clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Thousands of Oakland teachers just went on strike. They want more than a pay raise.

They’re also demanding more support staff, smaller class sizes, and more oversight of charter schools.

Teachers protest outside Oakland High School on April 29, 2010 in Oakland, California. They were angry about the school board’s decision not to give them an annual pay raise.
Teachers protest outside Oakland High School on April 29, 2010 in Oakland, California. They were angry about the school board’s decision not to give them an annual pay raise.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Oakland teachers just kicked off the fourth major teachers strike of the year.

On Thursday, nearly all of the 2,300 public school teachers in the district refused to show up to work, rejecting the superintendent’s latest offer of a 7 percent raise over three years.

Teachers want much more than that, according to the Oakland Education Association, a teachers union that has been negotiating a new contract with school officials for more than 18 months. They want smaller class sizes, charter school oversight, and more school nurses and guidance counselors. They also want the district to keep two dozen schools open in low-income neighborhoods that the district plans to shutter.

And they want a 12 percent raise, not 7 percent.

“A 7 percent raise in three years barely covers the cost of inflation,” said Natalie Wendt, a 35-year-old special education teacher who has worked in the district for five years. “If people value teachers, the most basic level of respect we should get is to make enough money to live in the communities where we work, not get priced out.”

Wendt told me she has “definitely” considered leaving Oakland, considering that she can’t afford to buy a home or pay child care costs on her $55,000 salary. Instead, she lives in a rent-controlled apartment in nearby Berkeley, and her mother watches her 2-year-old son while she works.

The strike in Oakland comes less than a month after teachers in Los Angeles walked off the job with similar demands in January — and ended up getting a lot of what they wanted. At the time, LA officials said the same thing Oakland officials are now saying: We just don’t have the money.

“We have to live within our current financial reality,” Kyla Johnson-Trammell, the Oakland schools superintendent, wrote in a column published Wednesday.

Oakland schools are facing a $56 million budget deficit in the next two years, so the school board wants to cut school spending, not increase it. Johnson-Trammell is urging state lawmakers to invest more money in public schools, but teachers are not waiting around for that to happen.

They woke up early Thursday morning and began picketing outside their schools at 6:30; they also plan to rally later in the afternoon in front of Oakland City Hall.

“Books! Supplies! Lower class size!” chanted one group of teachers outside of Skyline High School.

The district is keeping schools open during the stoppage, and has hired hundreds of substitute teachers to replace those on strike.

The Oakland strike gives momentum to a national trend playing out in red and blue states across the country. More than 100,000 public school teachers in six states have walked out of class in the past year, rebelling from years of stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure, and deep budget cuts to education.

The strikes in Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, California, and Colorado had broad public support, forcing state lawmakers to raise pay and fueling a national movement to boost investment in public education.

So far this year, the energy of the movement has only continued to build.

Funding for public schools in California is a mess

Oakland teachers share a lot of the same frustrations that led LA teachers to walk out of class in January. They say school districts are spending too much money on privately run charter schools that have little public oversight. They also believe they are paid too little to work in a state that has so much wealth.

California is among the states that spend the least on each student (adjusted for the cost of living), largely because of the state’s strict limits on property tax rates.

The Oakland Education Association, a labor union representing 3,000 educators, has been trying to negotiate a new contract since the last one expired in 2017. Teachers want a 12 percent pay raise over three years, smaller classes, and more support staff. One school counselor for every 600 students is not conducive to a student’s success, says Keith Brown, the group’s president.

The district had offered a 5 percent raise over three years. Teachers rejected the offer.

“We have had it. Enough is enough; bargaining with our school district has not worked,” Brown, who is also a middle school teacher, said during a press conference on Saturday. “Our schools have been starved of resources for years.”

The union also rejected a 7 percent raise school officials proposed on Tuesday.

Teachers say the lack of investment in city schools is hurting student performance. The cost of living in Oakland has also skyrocketed in recent years, due to an influx of high-skilled workers unable to afford housing across the bay in San Francisco.

The average one-bedroom apartment in Oakland costs about $2,680 per month, but new Oakland teachers earn about $46,500 a year. That’s the main the reason Oakland has struggled to keep qualified teachers, Brown said, pointing out that 571 Oakland teachers left the classroom last year.

The school district has said it’s willing to keep negotiating for a better deal to end the strike, and would consider some recommendations from an independent panel, which found that low teacher pay, large class sizes, and school privatization was hurting Oakland schools. The report also acknowledges the state’s “complicated, flawed” system for funding public education.

“I am doing everything in my power as superintendent to move us toward a solution that works for educators and for the fiscal vitality of our entire district,” Johnson-Trammell, the superintendent, wrote on Wednesday.

Until they reach a deal, teachers are going without pay while they are on strike, which will put a financial strain on many of them, said Wendt, the special ed teacher I spoke to. But she says they don’t really have any other option.

“We all really want children to get the best education possible, and a huge part of that is that we can’t retain quality teachers because we can’t even pay them enough to live in Oakland,” she told me.

The outcome of the six-day LA teachers strike in January, which resulted in pay raises for teachers and more funding for schools, gives Wendt hope that Oakland teachers can reach a similar deal too.

The success of recent teachers strikes across the country suggests there’s a good chance they will succeed.

Teachers are leading a national workers’ revolt

A record number of US workers went on strike or stopped working in 2018 because of labor disputes with employers, according to new data released last week by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. A total of 485,000 employees were involved in major work stoppages last year — the highest number since 1986, when flight attendants, garbage collectors, and steelworkers walked off the job.

Frustrated public school teachers were behind the year’s largest walkouts, but hotel housekeepers and steelworkers also organized strikes that lasted for days.

There are no signs that worker angst has subsided. So far, in 2019, teachers in three major cities have gone on strike, including Oakland, and nearly all of West Virginia’s teachers did too. The Los Angeles teachers strike shut down the nation’s second-largest school district for more than a week in January.

As part of their deal with city officials, teachers agreed to a 6 percent raise and slightly fewer students in each classroom, according to Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a labor union that represents about 34,000 public school teachers, nurses, librarians, and support staff in the city.

Last week, more than 2,000 teachers in Denver went on strike for three days. The school district ended up giving educators an extra $23 million in pay and agreed to overhaul the compensation system, which relied heavily on annual bonuses.

On Tuesday, about 19,000 teachers walked off the job in West Virginia, closing down nearly every school in the state for the second time in a year. But this time around, teachers were not fighting for pay raises. They’re protesting Republican efforts to privatize public education.

By the end of the day on Tuesday, West Virginia lawmakers had agreed to put those plans on hold.

Now Oakland teachers have walked out, and Sacramento teachers may follow.