March 2, 2019; San Francisco Chronicle
“Striking Oakland teachers and district officials reached a tentative agreement,” reports Kimberly Veklerov in the San Francisco Chronicle. The 118-page agreement gives teachers an 11 percent raise, spread out over three years, and a one-time, three-percent bonus. Class sizes at “high needs” schools would be reduced by one student. The contract also calls for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to hire more counselors, psychologists, speech pathologists, and other support staff. Veklerov notes that before the strike, the teachers were seeking a 12-percent raise while the district was offering five percent.
Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell was conciliatory, saying the seven-day strike “showed our teachers how appreciated they are by our students, our families and the entire community in Oakland.”
Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association—the union that represents teachers and other school staff—notes that the gains came “in spite of an employer who said the sky is falling, they could not pay for a living wage.” The union claims that during the strike more than 90 percent of students stayed home and 95 percent of teachers walked picket lines.
The agreement also includes commitments from Aimee Eng, who in her role as school board chair will introduce a resolution to halt school closures and consolidations for five months and call for a moratorium on new charter schools. Notably, the Los Angeles strike earlier this year included a similar charter school moratorium call.
Despite the gains, many rank-and-file teachers and staff were unimpressed. After a four-hour meeting attended by 70 percent of the district’s teachers and staff, union members voted 1,141 to 832 with four abstentions to approve the contract. The narrow margin reflected both fears by some union members that the district might fund some of the increases by laying off service staff (represented by the service employees’ union), as well as general frustration. More than three times as many spoke at the union meeting against the contract as in favor. Even some “yes” voters voted yes reluctantly. As Kara DeKernion, an elementary school literacy coach, told Carolyn Said of the Chronicle, “I’m disgusted that there are not more shifts for special education and inclusion. The raise is not enough to attract and keep young teachers.”
Tony Thurmond, state superintendent of public instruction, said that to implement a longer-term solution he wants to see a statewide ballot measure approved in 2020 that would lift restrictions on commercial property taxes (while keeping the current residential property tax law in place).
The strike occurred in the context of major school district financial challenges. Last fall, the school board had proposed to close 24 of the city’s 87 schools. OUSD schools enroll approximately 37,000 students. The city is also home to 44 charter schools that enroll an additional 13,000 students.
OUSD’s current financial challenges stem from four factors: a past period of direct state management from 2003 to 2009, a philanthropic effort to build new school buildings that happened largely during that state control period, low funding of public schools in California, and the proliferation of charter schools. NPQ has highlighted California’s underfunding of its K-12 schools before, so the focus here is on the three Oakland-specific drivers.
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As Matthew Green from KQED, a local public television and radio station, reports:
Between 2003—when the financially distressed district was taken over by the state and its locally elected school board dissolved—and 2009, Oakland continued to receive multimillion-dollar contributions from the Gates Foundation for the explicit purpose of converting large campuses into multiplexes of smaller ones.
During that period of state receivership, the district shuttered seven large middle and high schools and seven elementary schools—located almost entirely in the city’s poorest neighborhoods in East and West Oakland—and replaced them with 40 smaller academies. Many had distinct vocational themes, from media studies and performing arts to architecture and activism. The schools’ teachers and principals all had to reapply for their jobs.
But by 2009, when the district finally regained local control, philanthropic enthusiasm for the small schools movement had waned, and the Gates Foundation shifted its focus to new educational initiatives.
Green adds, “All told, OUSD opened a whopping 49 new schools in a decade, each with its own separate administration and teaching staff. Some were eventually phased out or turned into charter schools, but the majority remain open today. It was also during this period that district-approved, publicly funded charter schools proliferated in the city.”
As a result, Oakland has about twice as many school buildings as nearby cities such as Fremont and San Jose, even though its student population is nearly the same. While smaller schools did end the problem of school overcrowding and have led to some improvements in student learning, overall Green writes that the academic results were “mixed.”
Meanwhile, the financial impact of being left with a higher cost structure after philanthropic support is gone is perhaps familiar to many NPQ readers, even for those not in the education sector. As Green explains, “Operating more schools was also more expensive, particularly in the absence of foundation support. Each school required its own principal, administrative staff, and additional overhead costs, adding millions of dollars every year to the district’s tab.”
Writing in The Nation, Eric Blank observes that, “Decades of underfunding, privatization, and district mismanagement have taken a toll on Oakland’s school system. The city currently has one nurse for every 1,350 students and one guidance counselor for every 600, well below the national average. Learning conditions have suffered from high class sizes and constant teacher turnover: One in five teachers quits the district every year.”
The union contract will boost teacher retention and enhance student services, but the larger challenges remain. As in Los Angeles, advocacy at the state level, especially for increased funding, will be needed to address the shortfall.—Steve Dubb