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Why Striking Teachers Across America Are Fighting for Much More Than Their Paychecks

Milwaukee public school teachers and supporters picket outside Milwaukee public schools adminstration building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Milwaukee public school teachers and supporters picket outside Milwaukee public schools adminstration building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Date: April 24, 2018. (Photo: Charles Edward Miller from Chicago, United States)

After their successful strike earlier this year, Oakland teachers are still fighting off charter schools and changing the narrative of public education.

While national news outlets hail the conclusion of a historic teacher strike in Chicago, another important story often overlooked by national reporters is the ongoing struggle to defend public education in the months that follow successful strikes. In Oakland, California, where teachers won important concessions from the district as a result of their strike earlier this year, the community is nevertheless still seeing their students’ education undermined by lack of resources and disrupted by school closures and further privatization from charter schools.

Recently, when Oakland teachers, joined by contingencies of parents and students, showed up at a school board meeting to voice their opposition to a decision to close a beloved elementary school, they were met with barricades and a phalanx of police officers who roughed up peaceful protesters.

The ongoing struggle that continues in Oakland after teachers held a successful strike illustrates why advocacy for public education can no longer settle for labor-friendly contracts that make life better for teachers and students, but has to challenge more widespread political and societal conditions that undermine schools, as Chicago teachers just did. Calling for these deeper structural changes means taking on an economic and political agenda and a hierarchy of policy leaders that choose to give public funds and tax breaks to an array of beneficiaries other than public schools.

Advocating for this more ambitious goal can result in real change not only in local communities, as teachers have been proving in Chicago, but also on the national stage where leading presidential candidates in the Democratic Party are finally turning away from the decades-long narrative that public schools are failed institutions and the solution is to withhold funding from them and subject them to competition from a parallel charter school industry.

‘Shocked and Appalled’

Teachers and public school advocates in Oakland and elsewhere are showing that strikes don’t end systemic forces undermining public education as much as they signal the next phase in the struggle.

When their recent strike concluded, Oakland teachers had won a salary increase and bonus, more school support staff, a pause on school closures and consolidations, and a resolution from the board president to call on the state to stop the growth of charter schools in the city.

While those were significant accomplishments, the core problem remaining is that policy leaders in the city continue to take actions that “hurt students,” Oakland Education Association president Keith Brown told me in a phone conversation.

“Students continue to experience pain and trauma in our schools due to lack of resources, over-policing, and continuing threats of school closures,” Brown said.

Despite gains from the recent strike, teachers and public education advocates have continued to show up at school board meetings to press their cause.

The coalition recently formed the group Oakland Is Not for Sale, which seeks to extend the moratorium on school closures and consolidations to summer 2022, institute financial transparency in the district, end the district’s policy of expanding charter schools, and redirect money for school police and planned construction of a probation camp for juveniles to pay for a rollout of restorative discipline practices in schools.

The board’s recent announcement to close higher-performing Kaiser Elementary and merge the students and teachers into an under-enrolled and struggling Sankofa Academy raised yet more agitation in the community, especially when news emerged that students from Kaiser would receive an “opportunity ticket” giving them priority to attend schools ahead of neighborhood students not already enrolled in those schools. In other words, the district’s rationale for merging the two campuses for the sake of fiscal efficiency was being undermined by its own proposal to make transferring to Sankofa optional and, thus—as Zach Norris, a parent leader of Kaiser parents resisting the move, told California-based news outlet EdSource—keep Sankofa under-enrolled and thereby also an eventual target for closure.

Protests at board meetings have grown in intensity, Brown explained, leading to the decision by the district to erect barricades and add police. But although demonstrations have grown more vocal, they’ve remained peaceful, Brown insisted, and he maintained police tactics at the recent board meeting conflagration were unprovoked and extreme.

“I was shocked and appalled to see a first-grade teacher attacked by a police officer with a baton,” Brown said, “and then to see a parent hospitalized” with a severe knee injury after the parent said an officer pushed her to the floor.

“Students are the ones most hurt by [the forceful police response],” Brown argued, “because protesters were there to demand more investments in schools” rather than shut them down. Further, students witnessing the event were seeing the trauma they experience in school—a fight for resources, a punitive culture of over-policing, and threats of school closures—writ large in the actions of adults in the community.

