percent increase in pay over five years. That doesn’t keep up with inflation, much less the high costs of the Bay Area. Union members are demanding a 12 percent increase over three years, smaller class sizes, and more support for their students including hiring more nurses, psychologists and counselors.

On the Friday before the wildcat sick-out, OUSD threatened teachers who participated with disciplinary action and loss of pay. But that didn’t stop the vast majority of Oakland High teachers. Their supporters, including students, parents, and teachers from neighboring schools, joined them at City Hall for a speakout and rally.

THAT COMING weekend, more than 250 people attended the California Educators Rising mass solidarity meeting at Omni Commons in Oakland.

Attendees included members from 15 local teacher unions, along with members of other unions and people from the community. The afternoon-long event was held in solidarity with the mass march led by United Teachers Los Angeles the same day, as LA educators gear up for a strike.

The meeting was opened by Deirdre Snyder, treasurer of OEA, who said:

I’m tired of being told that there isn’t enough money to pay teachers more or buy books for my colleague’s classrooms. I’m tired of being told that there isn’t enough money by Democrats who say that they support labor and human rights. We have work to do in California.

Snyder highlighted the conditions that California and Bay Area teachers face, the expansion of charter schools around the state, and the mismanagement of public funds by the city of Oakland and OUSD. After the opening session, attendees split into seven breakout sessions, each geared to supporting OEA teachers specifically and building solidarity generally across the state.

Launched in the fall of last year, California Educators Rising is a growing network led by rank-and-file members in public school unions in the state. It is sponsored by the United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators (UCORE). Inspired by the national movement of teachers fighting for the schools and funding our students deserve, the organization takes the question of funding head on in an article for its website:

California’s distribution of wealth and resources is grossly unequal: The total net worth of the state’s 144 billionaires (about $728 billion) is more than three-and-a-half times the entire state budget. California has the fifth-largest economy in the world but ranks only 43rd in the country in per-pupil funding and 48th in the country in class size. In terms of relative economic opportunity, California is 48th in the nation in cost of living and 49th in housing affordability.

ONE OF the ways these conditions show up in Oakland in particular is in the rapid expansion of charter schools and the closure of pubic schools.

According to a 2016 report from the watchdog group Alameda County Grand Jury, Oakland had more charter schools than any other city in the county, with enrollment of 24.4 percent of public school children in charters, while the national average at the time was 6 percent. According to the report:

[T]he increasing number of charters in the city of Oakland is primarily a response to what many see as the diminished quality of traditional public schools. The Grand Jury’s investigation disclosed that...the number and type of charter schools in the city have outpaced both the current legislation and the administrative process to oversee their activities.

The Grand Jury also noted that the first seven charter schools in Oakland were developed in response to defunding and a crisis that led to near insolvency, sending OUSD into receivership in 1991.

In 2018, the Grand Jury report shifted the focus of its study to placing blame for financial problems on mismanagement, “too many schools” for enrollment numbers and underperformance. The new report made the case for closing or consolidating existing schools.

“Operating 86 schools is unsustainable and will lead the district to insolvency,” the report read, while continuing: “Collaboration between traditional public schools and charter schools operating in the district benefit all students in Oakland Unified School District.”

In November, OUSD released a preliminary recommendation to close 24 schools, mostly the underfunded schools in the flatlands of Oakland, rather than the wealthy neighborhoods in the Oakland Hills.

The pressure to reshape the debate and deflect blame for underfunding and closures, while praising partnership with charter schools, is coming from a state-financed nonprofit called Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), along with pro-charter groups like GO Public Schools, which will benefit from any local, state or county recommendations to close schools or deepen the charter expansion.

While this wasn’t noted in the Grand Jury Reports, “underenrollment” is directly tied to the expansion of charters and the decades-long project of privatizing public funds through the charter school movement.

In a May 2018 report by In the Public Interest titled “Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts,” Oakland was highlighted as one of three California school districts where students, parents and teachers bear the brunt of charter school expansion. “Charter schools cost [the OUSD] $57.3 million per year,” according to this report. “That’s $1,500 less in funding for each student that attends a neighborhood school.”

THE OEA reports that California Teacher Association chapters have donated more than $12,000 to the OEA strike fund.

Besides building the strike fund, OEA as part of the East Bay Coalition of Public Educators that will host the January 12 rally across from City Hall to defend public education. Union members hope the rally will connect the struggle of teachers in Oakland and Los Angeles (UTLA) with statewide demands to improve public education in California by demanding:

Increased funding for public education and other services by lifting the cap on property taxes for corporations. This would close the loophole in Proposition 13, enacted in 1978, which regulates property tax increases on homes, farms and businesses.

The state of California assume a greater share of federally mandated services for special education students, which currently falls on the shoulders of underfunded districts.

Statewide policies and funding for salaries and working conditions for teachers to provide students with the best possible learning conditions and education.

OEA teachers, parents and students have a battle ahead to save their public schools. They deserve our solidarity and support. All out #RedforEd on January 12!

Elena Larios, Stephanie Schwartz and Sarah Wheels contributed to this article.

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