Reframing teachers’ strikes meets with increasing success. But will it work in Oakland?

Not many have accused ever-blue California with sharing red state values.

But red or blue, education is one of those issues where a majority agree that more is better. Funding education more, that’s where sparks fly. For the last 12 months we’ve seen state after state bogged down in teachers’ strikes in pursuit of more.

teachers on strike holding signs

Striking West Virginia teachers set the standard for their peers with their successful strike last year (Photo by Eric Bourgeois via WikiCommons)

With Oakland on the verge of a teachers’ strike later this month, those educators will be channeling lessons championed by teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky and elsewhere. And the locals will absorb what they can from their colleagues in the Los Angeles area who just came away with major victories after a lengthy strike there.

The run of success, which began in West Virginia after a strike from Feb. 22-March 6 last year, has been built around more than the usual more — salaries and benefits. Janelle Scott, an associate professor at UC Berkeley in the Graduate School of Education, says the playing field has moved in the last year.

“Looking at Oakland and Los Angeles in the national context,” Scott says, “red states and right-to-work states were the story in 2018. There was revitalized teacher activism, largely shifting some of the traditional policies teachers have organized around, salary and benefits.

“It’s not that those things are absent now, but in local unions and in statewide efforts in Oklahoma and West Virginia and elsewhere, they’re connected to people by talking about austerity in education.”

Simply put, the teachers’ strikes were framed by the teachers in terms of getting better results for the students. There were demands for counselors, nurses, smaller class sizes and better facilities. Salary issues shared the stage. The strikers took their arguments to the streets and to the public. When they got their message out successfully, amazing things happened.

In West Virginia, the settlement included an across-the-board 5 percent pay raise for all state workers, teachers included. In Arizona, teachers not only got a pay raise, but their two-week walkout resulted in increased salaries for school support staff and more counselors. In Kentucky, republican Gov. Matt Bevins vetoed improvements to the teachers’ pension plan. So many teacher-activists and their supporters swamped the state capitol that the GOP majority took the extraordinary move of overriding the Bevins veto to grant the teachers’ demands.

By making the issue about more than just salary, the teachers started a revolution. In Colorado, the teachers only got a 2 percent pay raise, but the settlement included a $225 million allocation to the teachers’ state pension, an extra $150 million annually for K-12 education and state public colleges and universities received an additional 9 percent increase in state funding — a move to keep the cost of higher education down.

Sen. Kamala Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris came out in favor of Oakland teachers in their battle to improve wages and conditions.
(Photo courtesy of Kamala Harris’s office)

How well the revolution translates to California venues is yet to be determined, but early results show promise for teachers. On Thursday, Feb. 7, Sen. Kamala Harris, who was born in Oakland and grew up in Berkeley where her parents were graduate students, said in a tweet that an agreement siding with the Oakland teachers was needed.

In Los Angeles’s winning walkout last month, the move was to protest salary, to be sure, but also to challenge inadequate staffing by nurses and librarians, overcrowded classrooms and the surge in the number of charter schools in the area.

After a week, the strike was settled with teachers getting a 6 percent pay raise, a reduction in class size by four students for grades 4-12, the commitment to have full-time nurses in every school and a full-time librarian for every middle and high school.

The result of a walkout by as many as 3,000 Oakland teachers, if it comes, is difficult to foresee. UC Berkeley administrators, well aware that many faculty, staff and students have children in the Oakland system, have put their managers on alert to plan for expected absences by some parents who will feel the need to stay home if their kids aren’t in school.

Scott says the teachers’ union has been talking with its counterpart in Los Angeles and in the advent of a strike, is likely to follow a similar path.

“I think you’ll see them try to connect with the broader concern of parents as advocates for their kids,’ Scott says. “One hallmark of the L.A. strike was seeing students out there alongside their teachers. They are really joint constituencies, students and teachers, and people are interested in seeing strong public schools.”

Where Oakland and many California school districts differ from their red state peers is in the number of charter schools that abound. It is particularly significant in the East Bay, where Oakland has been looking at closing schools even as charter schools pop up.

“There is some similarity between Oakland and L.A., most notably the growth of charter enrollment in both districts,” Berkeley professor of education and public policy Bruce Fuller says. “L.A. has not been talking about closing schools, but may get there just like Oakland.

“I could see Oakland making a pitch that the strike is not just about wages and working conditions. They could make it a broader battle to adequately finance schools in California. If one believes the polling in L.A., the union gained popular advantage, by getting that word out through the media.”

And the coming weeks might hear a call saying the state simply doesn’t fund education well. California spends $11,588 per student, about half of what New York State does, at $20,645. That call might suggest that California, which by itself owns the fifth-largest economy in the world, should do better. It used to, but ever since 1978’s Prop. 13 put strict limits on property taxes, the state has never found a way to make up for that loss.

That’s a statewide issue, and it’s written into law. Charter schools are a statewide issue, too, but without the same legal status. Charters are going to be part of any negotiation.

“The threat of charter schools is very real to the (Oakland) union,” Fuller says. “I saw a stat that says only 54 percent of Oakland’s kids are in public schools. That could go down as more kids shift from public schools to charter. It’s a big financial hit.”

Scott says the issue of charter schools is central to teacher complaints in Oakland, and not just there, either.

“A core issue is what role charter schools will be in Oakland, Alameda and Richmond, too,” she says. “They share the attraction of very deep pockets with money pouring in from donor and foundations. Los Angeles and Oakland have been targeted by those who are interested in advocating for charter schools.”

In at least one area, any battle between Oakland and its teachers has a very California-specific ingredient: teacher attrition due to the cost of living in the Bay Area.

“The cost of living for families, and the cost of living for teachers, stands out in looking at Oakland,” Fuller says. “If Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley teachers can’t keep up with the cost of living, those districts won’t be able to hire the teachers they need. When other cities can offer more in terms of salary than Oakland can, the teachers are going to go to where the cost of living is better.”

That may be one reason why Oakland teachers are looking for a 12 percent pay boost. The union says that Oakland loses one teacher every five years for economic reasons. On average, an elementary school teacher in Oakland makes about $68,000. That’s about 4,000 less than a comparable teacher in San Francisco or Mill Valley and about $2,000 less than one working in San Jose, Menlo Park, Milpitas or San Mateo.

The union, the Oakland Education Association, is asking for that raise to be spread over three years and wants smaller class sizes and the hiring of additional counselors and nurses. The district has offered a 5 percent raise over three years.

Negotiations are ongoing. The union called for a strike vote last week. When it was over, 84 percent of the eligible teachers voted; 95 percent were in favor of the strike.

And they have support. Some Oakland students took part in a “sickout” on Friday in support of their teachers, who have been working without a contract for 18 months.