The Oakland Strike Settlement Can Be the Beginning of Something Better for Oakland’s Students:

Peter Haberfeld
Wednesday March 13, 2019 - 02:23:00 PM

The goals of the recently settled Oakland teachers’ strike enjoyed unprecedented support by a coalition of teachers, parents, students and others in the community. Yet, the strike settlement merely promises modest improvements. Much more needs to be done to stop the deterioration of public-school education in our City. 

Problem: The District has not yet changed its priorities: The District’s budget is merely the spending plan it put together to further its priorities, priorities that do not include paying teachers in line with what surrounding districts pay their teachers. In the aftermath of the strike, it has become clear from the District’s $20 million cuts to student programs that the students’ educational needs are an even lower priority. 

OEA identified District funds that could be allocated to meet its demands. For instance, it pointed to the amounts budgeted for books and supplies. That is a favorite category of school districts for concealing available funds and serving as a slush fund for hidden priorities. 

The District has not yet chosen to eliminate costs that are not borne by other school districts: for example, the salaries of its full-time propagandist and bevy of lawyers. Nor has it decided to stop wasting funds on outside consultants instead of using the expertise of many of its full-time teachers and administrative staff. 

We must suspect that the District’s cuts to the educational program are not only designed to avoid changing its priorities. They seem intended to punish parents and students for supporting the teachers’ strike. Perhaps the cuts are designed to break up a potentially even more powerful alliance. 

Solution: The teacher-parent-student alliance must respond to the District’s cynical either-or posture by intensifying its organizing campaign. It can continue to fight for improvements in both teaching and learning conditions.  

Problem: District is dominated by alien corporate interests: Many of the School Board members owe their positions to the corporate interests (like “GO”) that financed their campaigns. As intended, they continue to do the bidding of those contributors. Regrettably, the corporate agenda does not further our community’s values. Charter schools, for example, are not governed by a publicly elected school board. They hire employees who are not represented by public employee unions. They are not obliged to accept students who have special needs. When students depart to enroll in charter schools, their former neighborhood schools are depleted of public funds and the School Board orders them closed. 

Solution: The coalition must replace the corporate dominated Board members. (Stop GO!) Each school community can wage an election campaign in the precincts that surround it. Coalition partners can form a team of leaders that will take responsibility for recruiting and coordinating volunteers to communicate by telephone and at the door with all registered voters. They must discuss the issues, identify voters who support the coalition’s pro-public education candidates, and ensure that they are mobilized to go to the polls on Election Day. 

The coalition has the legal right to remove members of the School Board before the end of their term. During the last few years, teachers and parents have recalled School Board members in neighboring school districts (Fremont, Vallejo, Santa Clara, etc.) The first step is to gather the required number of signatures and submit a recall petition to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters. (Tip: it is more productive to collect signatures in front of supermarkets and other locations of high-volume foot traffic than it is going from door to door.) The next steps are to select a replacement candidate and carry out the same procedure for contacting voters, identifying supporters and mobilizing them on Election Day as is done in a regular election.  

Problem: The Mayor, City Council members, and other politicians representing Oakland have not yet made the public education of Oakland’s children the priority it must become. Although, the educational system is in crisis, elected city leaders have not presented bold and creative solutions. They continue to defer to a School Board that does not serve the needs of Oakland’s diverse population. 

Solution: The infrastructure that can be developed at school sites to change the composition of the School Board can be used, as well, to elect City and State officials who will make ending Oakland’s educational crisis their priority. The educational coalition’s organizational capacity at each school site to contact, persuade and turn out voters for pro-education candidates in surrounding precincts cannot be replicated by other candidates for public office. Only the coalition has the potential to exercise that degree of electoral power. 

Problem: The developers of new apartment buildings are new sources of wealth in Oakland that have not yet been required to contribute a share of their profits to the well-being of the City’s residents. The developers are beneficiaries of taxpayer contributions to the City. Yet, the City has not required them to sign a “community benefits agreement” that gives taxpayers a reasonable return on their investment. Nor has the City required them to provide a large quantity of rentals that are affordable for teachers and others who have been displaced by unchecked gentrification. 

Solution: The education coalition’s support of a candidate for local and State office ought to be conditioned on her/his agreement to require developers to pay their fair share of the City’s contribution to public education and to provide more affordable housing. That public official’s agreement and the developer’s obligation can be enforced by a full range of pressure tactics that range from letter-writing, phone calls, office visits by delegations to, if necessary, civil disobedience.  

Problem: District pays its teachers the lowest salaries in the area: The District, despite agreeing to grant modest salary increases, continues to pay its teachers the lowest salaries in the area. Last year, one out of five teachers left the District. They can drive a short distance away where they will be hired by a neighboring school district that values their skills and pays $15,000 more per year for teaching under easier conditions. 

Solution: The coalition can stay organized and spring to action when the teachers’ union has its next opportunity to bargain for a salary increase. That will take place when it has a contractual right to negotiate “salary reopeners”, generally at the end of the first year after the contract takes effect. The demand can be that the District place all the “new money” on the teacher salary that it receives from the State during the next few months and, further, that it restore funding to the student programs it has cut. 


The powerful new community coalition can build on the infrastructure that OEA and its supporters created before and during the strike. Organizers have identified schools that need help developing local leadership, teams and outreach. A forum for city-wide communication among, and training of, participants would advance the effectiveness of the internal and external organizing. 

