Students and teachers were back at school yesterday in Oakland, California. Oakland’s teachers ended their seven day strike on Sunday night by voting to ratify an agreement reached last Friday. Teachers are adamant that the fight for well-funded public schools must continue. Oakland’s strike is the latest in a yearlong wave of walkouts by teachers—a state-by-state cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and, in Oakland’s case, pay so low that teachers cannot afford to live in the Bay Area, where the cost of living is skyrocketing.
After a long meeting where the agreement was ratified on Sunday afternoon, the president of the Oakland Education Association, Keith Brown expressed gratitude for what the strike achieved, at the same time explaining that it does not go far enough to address problems for Oakland’s schools resulting from a long fiscal crisis in the district. It is only a beginning: “This victory, accomplished through our collective strength on the picket lines with Oakland parents and students, sends the message that educators will no longer let this school district starve our neighborhood schools of resources. Our fight is not over, though. Oakland educators spoke clearly today at our ratification vote that this agreement will not be the end of our struggle, and we will continue to fight in Oakland and Sacramento for the schools our students deserve.”
The Oakland Education Association describes what are hard-won but very modest gains. Teachers, the lowest paid in the Bay Area, won an 11 percent raise over three years with a 3 percent bonus. The district had originally offered 7 percent over three years. Turnover among teachers has been a serious problem, with the district losing 500 teachers every year, according to the teachers’ union.
Teachers won modestly improved services for their students—a reduction in maximum class size by one student this year and another reduction by one student next year. Caseloads for counselors were reduced from 600:1 to 500:1, along with reductions in case loads for psychologists, speech therapists, and resource specialists, and a modest improvement in salaries for school nurses.
In their strike, teachers also addressed problems caused by the school district’s portfolio school governance that has expanded charter schools and set an already fiscally distressed school district on a path to close neighborhood public schools. The Oakland Teachers Association press release explains: “Oakland teachers blasted the district and school board for proceeding with a plan to close up to 24 of the 86 schools, mostly in African American and Latinx neighborhoods. After refusing to bargain this issue for months, the strike forced Board of Education President Aimee Eng to commit to introduce a resolution calling for a five-month pause on school closures and consolidations, and more community input into the process.” On Sunday night Keith Brown condemned the closure of neighborhood schools, and declared: “Oakland educators will continue to fight against school closures that hurt working-class neighborhoods in Oakland.”
The teachers also won a commitment from Oakland’s school board to vote on a resolution calling for a state legislative moratorium on new charter schools in Oakland. The union cites the study by Gordon Lafer in 2018 documenting that charter schools drain $57 million out of the Oakland public school district every year. (This blog covered the impact of charters in Oakland here.)
For The Intercept, Leighton Akio Woodhouse reported on the fiscal condition of Oakland’s public schools leading up to the strike: “The Oakland Unified School District is in a fiscal crisis. The school board has halted construction projects and is planning to cut over 100 central administrative jobs, impose across-the-board cuts to all of its schools and close two dozen schools over five years in a desperate scramble to forestall a $30 million budget deficit for the 2019-2020 school year. The impact of the deficit at the classroom level is most apparent in the Oakland school district’s sky-high teacher turnover rate. Oakland teachers are among the lowest-paid in the Bay Area, and 1 in 5 of them leave the district annually, compared to just over 1 in 10 statewide.”
The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Carolyn Said adds: “Another complicating factor is that the school district is under state fiscal supervision as it pays back a $100 million bailout the state provided in 2003 to help with mounting deficits.”
Oakland’s is the second teachers’ strike in the past two months to confront the fiscal hardship imposed on local school districts by California’s unregulated charter school sector. Striking teachers in Los Angeles also opposed the state’s power to authorize charter schools without the approval of the local school board. (See here and here.) California’s charter sector is the largest in the country.
Several actions taken in the past month by California’s new Governor Gavin Newsom and California’s legislature demonstrate that striking teachers—in Los Angeles and now Oakland—are forcing politicians to look at state laws driving California policy regarding charter schools.
In early February, following the settlement of the strike by 30,000 Los Angeles teachers, Newsom asked recently-elected Superintendent of Public Instruction,Tony Thurmond to convene an expert panel to study the fiscal impact of unregulated charter school expansion on California’s public school districts.
Then on February 28, in the midst of the Oakland teachers’ strike, state legislators in both chambers passed a law to hold charter schools and their boards to the same transparency standards required for public schools. For the Los Angeles Times, Taryn Luna reports: “Senate Bill 126, which Newsom is expected to quickly sign into law codifies a recent opinion from California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra that governing boards of charter schools should be subject to the same open-meetings laws and conflict-of-interest standards as public schools. Former Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed earlier versions of the legislation, describing the measures as going too far. In comparison, Newsom made it clear last month he supported the plan and asked state Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino) to carry the bill, fast-tracking its passage through both houses in just seven weeks.”
EdSource‘s John Fensterwald explains the significance of this new law that would require transparency and at least the most basic accountability for California’s charter sector: “SB 126 would require charter organizations with more than one school to set up a teleconference with two-way communication at each school to allow people to participate in a school board meeting. For charter organizations like Aspire Public Schools, which runs dozens of charter schools, from Los Angeles to Oakland, where it is based, the requirement will provide parents and the communities more access to decision-making… Board meetings must be held in the county where an organization has the most charter schools.”
Fensterwald explores former Governor Jerry Brown’s reason for vetoing such provisions: “Jerry Brown, who started two charter schools as mayor in Oakland, twice vetoed bills similar to SB 126, citing his general concern about over-regulating charter schools and his particular objection to applying conflict-of-interest statutes written for government bodies to charter schools.”
Finally, last week several bills were introduced by California Assembly Democrats to limit the growth of charter schools and to give local school districts some control over whether sponsors locate the privately managed schools within their boundaries. EdSource‘s Fensterwald describes the proposed legislation: “The chairman of the Assembly Education Committee and several Democratic colleagues introduced a package of bills Monday that would impose severe restrictions on the growth of charter schools. Three of the bills would eliminate the ability of charter schools to appeal rejected applications to the county and state, place an unspecified cap on charter school growth and enable school districts to consider the financial impact of charter schools when deciding whether to approve them. A fourth bill would abolish the right of a charter school that can’t find a facility in its authorizing district to locate a school in an adjoining district.”
Late in 2017, in a stunning report, Charters and Consequences, Carol Burris reported for the Network for Public Education on “California Charters Gone Wild”: “California has the most charter schools and charter school students in the nation. In 2000, there were 299 charter schools in the Golden State. By 2016 there were 1230. 20% of the students in San Diego County attend its 120 charter schools—a percentage exceeded in Los Angeles and Oakland.” Then in May of 2018, In the Public Interest published Gordon Lafer’s stunning report: Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Pubic School Districts. Lafer explores the impact of charters specifically on Oakland, where he documents that the district loses $57.3 million dollars every year to charter schools. (This blog covered Lafer’s findings on Oakland here.)
Until the teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, however, all this fine reporting failed to create the political will for change. It has taken major strikes by thousands of public school teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland to change the conversation. Policymakers across all the states are now on notice: The conversation about charter schools is no longer merely a matter of glorifying innovation and freedom to experiment. It must now also include a careful examination of the money stolen out of local school district budgets and an accounting of the stranded costs for the public school districts which (almost always) remain responsible for the children the charters somehow fail to attract or shut out or push out: students with disabilities, English learners, and children living in extreme poverty and homelessness.