A few weeks ago on February 21, over 3,000 teachers in Oakland’s 86 public schools went on strike.
While there are many changes teachers wanted to see, one of the most important is a three year, 12% salary increase.
As of today, salaries for Oakland public school teachers range from $40,000 to $70,000, among the lowest in the Bay Area. Although this salary is average on a nationwide scale, when combined with the high cost of living in the Bay Area (the average apartment in Oakland costs $3,157 each month) it’s nearly impossible for Oakland public school teachers to make ends meet.
Sara Green, the principal of Joaquin Miller Elementary in Montclair and a teacher at Oakland public schools for seventeen years, has found it challenging to hire new teachers in Oakland. Many of the candidates were qualified and enthusiastic about the job, but “once they found out the salary they were like ‘oh forget it,’ because [they] can go to Berkeley or Fremont or Pleasanton or San Leandro… and make considerably more money.”
She told me that a few years ago they had a fifth grade teacher at Joaquin Miller who was working another job and tutoring and was still not making enough money. Green told me that teacher had to leave “even though she loved the community.”
Unfortunately, this case is not unique; in fact, the Oakland Unified School district currently loses about 20% of their teachers each year.
According to Natalie Wendt, a teacher at Joaquin Miller who has been teaching in the OUSD since 2013, “It’s impossible to build quality schools without retaining teachers…We’re asking to be paid enough to continue working for Oakland public schools.”
Another important goal of the strike is to have more nurses and counsellors. Currently, the district has only 22 nurses for 37,000 students, something Wendt calls “profoundly unsafe.”
There are vacancies, but almost no one is interested in the job because the salaries are low and the caseloads are too high. Green told me that a nurse comes to Joaquin Miller every day because they have a student with type 1 diabetes. Sometimes, she goes to six different schools in one day, dealing with emergencies and making sure students are healthy. “Every time I see her, I just want to hug her,” Green tells me. “It’s really hard. That’s got to change.”
On February 21, the first day of the strike, Green was in Sacramento with over thirty other principals who were lobbying for, among other things, debt cancellation. In 2003, the state gave an $100 million emergency loan to the Oakland Unified School District, which is still being paid back to this day. “Our students, our current students, are having to carry this weight, of every year having to pay off this debt,” says Green.
They also want an increase in per-pupil spending, or the amount of money the state gives public schools based on the number of children in average daily attendance.
As of 2017, the national average spending for per-pupil was $11,392, however some states spend over $20,000. California spends $10,291, and a 2017 study ranks California 41st in per-pupil spending (it should be noted this is adjusting for the cost of living, and without the adjustment California ranks 22nd).
The dilemma is, no one quite knows where the funds to make these changes should come from. The Oakland Unified School district is already broke, and is actually planning to lay off 112 staff and make $22 million in cuts.
But some, who Green calls “misinformed,” still believe that the district could fund the changes teachers are demanding. As Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, explained in the SF Chronicle (see link above), “Right now, there’s really a lack of trust between the two sides. There’s a sense of, ‘Don’t you think there’s money somewhere, and don’t I deserve a raise?” she said. “It used to be that strikes were about how to divvy up the district’s dollars. Now it’s, ‘We want the money, and we don’t care if the district has it.’”
Green told me that the Central Office is more important than people think, and is already being cut significantly. She explained that when she was a math specialist, the district had ten total math specialists and two director-level positions. “Now, there’s one person that does math and science for the whole district. So that’s an example of the central office being cut.”
She doesn’t think the funds could come from the district. Instead, she thinks “there’s gonna have to be some sort of compromise, and I don’t know if that’s possible. The state really needs to step in.” She believes, given that California is the world’s fifth largest economy, that “we need to put our money in the right place and toward public education…there really needs to be a priority shift.”
Currently, in fact, California ranks 51st in student-to-librarian ratio and student-to-guidance-counselor ratio and 48th in student-to-administrator ratio.
Wendt focuses more on the district’s finances: “I’d like to see some of our district expenses better managed, such as maybe not continuing to lease very expensive office suites in downtown Oakland for central office staff.”
She also noted that administrators get the same percentage pay raise as any raises teachers might get. With some administrators making six figure salaries, this can add up fast. She wondered if “some of our higher level administrators… could think of a way to increase teacher pay without increasing the cost of administrators. It might not be possible, but it would be nice to see that those at the head of our district are willing to make the same kinds of sacrifices for our students that teachers make every day.”
On Friday, the OUSD and the teachers’ union came to an agreement including an 11% pay raise over four years, a 3% bonus, class-size cuts, and reduction in caseloads for counselors, psychologists, and resource specialists. Nurses would receive this salary increase and an additional 9% increase, and $10,000 in bonuses in the next two school years. On Sunday, teachers voted to approve this contract and end the strike, and schools started again on Monday.
Indeed this is good news for students–while negotiations took place over the past week, thousands of teachers were not getting paid, and only 6% of students showed up for class. Green said that on Thursday only two kids showed up to Joaquin Miller, but once their parents found out they were the only ones, they were picked up. “It’s sad that that’s the only way teachers can get their voices heard,” Green said.
And while the agreement seems like a victory, many teachers say that they will continue to fight to improve public education in Oakland.
The strike follows a chain of similar teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona among other states. Teachers all across the country are demanding better pay and working conditions.
The fact of the matter is, public education is an incredible resource that is too often overlooked. Without adequate funding and pay for teachers, nurses, and staff, the students’ education is impacted. If we don’t support public schools, we can’t foster the next generation of educated citizens.
For Oakland teachers, many of whom are already struggling to make enough money, the decision to strike was not an easy one. Yet the strength and solidarity it created between schools, parents, and teachers paid off. “It’s really powerful.” Green told me. “The whole community really just came together.”