Crux of the Conflict

At the crux of the conflict, as Brown sees it, is the district’s determination to follow a model emphasizing increased privatization with charters, despite the agreement the district made with the teachers to increase support for public schools rather than expand charters. Indeed, the group Oakland Is Not for Sale was thus named as a barb against threats to privatize the city’s public schools.

While no new charters have opened since the strike, the district continues to uphold a “portfolio management” policy that intends to close or merge as many as 24 public schools in the next five years, EdSource reports. Accompanying the closures are plans to increase the number of charter schools and merge them into a citywide enrollment system, similar to one pioneered in New Orleans, that raises the profile of charters in the mix of schools parents have to choose from.

The push to implement the portfolio model—whose name derives from a stock investing analogy—is more of an ideological pursuit than a practical plan, as there is little to no research base to justify educational reasons for it.

As Bill Raden reported for Capital and Main in 2016, “The Oakland charter expansion scheme has been quietly driving policy under the political radar for a number of years.” Raden quoted expert sources who stated that an objective of those pushing the portfolio agenda is to have 50 percent of students in Oakland enrolled in charters. The current percentage is 27, enrolled in 45 charters, the highest proportion of any district in California. As Raden pointed out, losing half the district’s students to charters is a 50 percent cut in funding to public schools.

“As students are siphoned from a neighborhood school to the charter down the street,” he explained, “the building overhead and paychecks to teachers, nurses, librarians and custodians at the non-charter do not go down correspondingly. It costs the district the same to open the doors of a classroom whether it is full or at 75 percent capacity. The emptier the classroom, the more the economies of scale that allow California districts to educate a student at the rock-bottom annual price of $9,794 collapse.”

In the 2016–17 school year, Oakland Unified School district lost over $57 million in revenue to charter schools, according to a report by In the Public Interest.

The Costs of Charters

But the costs of charter schools to the district go beyond lost funds due to drops in student enrollment. As the district explained in its own detailed presentation to a state-appointed panel charged with informing the governor on problems posed by charter schools, additional costs of charters include the negative financial impact when charter schools close, the costs to house charter schools in existing public school campuses (a practice known as colocation), and the ongoing burden of repairing and maintaining charter school facilities.

There are also costs to the public due to widespread charter school financial malfeasance. In an overview of charter frauds in Oakland that education historian Diane Ravitch posted on her personal blog, Jane Nylund, a parent activist in the city, pointed to numerous examples, including a charter that is still allowed to operate even after its founder and former owner was incarcerated for money laundering and mail fraud and used his own leasing company to charge the school exorbitant rents totaling $3.8 million; a charter run by Turkish teachers and a Turkish school board whose principal was forced out but fled to Australia with $400,000 in school funds; and a charter school of the arts that violates state law by making students audition for the school before they can enter the school’s enrollment lottery.

District officials and board members insist closing schools is a fiscal necessity to keep budgets balanced but seem little disposed to address the crippling loss of funding due to charter expansions.

The lack of concern for the fiscal threat charters pose to public schools isn’t lost on teachers and public school advocates who are ratcheting up their demands not just for more resources and school personnel but also for an end to systemic policies that are hollowing out their schools.

Brown noted their effort was aided recently when the California legislature passed and Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law AB1505, which, for the first time, allows local districts to reject new charters and charter expansions based on their financial and academic impact on the district or neighborhood. Charters can still appeal to county boards, but the state can no longer overrule local decisions. (In the past five years, all charter school applications Oakland denied were approved either at the county or state level.)

It’s Also About Race

Brown also argued that the rush to charters aligns with the increasing gentrification of the city that is pushing out black and Latinx families. Oakland’s most diverse schools, already threatened by the city’s increasing gentrification, will be further undermined by the portfolio model.

He pointed to data showing that as 18 public schools have been closed since 2004, 14 of those campuses were turned into charters. Of the 18 closed public schools, 16 had student populations that were over 60 percent black, while charter schools that replaced public schools enrolled 62 percent fewer black students.

