Some Hard Truths About Oakland Teachers

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Based on some comments posted on yesterday’s blog about the Oakland teachers’ union threat to hold a one-day strike on March 24, it’s clear that there’s a lot of misinformation floating around out there. For starters, the City of Oakland has nothing to do with teacher salaries. Teachers are employees of the Oakland Unified School District, which is a completely separate legal entity that gets its funding from the state, not the city. So the city has no say in how much teachers make. And thus comparing teacher salaries to cops' salaries, as some commenters want to do, is ridiculous, because they're paid by different entities.

Second. Most Oakland teachers have been getting annual raises during the recession despite claims by the union that they have received no raises for several years. Their contract guarantees annual raises under what’s known as "step-and-column,” which provides for annual increases in salary for all teachers except those veteran teachers already being paid at the top scale. In other words, the only teachers who haven't received raises in the past few years are the folks already making a decent salary.

Third. It's true that Oakland Unified has spent a lot of money on consultants over the years, but much of that has been for specialized education needs that teachers don't provide. If you take away that money, then kids who benefit from special help will be hurt.

Fourth. Oakland teachers make less on average than other districts, but other districts don't have to give the state $6 million a year to pay back a $100 million bailout loan. It also should be noted that there's ample evidence that Oakland schools got into trouble in the first place and needed the loan because the district badly miscalculated when it awarded teachers a 24 percent raise at the beginning of the last decade.

Fifth. Teachers in other districts have made trade-offs for higher pay. Chief of among them is accepting more students per class. As a result, those districts have fewer public school teachers per capita than Oakland does. A state audit several years ago found that districts typically either choose to have fewer well-paid teachers or more lower-paid teachers. Oakland has chosen the latter, and there's strong evidence that Oakland simply has too many teachers, because its class sizes are smaller than what the district can afford.

Six. Oakland teachers would be receiving raises now if they had backed the last parcel tax proposal. But they steadfastly refused because some of the parcel tax money would have gone to charter schools. The district has floated the idea of another similar tax that also would pay for teacher salary increases, but the union opposes it because it would provide money to charter schools.

Seven. In a perfect world, all California teachers would be paid more. But that requires consent from our state government to raise taxes on the rich or on large corporations, and Republicans have blocked all attempts to do that. So if teachers, parents, and anyone else want to complain that teachers are underpaid, they should direct their anger at the people responsible, and not inconvenience struggling Oakland families by going on strike.

And finally, in 2003, the Oakland teachers’ union did nothing to fight the state takeover of the district. In fact, it’s leaders at the time helped make it happen. But then the union realized it made a mistake after the state brought in people who fought to stop the return of local control. Eventually, the union helped Oakland get its schools back.
But now that the district finally has local control, and it’s controlled by a locally elected school board, the union is refusing to help that board from getting into financial trouble again. The board is facing a huge budget deficit and so has proposed a contract with no salary increases, an understandable position during a recession. But the union is threatening to hold kids and parents hostage by threatening a strike so that it get a 15 percent raise, and thus risk the possibility of bankruptcy all over again.

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