Article and photo by David Bacon
Students and parents have come out en masse to join the marches and picket lines of the ongoing teachers strike in Oakland, California. All say that they are trying to save the city’s public school system.
“This is a strike to save our district,” said Heath Madom, who’s taught 10th grade English for three years at Oakland Technical High School, which is referred to as “Tech” by educators and pupils. “Our Tech community is committed to saving public education. Twenty-four schools are on the chopping block. We could become like New Orleans, with no public schools and all charters, if this keeps going.”
Like other teacher strikes around the country, the Oakland conflict is fueled both by a determination to protect the public school system itself and by the crisis in funding that has led to huge classes and deteriorating conditions in the schools themselves. According to Madom and the Oakland Education Association, only 5 percent of the district’s 37,000 students have passed through their schools’ doors over the last three days – evidence of vehement parent and community support.
Parents, students and teachers all condemn the rise in class sizes. “My class is a catch-all, because all students have to take it, so class size is a huge issue,” said Rho Seidelman, who’s taught ethnic studies at Tech for three years. “There’s no tracking, which is great, because we have students from all backgrounds and previous schools. But it’s hard to build community among the students when there are so many. The contract says 32 is the limit, and I routinely have at least 33. Research shows that the best learning environment is in a class of 18, where students can really learn and build community. When students are absent and my class size goes down to 28 or 26, I’m really happy.”
Madom says most classes at Tech have 35-40 students, and the school, built for 1,800, has a student body of 2,000. “We only have two part-time nurses for 2,000 students, and they don’t have the time or resources to deal with all their medical problems. We have a beautiful library, but haven’t had a librarian for years. Our counselors have a caseload of 500 students apiece. If they saw every student, they would only be able to spend a few minutes with each,” Madom said. The hiring of more nurses, librarians and counselors is part of the strike demands of the union, the Oakland Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association (NEA).
Teachers’ pay is also part of the strike demands. The union wants a 12 percent raise over 3 years, and the district is stuck at 7 percent with a bonus. “The only reason I can live in Oakland is because I live with a partner who has a good income,” Seidelman said. “What I make is not enough to live here. I’m still paying off my school loans, and rent takes up almost half my income. My job would clearly be improved if we won the demands of our strike, and I, and other teachers too, would be more likely to stay.”
“People here are struggling,” Madom added. “Some teachers are commuting long distances to get here. We had seven excellent teachers leave this year, including two English teachers with more than five years [of] experience.”
Prior to the strike, a state fact-finder’s report found that the teacher retention crisis in Oakland is worse than most other districts in the state, which the state attributes to substandard pay, the lowest among the Bay Area’s districts. The fact-finder also mandated reducing class sizes, especially for special education classes, and concluded that school privatization was hurting students.
Slating 24 schools for closure is part of the privatization regime, Madom argued, adding that the closures are hitting communities that have been historically underserved the hardest. “At the same time, the district has allowed charter schools to proliferate, which is a direct reason why enrollment has declined in public schools they now want to close,” Madom added. “Yet there’s no discussion of closing any of the charters.” Those charter schools already enroll 13,000 students in Oakland.
Seidelman said these priorities are part of a culture in Oakland that favors development to benefit the affluent. “If it was up to a popular vote, our community would support the strike’s demands overwhelmingly. But our community is not in control of the basic decisions in the city. The strike has exposed the political corruption in Oakland city politics. The terrible condition of our schools is a consequence of the policies imposed by business interests. The resources of the city go to gentrification, which benefits them, but not our communities. It’s true all over the country, which is why there are strikes now in so many places. It’s not just a problem of Oakland.”
But the national teachers’ strike wave is challenging those priorities. “It’s shifting the narrative on public education,” Madom said. “The charter industry has claimed that poor students don’t get the education they deserve because of poor teachers. Public school teachers haven’t been heard until now. We do need great teachers, but the problems of our schools aren’t due to individual teachers. The district for years hasn’t funded classrooms adequately, but the state also has grossly underfunded education. California has a massive amount of wealth. I can’t believe we’re living in one of the richest states in the country, and yet there’s no money for education. We’re tired of putting up with austerity. The strike wave is happening because teachers are standing up, and saying ‘enough is enough’.”
After talks broke down on February 24, sending the strike into its third day, Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association, told reporters that the district had “returned to the table without a proposal that would begin to meet our core bargaining demands [which include an obligation to] fully fund our schools and provide a living wage to keep teachers in Oakland.”
Novelist Alice Walker was among many celebrities and political figures to rally behind the teachers. “You should be given, really, anything you ask for,” she said in a letter. “It is criminal that you are not. Especially when we see it is the war effort, more often than not, that is supported lavishly. An effort that often cuts short the very lives you have lovingly prepared to live with understanding and intelligence in this world. Know that you have sisters and brothers who stand with you, heart to heart.”
The majority of the following photographs were taken on the strike’s first day, February 21, when teachers, parents and students rallied in front of the Oakland City Hall, and then marched through downtown streets to the offices of the Oakland Unified School District.