The Oakland teachers’ union plans to hold a one-day strike on Thursday, April 29 because of the school board’s decision not to offer raises this year. Even though the district will keep its schools open and staff them with qualified substitutes, many parents plan to keep their kids away from school out of solidarity with the teachers and because they don’t want to put their children in the middle of a labor dispute. But keeping kids out of the classroom is exactly what the teachers’ union wants, and so it’s one of the reasons why I plan to send my child to school that day.
First, let me say that I’m generally pro-union. I believe unions can be a positive force in our society. I’m a longtime former active union member and my partner has been a union member for the past eleven years. I also genuinely believe that Oakland teachers are, on average, underpaid and that they deserve raises. But the reality is that the cash-strapped Oakland school district simply can’t afford them.
It was only just last year that Oakland public schools emerged from state control after requiring a huge bailout six years earlier. In 2003, the district discovered that it had overspent its budget by $57 million. The district then was taken over by the state and given a $100 million line of credit. But the state only made matters worse by overspending and increasing the district’s deficit to more than $70 million. Now, the district must give the state $6 million every year to pay off the debt — a payment that other districts don’t have to make.
Back in 2003, state auditors concluded that one of the primary reasons for the exploding deficit was that district officials had failed to properly account for a 24 percent raise awarded to teachers a few years earlier. After the state takeover, the teacher raises stopped, and Oakland teachers note that their salaries have not kept up with neighboring districts. The average teacher salary in Oakland is about $53,000, while it’s more than $60,000 elsewhere.
Now that the district is under the control of the locally elected school board again, board members are being cautious about not overspending and forcing the district back into insolvency. In contract negotiations, the board originally offered a pay cut proposal, but then softened its stance to a no-raise plan. The teachers union, by contrast, has demanded a 15 percent raise over three years.
A recent fact-finding panel concluded that the district should offer small raises even though it acknowledged that the district can’t really afford it. The school board then unanimously rejected that conclusion, noting that it faces a $37 million deficit next year after it had already made tens of millions in cuts. The district, like most others, is facing declining tax revenues because of the recession.
It’s a common story in California. We underfund our schools and our local governments — no matter what the Tea Partiers say. But that’s not the fault of the Oakland public schools. They’re not going to get more money from the state — even if teachers strike for weeks, months, or the next year. And so for the district to give teachers money it doesn’t have would be foolish. It would be like a family that just emerged from bankruptcy deciding to charge up the credit card again.
Moreover, part of the problem is the teachers own doing. In 2008, they helped defeat an Oakland parcel tax that would have given them raises because some of the money would have also gone to non-union charter schools. And the teachers’ union plans to oppose another parcel tax this year for the same reason. In other words, teachers could have had their raises a long time ago if they weren’t so dead set against people not being in unions.
But also think for a moment about what teachers are doing to kids and their families. Keeping children home on Thursday or finding alterative child care will be a hardship for thousands of working Oakland families. Or what about families where the parents are jobless? After all, nearly one out of every five adults in this city is out of work. What does an unemployed parent say to their kid about why their teacher is demanding a raise when they don’t even have a job?
But what troubles me the most is that teachers know that many parents will just tell their kids to support their teacher so as not to create a rift between the child and his or her instructor. I mean who wants to tell their kid that their primary educator is wrong? Or worse, who wants their kid to feel like they’re betraying their teacher — and friends who stay home — by going to school during a strike? What do kids do when other children give them a hard time for crossing the picket line?
The problem is that teachers are betting that parents will want to avoid this type of angst and will keep their kids home. That, in turn, will put pressure on the school board because the amount of money schools receive is dependent on how many students show up for class. In short, the teachers’ union is exploiting the situation for monetary gain.
Now, I realize that striking is one of the few ways that unions can exert pressure to get what they want. That’s why strikes usually work, at least in the short-term. But striking now is a mistake. If the school district was flush with cash that would be one thing. But it’s not. It can’t afford it, and neither can our kids.