On Feb. 1, Matt Fields cast his vote to enter an authorized strike. The vote, should the Oakland teachers’ union and Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) not settle a dispute on education funding, yielded a record high 84 percent turnout and a resounding majority of 95 percent in favor.
Fields, currently a teacher at Oakland High School, paused at the idea, “When I first decided to go into teaching, I never really thought about the idea of striking or that this would be something I would have to deal with.”
Community High School students may remember Fields as Liz Stern’s student teacher during the 2016-17 school year. After completing his student teaching, Fields made his way to California for his first full-time position as a teacher.
Though striking was not something Field had on his mind when he left for Oakland, he said that from the very beginning he has always thought of teaching as inherently fighting for a social justice element.
Horace Mann, an education reformer in the 1840s, coined the term of education as the “great equalizer” of men—the “balance wheel of the social machinery.” Yet once Fields found himself standing in front of his students, who were attempting to learn in an unstable environment, it became a battle that could no longer be fought solely in the classroom. It became so much more than that.
Two weeks after the teachers voted to enter an authorized vote, the Oakland Education Association (union) and OUSD (employer) sat down to have a last-string negotiation mediated by the state that would prevent a walk out. The next day, Keith Brown, the union’s president, called upon teachers to strike.
The authorized strike was set with a start date of Thursday, Feb. 21; however, it won’t be the first time Fields will be taking to the streets.
“Wildcat” strikes, what the media have been calling unauthorized strikes, originated from Oakland High School, the wildcat being their mascot. These strikes have been “non-union sanction demonstrations” where teachers called in sick to march down to city hall, district’s offices and mayor’s offices. “Those actions had the goal of conveying to the district that we were strike ready and if put to vote, we would vote yes,” Fields said. The overwhelming “yes” created an authorized strike that will be supported by the union and backed with legal strike protections.
“It has put a lot of pressure on the mayor,” Fields said. “It has put a lot of pressure on the city council, and it has put a lot of pressure on the district heads as well.” The pressure propagated its way up to high ranking district officials who have attempted to open symbolic lines of communication, but with just talk, and no action, “It’s really only served to rile us up more,” he stated.
Fields summed up the union’s wants in three concise sentences: “We’re demanding a 12 percent raise. We’re demanding the schools not be closed. And we’re demanding a bulk of the funding needed to be cut from budget be cut from administrative and consulting fees.”
Oakland teachers have the lowest salary compared to the surrounding districts in Alameda County, according to the union. After five years of not seeing a raise, the district is offering the teachers a five percent raise over the course of three years. Factor in the housing boom currently running through the area, adjust it for inflation, do some quick calculations, and it’s getting spit out the other side looking more like a negative one percent raise. Fields puts it bluntly, “They’re offering us a pay cut.”
Around the country, teachers are taking home paychecks that are 19 percent less than “similarly skilled and educated professionals,” according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The level of pay coupled with lack of resources and heavily mandated curriculum, among other dissatisfactions in the US, contribute to teachers entering and leaving the profession in a revolving door—one that turns at twice the speed of comparable jurisdictions like Canada, Finland and Singapore, as stated by Learning Policy Institute.
It’s an unstable cycle that remains readily visible in places like Oakland. “90 percent of my students right now have had a teacher who quit at some point through the middle of the year,” Fields said. It begs the question of not only what effects this instability has on teachers and the profession but also how it’s shoving negative repercussions into the laps of students—specifically those who come from already marginalized communities.
According to the factfinding report between the teachers’ union and OUSD, the district loses 18.7 percent of its teachers annually, well above the state average. The number only skyrockets in high need schools within the district. One of such schools, West Oakland High School, clings to a meager 9.1 percent of its teachers over a nine-year period.
Data collected in the National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Surveys highlights how the profession’s vulnerability places disproportionate consequences on the most vulnerable children. Turnover rates jump by 50 percent for Title I schools, which primarily serve low-income students, and by 70 percent for educators in schools with the highest students of color population. Teachers are leaving high need schools at alarming rates.
