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Oakland’s teachers strike is another sign of economic inequality in tech’s backyard

Teachers say they can no longer afford to live in an area that has seen an economic boom fueled by the tech industry.

Teachers and students in Oakland protesting in April 2010.
Teachers and students in Oakland protesting in April 2010.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

Thousands of public school teachers in California’s Oakland Unified School District — one of the largest school districts in the state, representing 3,000 teachers and more than 100 schools — voted to go on strike beginning this Thursday.

The move comes at a time when a wave of public school teachers across the nation — recently in Denver, Los Angeles, and Oklahoma — have gone on strike to protest stagnant wages, large class sizes, and a lack of resources.

What makes Oakland’s case unique — and raises the stakes of the issue at hand — is that it’s the first strike in the recent wave of teacher action in the San Francisco Bay Area, the backyard of tech. Oakland, along with the greater region, has seen a sustained economic boom amid growing income inequality and higher costs of living over the past several years.

Oakland’s school district has been plagued with budget woes for years before the most recent tech boom, partly because of strict limits on Californians’ property tax rates. But the skyrocketing cost of living in the Bay Area, fueled by the growing tech industry, has made it increasingly harder for teachers and other workers to make ends meet. Some leaders of the strike have also blamed the increase in funding for charter schools in Oakland for diverting money from underserved district schools that they say need it most.

While teachers in Oakland’s school district have seen stagnating annual wages — an average of $46,500 for the past five years — the cost of living in the city is now double the national average. An average one-bedroom apartment in Oakland rents for $2,680 a month, according to Zillow — an 86 percent increase from what it was less than 10 years ago.

“Just 10 years ago, a teacher could find a studio apartment in Oakland and be able to make ends meet, but that’s not a reality anymore,” said Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association, the educators union; Brown has been a middle school teacher in Oakland for more than 20 years. “The irony is that Oakland and the Bay Area have a booming tech industry, so it should reflect in having great public schools here that are well-funded.”

Brown said that in his district, it’s common to see five or six teachers sharing apartments, and many classified staffers, such as custodians and cafeteria workers, are “on the verge of homelessness.” More than 500 teachers in the district quit last year, in what strike leaders are calling an unprecedented exodus.

Oakland Unified School District serves students with a more economically and racially diverse background than in more affluent nearby neighborhoods such as Piedmont, Palo Alto, and Cupertino, which have some of the top-ranked public schools in the nation, and are better funded. More than 70 percent of students in Oakland Unified School District are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch meals, compared to only 11 percent in nearby Palo Alto, where many tech workers with families choose to live in part for the high-performing public schools.

Leaders of the tech community who are active on civic issues, like Catherine Bracy, founder of the nonprofit Tech Equity Collaborative, acknowledged the “critical problem” of the unaffordability of the Bay Area to people working outside the tech sector.

“Nobody in tech wants to live in a place where firefighters and teachers can’t be here. It’s a dead society,” Bracy said.

Bracy’s organization, which is mostly made up of tech workers in the area, is supporting changes to a statewide property tax limit in California, under Proposition 13. The California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act would require commercial property owners to pay present-day tax rates. The teachers union also supports the changes, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom has also signaled support — an encouraging sign for supporters. Prop 13 has been politically untouchable since it first passed in 1978, because overturning it would mean higher taxes for landowners.

While the teachers unions might agree with some civic-minded leaders on reforming tax rates, union leaders in Oakland have raised questions about how the district’s budget is managed, which they are blaming on influence from wealthy outside donors — in part funded by tech.

The press release for the strike accused “a group of billionaires with a political agenda” for pushing their interests above those of local parents. The educators’ union point to wealthy donors who have helped fund Oakland’s school board races, including Michael Bloomberg, tech venture capitalist Arthur Rock, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. These business leaders have all poured money into groups backing successful campaigns for Oakland school district board members who support a “portfolio model” that uses private-sector-style governance to run public education, including divesting funds from underperforming schools.

Over the next several years, the Oakland Unified School District plans to shut down as many as 24 public schools in the district, a move that the striking teachers vehemently oppose.

Meanwhile, charter schools have been on the rise in Oakland. Currently more than a quarter of Oakland’s students are in charter schools, up from around 17 percent in 2009. Proponents of charter schools say they like the flexibility these schools have to try new methods, and point to some examples that show better performance at charters schools over local traditional schools, although other studies have shown mixed results.

The Tech Workers Coalition, an influential volunteer-run group of politically active workers in the tech industry, said it will be supporting teachers on the picket line, and encourages other members of the tech community to do the same.

”Oakland has the ability and the responsibility to provide excellent public education for all students,” read a statement from the Tech Workers Coalition, in part. “The teachers, who make a difference in students lives, are the experts — not the consultants, politicians or tech executives — on what they need to provide the learning conditions their students deserve.”

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