The decision to close Kaiser Elementary and merge students with the struggling Sankofa Academy is a telling example of the threat that the district’s portfolio approach poses to diversity and racial integration.

As Julia McEvoy reports for Oakland news outlet KQED, Kaiser has higher test scores, more affluent parents, and more racial diversity than Sankofa. Thirty-one percent of Kaiser students are white in a district in which white students make up only 11 percent of public school enrollment, but 70 percent of all white kids are concentrated in only 10 schools. Sankofa, in comparison, has poor academic outcomes and a student population that is majority African American with 90 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty. But the district’s decision to give Kaiser students tickets to enroll in any of the district’s schools lets students who are already better off have greater opportunity in the system.

Alienating black families through racist education policies, along with an ongoing housing crisis, has been forecasted to result in the flight of half of Oakland’s black population, if trends hold, declining from roughly 35 percent of the city’s total population in 2000 to 16 percent by 2030.

‘Corporate Dems Complicit in Privatization’

Addressing these structural problems in cities like Oakland requires a political movement, and signs abound that teachers and public education advocates are intensifying their efforts to push their agenda into organizing and elections.

At the national level, public education advocates have succeeded in pushing two front-runners in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, to propose policies that back traditional public schools and teachers and not charter schools.

In the 2018 midterm elections, voters largely rejected candidates and efforts that favored the privatization agenda. From New York to California, new candidates ran and won on platforms supporting public schools, big-money backers of charter schools suffered humiliating losses, and voters trounced efforts to expand voucher programs that drain public schools of the funding they need.

At local levels, the political headwinds are more difficult to navigate. “We still have too many corporate Democrats complicit in privatization,” said Brown, “and a school board bought by outside billionaires that continue to push the portfolio model.”

In the 2016 school board race, local alternative news outlet East Bay Times reported that more than $825,000 in political donations flooded the contest, mostly to support three pro-charter candidates. The “vast majority” of the donations came from pro-charter independent expenditure organizations backed by out-of-town funders, including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Silicon Valley investor Arthur Rock, James and Alice Walton of Wal-Mart, and Reed Hastings of Netflix.

In the next school board election in 2018, Bloomberg’s name emerged again as a big funder of another pro-charter candidate in the race, EdSource reported. Bloomberg’s contribution was funneled through an independent expenditure organization funded by GO Public Schools Advocates that gets most of its money from a “handful” of outsider billionaires, according to an analysis in East Bay Express.

Recently, the board and superintendent announced they were “sticking to their plans” to push forward with the portfolio plan and close more schools, including closing Kaiser and merging it with Sankofa. Regarding the escalating protests, there will be “an inquiry into the use of force” at the contentious board meeting, but a list of more schools to close, merge or expand is in the works for the spring.

‘We Changed the Narrative’

Facing odds this daunting, Brown remains nevertheless upbeat in the chances of changing the makeup of the school board when the next election comes in November 2020. Four of the seven seats will be contested, and with a presidential election and three popular bond initiatives—including one that raises education funds by increasing taxes paid by commercial and industrial property owners—voter turnout should be higher than in previous board elections and voters more motivated to support public schools.

But Brown’s optimism is also buoyed by what teachers achieved in the 2019 strike. Circling back to that event, he recalled, “The strike united the community and built the conditions that can win in 2020.”

Brown believes that building a coalition that can endure beyond a strike can lead to electing candidates who are more apt to reflect the values of the community rather than the interests of billionaires who have antipathy toward public schools.

There’s evidence from elsewhere in the country that Brown is right.

In the recent school board election in Denver, candidates running with the teachers’ union’s support behind them scored at least two victories and flipped the board to the side opposing the district’s longstanding policy of closing public schools and expanding charters. Colorado-based news outlet Chalkbeat reported, “‘Flip the board’ became a rallying cry among some parents and activists following February’s Denver teacher strike.”

Building a coalition with a strike not only likely helped Brown and his Oakland union create more political power, he said, “We changed the narrative.”

This article was produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. To learn more about school privatization, check out Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education, a free ebook published by the Independent Media Institute. Click here to read a selection of Who Controls Our Schools? published on AlterNet, or here to access the complete text.

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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