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San Francisco Chronicle

Why Oakland Teachers Are Going to Strike

We’ll be on the picket line this week because we think the people of Oakland know more about what’s good for our schools and community than affluent outsiders

Oakland teachers make their way into Taylor Memorial Methodist Church in Oakland on Monday to discuss the possibility of a strike Thursday, Feb. 21. The vote was to strike. (Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle)
Oakland teachers make their way into Taylor Memorial Methodist Church in Oakland on Monday to discuss the possibility of a strike Thursday, Feb. 21. The vote was to strike. (Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle)

Oakland teachers will be on strike this week because we can’t feed our students’ minds by starving our schools of qualified teachers and resources.

Oakland can’t afford any more years of neglected, underfunded schools. If we stand idly by while the leadership of the Oakland Unified School District closes 24 out of 86 public schools, then students and families will pay the price for generations.

For the last two years, we’ve tried bargaining to no avail. Now we must take a stand on issues that go far beyond the traditional give-and-take of negotiations. We’re striking for smaller class sizes, more support for our students, and a living wage for public school educators in one of the costliest communities in America.

We’re also going on strike to keep our neighborhood schools open — especially in the predominately black and brown communities, where schools have been targeted for closure. Governments can’t invest in students by divesting from their schools.

Our campaign for strong community schools will succeed if our picket lines are strong. We invite Oakland parents and residents to join us to stand up for quality schools — and to share their concerns with school board members and elected officials.

I’ve been a classroom teacher in the Oakland public schools for the past 20 years. Before that, I was a student here. A generation ago, we had a nurse in every school. We had an adequate number of speech pathologists and guidance counselors to serve all of our students. Our teachers earned enough money to live here and established deep roots in their school communities.

Not anymore. Years of chronic underfunding, the unregulated growth of an unaccountable charter industry, and misguided school district priorities have starved Oakland schools of the resources from which I benefited as a child.

The elementary school I attended? Like many others, it no longer exists. It was closed and turned over to a charter school.

If a student in Oakland schools needs help, then she or he is in for a long wait. We now have 1 nurse for 1,350 students; 1 guidance counselor for 600. Both ratios are far below national standards.

A stable workforce of educators earning a living wage, like those who inspired me to become a teacher, are a thing of the past. Oakland teachers are now the lowest paid in Alameda County. Meanwhile, a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland costs more than $2,330 a month, or about 60 percent of a starting teacher’s salary.

No wonder teachers don’t stay in Oakland. Every year, more than 500 teachers leave our schools to take other jobs. According to the OUSD’s Certificated Season Hiring Report, this year we’ve had as many as 565 vacant positions — 24 percent of our total teaching staff.

You don’t have to know much about education to know that retaining qualified teachers is closely linked to improved student achievement. Everyone seems to understand this except Oakland Unified School District board members.

The school district is claiming we can’t afford to keep our neighborhood schools open, yet state aid for our local schools is increasing in a way that is sufficient to meet the needs of students, parents and teachers. And if the school district really can’t afford to keep the lights on in its own buildings, why has our board been complicit in rampant charter school growth that is costing our schools more than $57 million a year, and also awarding them sweetheart leases on formerly public buildings?

It’s hard to understand why OUSD is so eager to spend money on new charter school facilities when the district’s own “Community of Schools CityWide Plan” speculates that existing Oakland schools will have 11,000 vacant seats by 2023. We also fail to see why the school district is spending so much on administrative budgets and consultants.

Part of the answer to these conundrums, we’re afraid, is that outside special interests have too much sway over Oakland schools. Billionaires like Michael Bloomberg are spending money to influence Oakland school board elections. Wealthy donors like Walmart heiress Carrie Walton Penner are pushing their own schemes.

As a result of the political campaign dollars and policy goals of this crowd, many of the Oakland parents who walk their children to school or rely on public transportation are losing their neighborhood schools.

We’ll be on the picket line this week because we think the people of Oakland know more about what’s good for our schools and community than affluent outsiders. The central issue in this strike is the need for OUSD leadership to listen to voices here in Oakland by fully funding our neighborhood schools.

We are aware that having no teachers in our schools will be a challenge for students, working parents and the entire city. But what’s our alternative?

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Keith Brown

Keith Brown, an Oakland native, is president of the Oakland Education Association.

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