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Why Oakland teachers are striking: ‘You can’t feed the minds of our students by starving their schools’

Oakland teachers and students attend a rally on Feb. 20 at Skyline High School a day before district teachers were set to begin a strike. (Oakland Education Association)

It’s only February and we’ve already seen in this new year teachers in Los Angeles, Denver and West Virginia go on strike, extending a wave of labor actions by educators that started in February 2018.

Now, it’s Oakland’s turn.

Teachers in Oakland, Calif., are going on strike Thursday over largely the same issues that provoked the Los Angeles walkout: pay, large class size, too few nurses and counselors and other support staff, and the spread of charter schools where nearly 30 percent of the district’s students are now enrolled.

It was teachers in West Virginia a year ago who walked out because of low pay and inadequate access to quality health care, prompting a wave of strikes mostly in Republican-led states, including Oklahoma and Arizona, in what became known as the “Red for Ed” movement. And though California has a Democratic governor, teachers are finding some of the same problems as in GOP-led states.

This year, though, the focus of the strikes in both red and blue states is expanding to include the impact on districts of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated.

West Virginia teachers walked out this week to protest a bill that would have taken funds from traditional districts and used them for charters and programs that use public funds for private and religious school tuition. It was a push against what public education advocates say is a movement to privatize public education, which Los Angeles teachers had made their strike rallying cry as well.

This time, it wasn’t about pay: West Virginia teachers go on strike over the privatization of public education (and they won’t be the last)

Here is a Q&A with Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association (OEA), which is leading the strike, about what is at stake for teachers in the 37,000-student school district.

Q: Why have your members agreed to strike, and why now?

A: Quite simply, you can’t feed the minds of our students by starving their schools.

When I was a student attending the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), I not only had great teachers, I had access to counselors, librarians and school nurses. I went on to college and a career as a teacher and as a union leader. The students in Oakland’s classrooms today don’t have the same resources. Many lack books. They have fewer opportunities for student success.

More than $50 million is diverted every year to charter schools while our students have a 1,750 to 1 ratio for students to school nurses and 600 to 1 for guidance counselors. The charter schools that capture our dollars lack financial transparency and accountability standards.

The cost of living is extremely high in the Bay Area. The average one-bedroom apartment in Oakland goes for $2,300 per month, but a typical new teacher makes $46,500. Is it any surprise that 571 Oakland teachers left the classroom last year?

Enough already. This strike is a fight for public education. Educators and public-school parents are joining together to stop the erosion of dollars and resources that our students need. This is about a parent’s right to send their children to a neighborhood public school, rather than an outsider agenda driven by contributions from wealthy individuals that seeks to dismantle a public school system. We have been more than patient. We bargained with the district for two years. We have worked without a contract since July 2017. If we don’t strike now, when?

Q: What are your bargaining points?

A: Oakland teachers are bargaining for Oakland students to get the schools they deserve.

Specifically, we are demanding a 12 percent raise, which will allow Oakland teachers — who are leaving the district at the rate of over 500 teachers a year — to stay in Oakland. That may sound like a lot to people elsewhere in the country, but our cost of living is double the national average. Right now, a new teacher would have to spend 60 percent of their salary to pay rent on an average one-bedroom apartment. Rents have increased by 86 percent in our city over the past 10 years, according to Zillow. Our salaries have not kept pace.

But, I want to emphasize that this contract battle is about far more than bargaining over wages and benefits. We are negotiating — and now taking to the picket lines — our demands for a reduction to class sizes, which will allow teachers to give students the attention they require. We have proposed reduction in class sizes, prioritizing high needs schools.

We have an opportunity gap in Oakland. The inability of our students to meet with librarians, nurses and guidance counselors is holding our students back. We are demanding more support for our students, including more nurses, counselors, librarians and school psychologists. Currently, Oakland students only have one school nurse for every 1,750 students, and one counselor for every 600 students. We have requested a counselor to student ratio of 250 to 1. ...

Finally, we have demanded that OUSD halt its plan to close up to 24 schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, which is ripping school communities apart and forcing students to commute long distances to get to school. These closures are part of a plan backed by billionaires outside our city to turn Oakland into a portfolio district, which will lead to the further growth of charter schools at the expense of neighborhood schools. Charters are already costing Oakland schools over $57 million a year. Ten years ago, 17 percent of our students were attending charters. Now it’s closer to 30 percent.

Q: What are class sizes now and how much reduction do you need to make a real difference? In Los Angeles, teachers negotiated a reduction but only by a few students in very large classes.

A: The current class size caps in our contract are 27 for TK (transitional kindergarten) through K, 30 for grades one through three, 31 for grades four through six, and 32 in grades seven through 12. Class sizes in many OUSD classrooms are a major impediment to student learning, making it difficult — or sometimes next to impossible — for teachers to give each student the support they need and deserve. Many classrooms are overcrowded, especially at the high school level, where many teachers report not having enough desks in their classrooms. OEA believes that lower class sizes would improve student learning, especially for our highest-needs students. That is why we have proposed a class-size reduction of two students for every grade level — phased in over two years — and an additional reduction of two students in schools with over 80 percent of students living in poverty. The neutral state-appointed fact-finder agreed with our position that class-size reductions are important in his report, saying “I agree that lower class sizes will improve teacher retention and educational outcomes.”

Q: In Los Angeles, teachers talked about charters being an existential threat to the district. Do you feel the same way in Oakland? How do charter schools in Oakland financially affect the district?

A: According to a study released last year, charter schools are draining Oakland public schools of $57 million a year. That’s a net number — not just the revenue loss, but minus what it would otherwise cost to educate those students. That’s a lot of money in public education terms. The study found that that amount of money could lower class sizes in every Oakland elementary school to 18 students, and double the number of nurses and counselors, and leave $10 million for other purposes. The OUSD board has, for years, allowed charter school to rapidly expand, and is complicit in this financial impact that is harming Oakland kids. Oakland needs an end to the unregulated growth of charter schools in our district, and the OUSD board must stop this divestment from our public schools.