OUSD has been attempting to mitigate some of these instabilities by hiring adjacent support services, which are great for the students, many of whom are already facing economic and social instabilities outside of school. However, these adjacent services come at a cost.
The District funnels money into these “outside consultants and vendors” at 3.5x the state average for large public schools—money that a district drowning in 20 to 30 million dollars of debt doesn’t have to spend, according to a report conducted by the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury. “The district is spending a lot of money on secondary solutions without addressing the primary problems they themselves are causing,” Fields said.
It runs parallel to the “public health parable,” where lots and lots of babies are flowing downstream and drowning. Many attempt to throw lifelines out, some jump into the river and try to teach the babies how to swim, but no one asks why so many babies are in the river in the first place. No one bothers to look upstream. “These adjacent support services are serving to stabilize the instability that is caused by all the teachers who are constantly having to move in and out of the district because of a lack of pay,” Fields added.
Multiple studies, including ones published in Educational Leadership and RAND Education and Labor, have shown that out of all the aspects of schooling, teachers matter the most in long-term student achievement. “You don’t get to teach the material and not build relationships with your students,” Fields said. When the largest predictor of student success in the classroom is being filled by a game of substitute teacher musical chairs, how are those children supposed to keep up?
Teachers like Fields want, need and demand a more stable option for their students.
The uncertainty of the future is something that plays on in both the minds of Fields and his students. For Fields, it’s the reality that he could not live in Oakland permanently. For many of his students, it’s the worry about whether or not Fields will stay and if they’ll be able to visit him after they graduate.
However, that uncertainty has been something the students in Oakland refuse to leave up to fate. They’ve shown up on their own accord. They’ve marched in solidarity with the teachers during “wildcat” strikes. They’ve even planned their own “sickouts.”
“It’s getting to a place where we found out today that they’re planning another sick out on Friday and we [the teachers] don’t have anything planned,” Fields said. He paused, chuckled, “I have kids who are saying things like, ‘Oh, when you go on strike, you can come over to my house. My family will make you dinner. Don’t worry about it.’”
It’s seeing all of his students out there that reminds him why he entered the classroom in the first place and why he’s walking out to make one last stand.
Fields is doing his best to ensure, despite the disruptions, that he continues to be there for his students. His solution to deliver on that promise is an alternative to the typical seven to three day: a strike school.
Instead of sitting in on consolidated classes taught by substitutes, students will have the opportunity to meet Fields in a community space and learn about practical skills and subjects not typically taught in school. Lesson plans include how to do taxes, resume and cover letter workshops, knowing your rights and voter registration, immunology and the oppressive history of HIV in America, nature walks and a happiness class.
It’s his way of challenging power.“I’m hoping my kids are seeing that modeled for them in a safe and controlled way,” Fields said. “I’m hoping that they are able to take that model and apply it to their own lives.”
The strikes in Oakland are just one of several education protests sprouting up throughout the country—from Denver and Los Angeles to Charleston and Oklahoma City.
Back in the halls of Community High School, little reminders of the strikes appear in the red blouses and ties teachers wear on Wednesdays in support of Red for Ed. In the neighboring Detroit Public Schools, a similar story of teacher vacancies, declines in student enrollment and an unsettling achievement gap play out.
Amid the current climate of teachers and students walking out of classrooms and the widespread impact of schooling in America, Fields urges people to take a moment and ask: How is education funded? Why is education funded in these ways?
For teachers like Fields who are attempting to give an education that lives up to Mann’s definition of the “great equalizer,” one cannot help but be grateful. Despite the current situation and prospect of not having a job, despite it all,
Fields calls himself lucky, lucky that he can be making any difference in the lives of his students.
Little reminders of his impact hang in students’ handwritten notes. Thank you cards cover his entire bulletin board. “This is my dream job,” he said. “There is literally nothing I’d rather be doing in this entire world. At this school I am here... and every single day I get to be grateful for something.”