A fight for the survival of Oakland schools

January 29, 2019

Eli Ward, Jenna Woloshyn and Ann Coleman report on the struggle of Oakland teachers for a fair contract and for schools their students deserve.

SOME 3,000 Oakland Education Association (OEA) members are taking a strike vote starting today, setting the stage for the next step in their months-long struggle against school closures, and for more student support services and a living wage for teachers.

“If the district doesn’t present a proposal that truly commits to ending the teacher retention crisis, that doesn’t commit to lowering class sizes, investing in student support and investing in a living wage to keep teachers in Oakland, then it’s time for Oakland teachers to draw the line — and that line will be a picket line,” OEA President Keith Brown said at a January 20 press conference.

Union members will have the chance to vote by secret ballot from January 29 through February 1, but students, parents and teachers have already been organizing in the buildup to a strike to show they’re ready to fight for the schools Oakland students deserve.

Supporters are putting up signs written in English, Spanish and Chinese in small business windows saying, “We Stand with Oakland Teachers.”

Oakland teachers rally in Oscar Grant Plaza
Oakland teachers rally in Oscar Grant Plaza (Oakland Education Association | Facebook)

On January 18, 300 teachers and students at a half-dozen schools staged a daylong wildcat strike and walkout — the second in two months for Oakland schools.

“Oakland is asking for a 12 percent pay increase, which would still put us at the very bottom of the heap but contrast to the districts offer of 5 percent,” said Oakland High Special Ed teacher Alex Webster Guiney. “We also want a cap on special ed caseloads, and we want more resources like counselors, librarians, nurses and psychologists.”

Explaining the impact on the whole state, Webster Guiney said:

This is just symptomatic of underfunding public education for a long, long time that we are at this place where now the people who are teaching in public schools are the worst-paid public employees, and we have 1,200 kids for every nurse.

Part-time counselors, they come once every two weeks. My library doesn’t have a librarian. These are structural inequalities that impact low-income kids, kids with Black and Brown skin disproportionately.

ON JANUARY 23, more than 200 students, teachers, parents and supporters of Roots International Academy took their anger to the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) meeting — making it clear that students are playing a decisive role in this fight.

Roots teachers planned a short rally at Lake Merritt and then a march to the school board meeting. At the rally, middle schools students — mostly girls of color — enthusiastically led chants and spoke from the front. They were at the front of the march to the school board meeting.

Inside the meeting, the school board’s agenda had no place for public comments on the closure of Roots. But once the students and their crowd of 200 entered the room, they took control of the programming.

The organizing teachers claim that the students acted on their own spontaneity as they refused to disperse from the front of the stage. Led by 11- to 13-year-olds, the crowd shouted down school board members and restructured the entire meeting to better facilitate Roots students airing their grievances.

Many signs referenced the Los Angeles teachers’ victory won the day before and connected the Oakland struggle with the broader statewide fight for public education.

One student spoke frankly to the OUSD board about how students are “being harmed now by you taking away our schools. It’s not just happening here, but in Sacramento and in San Jose. Don’t you care for kids?”

Eli Ward, who provided strike solidarity to LA teachers the week before, said, “The teachers’ persistence in LA was in large part propped up by the energetic engagement of their students. At Roosevelt High School, striking teachers cheered as students who had attended school jumped over the fence to join the picket.

“Students from UCLA Community School formed a mariachi band, made a banner and staged a walkout to join the teacher picket line. Across Los Angeles, school attendance dropped tremendously as students joined their respective picket lines.”

THE LAST time OEA teachers went out on strike in 1996, OUSD pitted the mostly white teachers against the predominantly Black and Latinx community, but today’s struggle by students and parents in the context of school closures recognizes that OUSD is pitting public schools against charter schools and different neighborhoods against each other.

Through “Cohort” planning, OUSD creates agenda line items to close one school while expanding funding to another school. The schools OUSD are expanding are ones that tend to serve a majority Latinx student body while the schools that are closing serve a majority African American student body.

The Roots closure is paired in the same line item as the expansion of Coliseum College Preparatory Academy from a combined middle and high school into a K-12 facility. By voting against the board’s cohort resolution, you not only keep a school from closing, but you deny another school expansion funding.

Families in Oakland are exasperated by the underfunding of schools, but many believe that there isn’t any money. The solution has always been more fundraising and more volunteering.

So parent volunteers end up doing a lot of work that paid staff should do, like creating and changing bulletin boards, being crossing guards, volunteering in class to help teachers with work an aide should be doing.

Sentiment among parents is definitely with teachers who are squarely fighting for student resources and services. Everyone seems to think a strike is necessary and inevitable, but there is some trepidation about what it will mean for families.

As one parent explained:

My main concern is my kid who needs special education services isn’t getting what she needs. There’s only one resource teacher in our school, and she has at least 27 students that she provides services for. So right now, my kid isn’t getting nearly enough specialized instruction, and she’s being pushed out of the school as a result.

According to OEA statistics there are 40 teacher vacancies in the district, 17 in special education. Lots of kids simply aren’t getting adequate services because they can’t recruit or retain qualified staff.

Through January, OEA sponsored meetings with q-and-a sessions at schools intended to educate and start building solidarity with families for impending strike. Everyone who came signed in and could check boxes for areas of help around parent-strike support, donations, strike school and so on. This can become the framework for family solidarity campaigns.

The presentations focused on the crisis in Oakland schools and why the teachers will be striking, contract updates and timeline, busting the myth of “there is no money” and what families can do to support the teachers. They included statistics about charters and their problems, as well as pointing out the disparity between spending on education and prisons in California.

CONTRARY TO the myth that “Oakland has no money,” the union made the case that Oakland-based companies raking it in should pay their fair share: for example, Kaiser (a nonprofit that made $3.8 billion in 2017), Clorox ($823 million in 2018) and the Port of Oakland ($358.7 million in 2017). The Bay Area is also home to the third-largest concentration of billionaires in the world.

As the OEA’s community newsletter, Oakland Teachers’ Voice, points out, “California spends $75,560 a year to incarcerate an inmate while it spends $10,291 on average for every student.” The per-student spending in Oakland is lower than the state average.

Based on the q-and-a sessions at these community meetings, parents support the teachers and the strike, but understandably wanted to know what it means for their families. Getting a strong strike school in place will be pivotal to making sure parents can support OEA by not crossing the picket line.

Strike schools are alternate learning facilities for students so they can support the strike by not crossing the picket lines. In Los Angeles last month, strike schools were organized by parents in their living rooms, and during the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, entire communities organized strike schools.

For cities like Oakland, the stakes are high where OUSD has a five-year plan to “consolidate resources” by slating 24 more school closures and expanding charter schools in a district that already has the largest percentage of students in charter schools of any district in California. But teachers, parents and students are organizing and building solidarity.

As the Teachers’ Voice argued:

Oakland teachers know that in order to put students first we must protect our neighborhood schools from the threat of closure. That’s why we are fighting the district’s school closure plan as a part of contract bargaining process.

We are proud to stand with the school community at Roots, who are leading in this fight, and we are determined to continue to support their efforts to keep their school community flourishing and protect all other neighborhood schools from the threat of closure.

David McCarthy contributed to this article.

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