Three Things to Know About the Oakland Teachers Strike

Teachers nationwide are mad as hell and speaking up.

Oakland teachers hold “sick out” on Jan. 18 to protest stalled contract negotiations. (Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock)

Oakland teachers are hunkering down for an indefinite strike on Thursday, in the latest chapter of a nationwide rebellion against public education divestment. 

Major educator strikes have hit Oklahoma, West Virginia, Colorado, Kentucky, Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina, and Los Angeles all in the past year. Despite coming from starkly different parts of the country, similar struggles have emerged:  low teacher pay, large class sizes, and diversion of public funds for privately-managed charter schools. 

For those reasons and more, a majority of the 3,000 Oakland Unified School District employees with the Oakland Educators Association authorized a strike earlier this month. After about two years of contract negotiations, union and district officials gave the bargaining table one last try on Wednesday.

Alas, it was unsuccessful and Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown announced the strike would begin 6:30 a.m. tomorrow with picket lines and a daily rally. The negotiating teams will meet again Friday morning.

Depending on how long the strike lasts and how many students stay home, the district stands to lose even more government funding based on attendance amid a budget deficit. Here’s why Oakland teachers are taking a stand:

Lack of investment

The three main demands boil down to a stated need for more resources to boost teacher pay, reduce class sizes and offer adequate student support. In doing so, the district can begin to address the retention crisis that sees about 19 percent of teachers leaving each year, according to an independent fact-finding report put together for negotiations.

On Wednesday, OUSD presented its latest offer of an eight-and-a-half percent raise over four years while teachers are seeking a 12 percent raise over three years. The report’s author Najeeb Khoury agreed that the district’s previous offer of five percent over three years would not keep up with inflation but that it simply could not afford the union’s ask. Because Gov. Gavin Newsom indicated it may increase K-12 funding, he recommends six percent in retroactive raises for the current and past school year and negotiating 2019-2020 school year pay later.

While teachers grapple with compensation and the Bay Area’s high cost of living, the workload is also getting to them. The union wants class sizes reduced by two students over two years and requiring additional pay if the number of students exceeds the cap.

OUSD says that will cost $36.2 million in personnel and space costs. The average class size districtwide has 24.27 students, which Khoury recommends reducing by one in the next year.

For every 600 students, OUSD has one counselor and the union is seeking to reduce to a ratio of 250:1 so students have sufficient support. Likewise, the union wants to bring the nurse caseload down from a ratio of 1:1,350 to 1:750. The independent factfinder recommended filling current vacancies first and offering bonuses to retain the nurses while keeping the counselor ratio at 1:500.

Budget cuts

Looming in the backdrop is a budget deficit expected to reach $56 million in the next couple years, according to the East Bay Times

Part of the issue is the state funding formula but the district is also facing declining enrollment partly lost to private or charter schools, which reduces its revenue. Oakland is set to receive $34.7 million in emergency funding for the next three years but that comes with strings of proving financial stability and progress reports.

To make their case, OUSD proposed cutting up to $30 million from the upcoming school year budget to deal with the deficit. That comes in the form of administrative layoffs but also uprooting thousands of students in a painful shuffle of school operations. 

School closures

Much of union demands line up with what teachers nationwide are demanding but the planned closures or mergers of up to 24 schools presented before winter break touched a nerve.

OUSD voted on one of the first closures last month after hours of emotional testimony to keep Roots International Academy, an East Oakland middle school that largely serves Black and Latinx students, East Bay Express reported

Educators and parents against the closures say it will merely divert more Oakland students to private or charter schools, further reducing enrollment and funding, while hurting students in the process. And with even less funding from lack of enrollment, basic education resources suffer.

Sen. Kamala Harris, now with a national platform as a presidential candidate, vocalized her support for the teachers as the 11th-hour bargaining on Wednesday sought a resolution.

“Teachers in my hometown of Oakland will begin striking tomorrow because they know they deserve a raise,” Harris tweeted. “It’s shameful that they don’t earn enough to live in the communities that they teach.”

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