Who’s Going to Save Public Education in Oakland?
By Rhana Hashemi
When the Oakland Education Association (OEA) began its seven-day strike Feb. 20, they were met at picket lines by parents, nurses, therapists and educators all across the Bay Area. The historic strike for equitable public education in the Oakland Unified School Districts proved successful, as the days ensued with community-wide support and only three percent of 38,000 students around the Bay Area attending school. The cost of student absences caused a massive blow of about $1 million per day, according to the School Services of California, a Sacramento-based consulting firm.
The OEA, a union of 3,000 educators, declared a strike after a two-year request for ratified contracts that ensued higher wages, smaller caseloads for nurses and therapists, smaller class sizes and the end to school closures. The strike ended Feb. 3, when the OEA voted 64 percent saying yes to the district’s offer, which included an 11 percent raise for teachers and a five-month pause on school closures.
Meanwhile, 42 percent voted no due to the absence of gains made for nurses and therapists, behavioral health positions, closing of schools beginning in August and a one-pupil-per-classroom reduction in size.
The minimal gains of the strike have sparked feelings of loss and betrayal amongst teachers, nurses, therapist and restorative justice practitioners who stood behind the classified union on a picket line for days. While teachers saw some gains in their situations, others found their critical, yet under-served and under-resourced positions in schools, fared no better than before.
During a Jan. 29 school board meeting discussing their structural budget deficit, The Oakland Unified School District announced plans to close up to 24 schools largely in high-poverty black and brown communities. The playbook of cutting costs by slashing roles, closing and merging schools is not new for the Bay Area school district, which has been under state scrutiny as they attempt to regain financial stability and improve school quality. The OEA has been in discussions and negotiations with the District since 2017. Both the OUSD and the OEA agree that public education in Oakland has a teacher-retention crisis, with 18.7 percent of teachers leaving on a yearly basis and substitutes taking over classes for months as the district struggles to hire and sustain qualified teachers.
Teachers who have been able to withstand the rising rent costs in the city, despite having the lowest salaries across the Bay Area, are expected to prepare each student for the next grade level, while juggling the behavioral and developmental needs of 30-40 students in a room. According to Anthony-Levine, a teacher in an East Bay Oakland middle school, OUSD teachers are not making enough to meet their financial needs, yet working 40 plus hours. Meanwhile, many students across the district have been struggling to receive social and emotional support, with one therapist serving a school of 400-600 children. The non-partisan fact-finding report also states how the current caseload for nurses in the district is 1:1350 students, for counselors it is set at 1:600 and psychologists with caseloads of 1:1700.
Over the last decade, such inequitable learning and developmental conditions have only worsened for Oakland’s youth in public schools, while the OEA claims the charter school movement has increased in numbers across Oakland and diverted public resources to privately-run institutions.
Ronald McSwain, a veteran teacher of 20 years, is concerned that, for students in Oakland, the window for them to learn and receive what they need to be successful on the next level is limited. He says their “space in the time-space continuum” is thrown off when they don’t have the tools to manipulate their experiences and opportunities in life. “Students from affluent communities learn everything they need to be a functional human being, along with skills such as problem-solving, and thus are able to manipulate their position in life. So when they decide whether they want to go to college or drop out and start a tech company, they can do that. When you are not getting the support you need to have those skills, you don’t have the opportunity to make decisions that form your own life path,” said McSwain.
Joequisha Hill, a Freshman at Skyline High School, is worried that the staff who are planned to be laid off will impact her academic success and social well-being. She cites the 2019-20 Budget Reduction Plan put out by the OUSD Superintendent and the behavioral health services proposed to be cut. Roles on the cutting block include Positive Behavior Intervention System, Restorative Justice, School Security Officers (SSOs) and Social Emotional Learning Positions. She believes that these behavioral health supports and school safety officers are necessary for her and her peers to heal from their trauma while making advancements towards college and career readiness. Hill recalls her poor behavior and mental health at the beginning of the school year and praises the school and its counselors for relentlessly offering support services to make school work for her. She is grateful for the moral and legal obligations public schools have to equitably serve every child in the community.
Despite growing concerns about the defunding of public education and the impact under-served public schools have on youth who lack resources for meaningful alternatives or additional supports, Governor Gavin Newsom made no mention of public education as a priority for the state in his Feb. 12 State of the State address, leading many to assume that if nothing changes, in broken districts like Oakland, the public school option will be reduced. McSwain believes it’s unlikely that public schools will be wiped out because those who are going to profit from charter or private schools are not going to be willing to do the work to serve everyone. They will most likely choose a population that serves their business function, and students with the highest need for “differentiation and difficulty functioning” would be allocated to the public. McSwain predicts a deepening divide.
A program manager who wishes to remain anonymous believes that the Oakland Unified School District is on its way to rock bottom without meaningful solutions or external financial support. Until a leadership body can propose solutions for the district to restore the community’s and students’ trust in its promise to provide decent education, the state of Oakland’s public schools will only get worse, before it becomes better.