Oakland’s Education Crisis

Supporters for #RedforEd holding protests on April 27th, 2018. (Jackie Hai/KJZZ)

Supporters for #RedforEd holding protests on April 27th, 2018. (Jackie Hai/KJZZ)

In February, the historic week-long #RedforEd strike in Oakland, California became the most recent call for action regarding the lack of education funding in California. More than 3,000 public school educators from the Oakland Education Association went on strike to demand better pay, school funding and overall improved classroom conditions—meaning less-crowded classrooms, more supplies and more staff. Pay, in particular, has proven especially problematic for teachers in Oakland. For years, educators have not been able to afford the expensive cost of living in Oakland—on average, one out of five leave each year due to exorbitant living costs, resulting in 500 classrooms that are left to inexperienced teachers. This lack of quality education has directly affected the 37,000 Oakland public school students, leading to their poor academic performance in comparison to other California students around the state.  

California recently cracked down on school performance accountability by implementing an education code to “address identified performance issues, including significant disparities in performance among student groups.” As part of the eligibility criteria for aid, the code states that the Superintendent of Public Instruction “may intervene in a school district if three or more student groups [categorized by English language, socioeconomic, and other such statuses] met the criteria for two or more Local Control Funding Formula priorities in three out of four consecutive years.” In other words, under the California School Dashboard guidelines, if the academic performance of various groups or categories of students in a school received the lowest rating, they would be given more resources and assistance to decrease the disparities between student groups in the district. Oakland Unified had four groups in the lowest category.

In Oakland, only one-third of students meet or exceed proficiency standards in math and English Language Arts. In 2018, 32.6 percent of Oakland Unified’s student population was reported to be “English learners”—this third of students comprised the portion of students with the lowest graduation rates in the district. Any of the English learners in Oakland are students who have missed years of schooling, in part because they are from migrant families. To address this issue, the district began to develop “newcomer” programs. These programs would be comprised of “lessons based on Common Core standards in English language arts focused on reading, discussing what was read, then writing about it.” Ultimately, the programs would work to increase the rigor of instruction for all students in order to improve their academic performance over time. Jean Wing, the district’s executive director of research, hopes that implementing these programs, as well as working to offer strong coursework and a strong network of career-focused courses, will help increase graduation rates among struggling groups. “In this sense,” said Wing, “the best discipline strategy is engaged instruction,” she added.

The changes that the Oakland Education Association has been pushing for keep in mind these rehabilitative programs by seeking to improve teacher quality, via salary increases and funding for classroom supplies. Negotiations between the school district and the Oakland Education Association have continued since December of 2016. The Oakland Education Association has been pushing for smaller class sizes, an increase in support staff and a 12 percent raise over three years—but the district only offered a 2 percent raise.  The district’s inability to meet union demands was due in part to their mismanagement of funds—they face a $30 million budget shortfall next year and a $60 million deficit the year after that. Examples of the inappropriate use of funds include the use of its self-insurance fund to pay for parking and legal fees as well as the use of cafeteria accounts to make state loan payments. “It’s about fundamentally changing the way the district does business,” said Ismael Armendariz, vice president of the Oakland Education Association. “We’ve allowed them for too long to invest in things that haven’t improved student outcomes, and now we’re saying that’s enough.”

After much deliberation, the teachers on strike were able to reach a four-year contract with the district that included an 11 percent raise over the course of the agreement. However, although the contract promised growth and change, the district also made the decision to make large budget cuts to the system in order to pay for the increased teachers’ salaries. These budget cuts include firing other teachers in order to achieve a balanced budget.

What can be seen here is a case in desperate need of restructuring. Both the shockingly low academic performance of Oakland students as well as the unaffordability of the current teachers’ pay requires the call to action that was seen earlier this year. It is indubitable that the district is in need of change. Implementing the aforementioned “newcomer” programs, increasing teachers’ salaries and focusing on closing the gap between poor academic conditions and success will strengthen and stabilize the quality of education and life for both Oakland students and teachers.