Last month, public-school teachers in Oakland, California, walked off the job for seven days; it was the longest strike since 1996. Teachers demanded a 12 percent raise retroactive to 2017, when their contract had expired; more support staff, like nurses, counselors, and librarians; a reduction in class sizes; and a halt to the proliferation of charter schools. By the second day, 96 percent of members of the Oakland Education Association union were on the strike line, joined by 4,000 members of the community. “This contract fight was not only about bread-and-butter issues, but it was a fight for the soul of public education,” said Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association (OEA).
The strike ended on March 3, returning teachers to their classrooms the next day. In the agreement struck between the union and the district, teachers got an 11 percent raise over four years, and a 3 percent bonus on ratification. Nurses will see an increase in pay, and the district promised an increase in other kinds of support staff. The agreement also reduces class sizes starting in 2021 and the school-board president pledged to introduce a resolution calling for a five-month pause on school closures and a moratorium on charter schools. Brown called the strike a success, saying, “We forced the Oakland Unified school district to change the way they budget for our students and we made significant gains in each one of our core demands.” But, he added, “Because of…the years of neglect by our school district, we need much more.” Teachers evidently agreed. Only 64 percent of OEA members voted in favor of a contract for 2017–18 and just 58 voted for the 2020-2021 contract.
Alejandro Estrada, a bilingual fourth-grade teacher at the International Community School, was one of those who voted against the agreement. “Personally, [I felt] it didn’t go far enough,” he said.
Estrada has been teaching in Oakland for 23 years. “A lot of my students remind me of me growing up,” he noted. His parents were immigrants, and he too went to public school in California. “The public-school system basically gave me an opportunity to grow up to go to college and be part of the teaching profession,” he said.
But Estrada worries that the strong foundation provided to him isn’t there for his own students. His students can’t use the library, because there is no librarian. It shares its nurse with another school, leaving teachers to administer EpiPens on the days she’s not there. He and his fellow teachers are trying to support a steady stream of students who are newly arriving from other countries. “We need more counselors at our side so we can deal with [students’] trauma,” he said. Over three-quarters of the student population in Oakland comes from a low-income family, is an English-language learner, or is in the foster-care system.
Estrada has watched talented colleagues leave the profession because of the low pay. The average Oakland teacher makes about $63,000, compared to the $80,000 average across California school districts. Teachers “can’t afford to stay in Oakland,” he noted. He himself has struggled. “I’ve had a lot of sacrifices in terms of how I budget my household,” he said, and a few years ago he seriously considered leaving the profession for good. “What kept me here, I felt like that’s a cop out. That’s the easy way out,” he said. “If I really don’t like what’s going on, then I need to step up and do something.”
Statistics bear out Estrada’s experiences. The average class size in Oakland is about 24 students, well above the national average. There are over 230 students for each counselor, nurse, psychologist, social worker, librarian, and other support staff. The number of students enrolled in charter schools has grown by over 2,600 between 2013 and 2016. Brown says that this drains $57 million a year from communities that mostly serve black and brown students.
During the strike, Oakland teachers argued that their district is to blame for spending the money it does have in the wrong places: too many administrators at the top, pricey reports from consultants, and even replacement teachers during the strike. “Our school district has prioritized central office administrators and outside consultants more than students in the classroom,” Brown argued. “Our campaign was essentially demanding that the district reprioritize the way that they do business and to change their budget [so] classrooms and students are the priority.”
Looking at the state of education funding in California, though, it’s clear that no single district can shoulder all of the blame. The Oakland teachers’ strike follows one in Los Angeles earlier this year, when teachers walked off the job based on a nearly identical list of demands. The state ranks at number 41 in the nation for school spending per student when adjusted for the cost of living, and 37th for the share of its economy spent on K-12 education. It’s at the bottom in the country for the number of students per teacher and for the number of counselors or librarians per student. “It is well-documented that there have been challenges in [Oakland’s] fiscal management,” said Jonathan Kaplan, senior policy analyst at the California Budget & Policy Center. But, he added, districts in California are “dependent on the state providing funds.… School districts are not in control, for the most part, of the amount of money they receive on an annual basis.”