Problem: The argument for charter schools is based on the same fallacy that is used by the political Extreme Right to justify other privatization schemes. It is based on the unproven claim that public institutions are less efficient than private ones. Further, it plays on the dissatisfaction many low income and minority parents have had with public schools. The purpose and effect of converting these public institutions, however, is to create either more opportunities to use public resources for private profit-making or non-profits that pay high salaries to CEOs and low ones to the school’s teachers and other employees. 

Many studies have demonstrated that inner-city charters schools do not, on average, have better outcomes than a truly public-school system. Oakland proved it. In the late 1990s, parent and teacher leaders connected to the Oakland Community Organization (OCO) (a federation of Oakland churches and synagogues) persuaded a forward-looking Superintendent and School Board to adopt the “new, autonomous small school reform” that ultimately restructured forty-nine District schools. 

Site-based teams of parents, teachers and administrators designed and directed schools that were recognized nation-wide as improving the quality of instruction, broadening participant collaboration and enhancing student outcomes. The process was supported by a team of District administrators that “incubated” the new schools by recruiting, training and guiding school principals to be instructional leaders capable of creating a safe, collaborative environment for teachers and students. 

Several of the new schools became highly successful scholastic communities in which parents and teachers were profoundly involved in students' learning. The former Whittier Elementary School, for example (now called Greenleaf) located near 58th and International Blvd in East Oakland, advanced, in four years, from a State API rating in the 400s to a score in the 800s. Another example is the Melrose Leadership Academy, now at the former site of the Maxwell Park Elementary School, provides excellent bi-lingual education to its students. 

Solution: School improvement must continue to be the unifying goal of the militant coalition that came together to support the strike. The new coalition’s credibility requires that its opposition to charter schools include advocacy for improved schools within the District. Now, the pursuit of higher salaries and reduction of class sizes must be combined with efforts to improve each school’s capacity to guarantee the success of all students. 

The coalition partners should take heed, however, from Oakland’s experience. The argument advanced to justify the creation of charter schools (namely, that parents ought to have alternative ways to educate their children), led the District and OCO to diminish their commitment to the reform effort. Both facilitated the creation of charter schools, encouraged an exodus of students and funds, and thereby caused the closing of neighborhood schools. 

Oakland teachers at the newly created small schools dedicated themselves to the school reform. The OEA, their union, called for lower class size during its 1996 strike and thereby committed itself to a measure for school improvement. However, although its leadership consistently opposed the creation of charter schools, it did not support the small school reform or any other campaign to bring about district-wide school improvement. 

There is a lesson here. The community coalition must apply constant pressure on the stakeholders to sustain educational reform over the long term 

Problem: State refuses to forgive its loan to the District: In the late 1990s, the State imposed a trusteeship on the Oakland’s School District because, among other reasons, its expenses exceeded its revenue. Oakland continues to struggle each year to make ends meet, repay that State loan, and pay a $6 million annual interest charge. 

There is another perverse feature of the State debt. Charter schools receive the full amount of ADA (average daily attendance) paid per student by the State. However, the District’s debt to the State must be paid out of the ADA Oakland receives for the students who remain in its public schools. Consequently, not only is the District forced to manage with less money because of the exodus of students to charter schools, it must manage with less because of its obligation to repay the debt and pay the annual interest payments on the loan. 

The primary reason for the yearly shortfall is that the State does not recognize that students in large urban districts have greater needs and therefore are more expensive to educate. The State should change the formula it uses to fund large urban school districts. It must also increase the “cap” on the District’s special education expenditures. When that “cap” is exceeded, Oakland must raid its general fund to come up with the difference, a measure that further reduces the money available to the general school population. 

Solution: The coalition can organize delegations of community representatives to lobby State legislators. Ideally, delegations should consist of representatives from each of its constituent groups as well as allied business owners, religious leaders, elected officials, and District school administrators. The delegations should be trained to function well internally and deliver a common message: allocate more money to public education; end the funding of charter schools; adjust the funding formula to meet needs of Oakland’s children; adjust special education “cap”; and forgive the District’s debt. 

The coalition can also organize letter-writing campaigns and phone calls to legislators who serve on key committees. Ask each school site’s election committee to set a goal for the number of contacts it will make, monitor its progress toward the goal, and support it to guarantee success.  

Problem: Historically, contract settlements with the District have not guaranteed that it comply with contract terms. The District Administration has not had a mechanism that independently ensures such compliance and that administrators uniformly treat employees fairly. Instead, it relies on employee unions to monitor administrative conduct. When the unions initiate grievances that protest administrators’ violations of the contract, the District Administration’s predictable response has been to delay and oppose the grievance. This practice has placed a heavy burden on the teachers’ union. The time, energy and member dues money expended by union representatives to defend its members against administrative non-compliance with the contract has severely restricted its ability to take affirmative steps to lead its members and the community in the area of educational reform.  

Solution: It is in the interest of OEA’s coalition partners to help OEA protect its organizational resources so it can use them to promote educational improvements. The new educational coalition must persuade the School Board and District Administration to monitor administrative conduct and intervene on its own initiative to ensure compliance with contract terms. 

Conclusion: The problems that persist can be addressed effectively by the powerful new coalition that has formed to improve public school education in Oakland.