Following in the footsteps of colleagues in Los Angeles, teachers in Oakland, Calif., went on strike Thursday to demand higher wages and more nurses and counselors, charging the school system with allowing too many resources to flow to charter schools.
The strike in Oakland is at least the fifth major protest by educators this year, part of a wave of teacher revolts that began in 2018 in West Virginia and spread to other states. The walkouts highlighted financial woes that have created dismal conditions in some schools: overcrowding, aging textbooks, deteriorating classrooms and teacher shortages that have left some classes without qualified instructors.
Teachers in Oakland echo many of the concerns that drove Los Angeles educators to strike: Classrooms lack resources and schools don’t have enough nurses, counselors and psychologists, they say.
There is one school nurse for every 1,750 schoolchildren in the Northern California city, which the union contends is too few in district in which 77 percent of students come from low-income households. The National Association of School Nurses recommends school systems have one nurse for every 750 students in a healthy school population.
The union accuses the district of not managing its finances well and the school board of being too friendly with the charter sector.
Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association, which represents about 3,000 teachers, said anger has been growing among educators, who have been faced with cuts and lagging salaries as the cost of living in the city has increased radically. Teachers have been working without a contract since mid-2017.
Those factors “built this frustration where today in 86 schools across the city of Oakland, our educators are on the picket line to demand that our students have the resources they need to thrive,” Brown said.
In some ways, Oakland faces more dire financial straits than Los Angeles did.
The district has a multimillion-dollar deficit amid stagnant enrollment. In 2003, the school system, at risk of running out of money, took a $100 million loan from the state and was put under state oversight. It is still paying off the loan, and a state trustee must sign off on many district decisions.
After the school system went into receivership, charter schools proliferated and thousands of students left the traditional public school system. About 30 percent of the city’s 50,000 public school students go to charters — the highest proportion in the state. A study found that Oakland is losing about $57 million a year in revenue because children transferred to charters, even after researchers considered how much money the system was saving when it no longer had to educate those students.
Its teachers are the lowest paid in Alameda County, and are demanding a 12 percent raise to keep up with the explosive increase in the cost of living.
Oakland Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said the district’s financial straits have forced her to make tough choices, and she expected little to change unless the state increases school funding. She said offering teachers a 12 percent raise would jeopardize the system’s tenuous financial health.
“That would be an offer that wouldn’t allow the district to maintain financial solvency,” she said.
To stabilize the school system’s finances, Johnson-Trammell has proposed closing 24 of the city’s 86 schools, a prospect the union is fighting. Johnson-Trammell said the district has too many schools and wants to focus on expanding programs that are in high demand among Oakland’s newer residents, such as language immersion. “We want to be able to invest deeply,” she said.
The relatively low salaries and the rising cost of living has meant high turnover. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city is nearly $2,700, which would consume about 60 percent of a starting teacher’s paycheck.
Vilma Serrano, a third-grade teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy, said she shares an apartment with a roommate but that other teachers face steeper housing challenges. One teacher puts her entire paycheck toward rent and lives off her husband’s salary.
“Is it worth it? Everyday, it’s a constant question. My students always remind me that it’s worth it. But when I look at my long-term financial health I wonder,” she said.