The crisis in education funding in California has been decades in the making. In most places, property taxes are the primary sources of funding for K-12 schools. In California, Proposition 13, passed in 1978, capped property-tax rates at 1 percent while also capping the annual increase in assessed property tax values at 2 percent a year, unless the property changes hands. That caused a massive decrease in education funding. “From one day to the next [property-tax revenue] went down by more than 50 percent,” says Kaplan. “It was a crisis.” The state passed a law to fill the hole left in schools’ funding, and ever since, Kaplan explains, local school districts receive more than half of their funding from the state. In a limited state budget, more money for education means either taking funding from other parts of the budget or raising more revenue to cover it. But Proposition 13 made getting the state to increase revenue nearly impossible: It imposed a requirement that the legislature muster a two-thirds vote to raise taxes.
Then in 1988, Proposition 98 set a minimum funding level for K-12 schools and state colleges. It was meant to ensure that schools got at least a guaranteed amount that was stable year to year. But it has functioned more like a ceiling than a floor. Lawmakers could spend above it, but they rarely ever do, given that the next year’s minimum will increase based on what they set. “Over time our legislature and sometimes our governors have come to treat Prop 98 as…the peak amount of funding that would go to pay for public schools,” says Troy Flint, senior communication director for the California School Boards Association (CSBA).
Local communities have one tool at their disposal to increase their own revenues for schools: levying a parcel tax on the land beneath properties, rather than the properties themselves. But that, too, requires a two-thirds vote of the population in a given school district, which means very few localities have even tried. Those that have “tend to be in areas that are generally wealthier, like the Bay Area, or certain parts of Los Angeles, San Mateo, or Marin County,” Kaplan says. The Berkeley Unified School District, just to the north of Oakland Unified, passed a parcel tax in 2016, but Oakland hasn’t.
Teachers recognize that larger funding issues set the stage. “The state doesn’t provide funding,” Estrada noted. “The tax laws have to change.”
So the OEA’s next steps include targeting state legislators as it pushes for more funding. “We must take the fight to Sacramento and work with other educators across the state,” Brown said. “We’re learning the lessons of the power of statewide collective action.” Teachers plan to push for legislation increasing accountability standards for charter schools, including “mass statewide action” later this month, Estrada said. There will also be a statewide action in May to call for more public-school funding, particularly as Governor Gavin Newsom revises his budget. The OEA plans to push for a statewide cap on charter schools. Jamila Edwards Brooks, another Oakland Unified teacher who went on strike, plans to canvass to get new, more-teacher-friendly people elected to the school board in 2020. They also plan to keep building coalitions with parents, other teachers, and community organizations. “The community support we got was amazing, and [I want] to capitalize on that and use that to go to the next level,” Brooks said. “We got some major support and want to leverage that now.”
A key opportunity to change the game in California will come next year. A 2020 ballot measure would revise Prop 13 to ensure that all corporate property is assessed on its actual value every year, not based on the original 2 percent cap. Some estimates have said that could raise between $5 billion and $6 billion for the state’s schools annually. The OEA “will be fighting” for the initiative, Brown said.
Meanwhile, the CSBA is backing a campaign for a larger, more stable source of funding to supplement the money schools get through Proposition 98, to bring the state up to the national average. “The true fight is not between teachers and management, it’s between schools, communities, students, families, and the legislators in Sacramento,” Flint argues.
The effects of the Oakland strike have already spread. Teachers in San Ramon authorized a strike, but it was averted when they reached a tentative agreement with their district on March 8. Teachers in Dublin overwhelmingly voted in favor of a potential strike on March 15. In the state with the fifth-largest economy in the world, many are beginning to question why more can’t be done to fund its schools. “There really is a need for accessing more of the state’s resources, its wealth, through [taxes],” Kaplan said. “That is the ultimate answer to this question: Can the state muster the political will to raise more revenue in order to provide the level of service that many in the state want for its schools?”
“If we have to go up to Sacramento and take over the capitol building, we’re ready to do that,” Estrada said. Jamila Edwards Brooks agreed. “There is a big interest in taking it to Sacramento,” she said. “That’s the one thing that everybody’s talking about.”
“The time to mobilize is now so we can actually pass legislation…and put the state on notice,” Estrada said. “The first day we went on strike, I told [my colleagues] it is only the beginning, not the end. Stay ready.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece stated that Berkeley Unified School District’s parcel tax allows it to increase teacher compensation. In fact, BUSD’s parcel tax was passed to lower class sizes and improve school services, not increase teacher compensation.