The following piece was originally published as an Open Forum in the San Francisco Chronicle online on March 6, 2019.
By Belize Gonden-Cruz and Zaineb Alomari
There is a crisis in Oakland Unified School District — educators are leaving our classrooms at an alarming rate. Each year, we lose more than 300 teachers from Oakland schools. At the start of the school year, we had 570 teacher vacancies, mostly in our flatland schools with high concentrations of low-income black and brown families. As a result, every year, we see our schools scramble to get adults in classrooms, while students don’t have the supports needed to succeed.
As students and parents, we know these adults are not leaving because they no longer love us. It’s because they’re not being paid a living wage to work and live in Oakland. The reality is OUSD is facing a funding crisis and won’t be able to keep teachers here — and they’re not alone.
Over the last 40 years, California has emerged as the fifth largest economy in the world but has devalued and underfunded our public education system. The passage of Proposition 13 and the 2008 Great Recession cut billions of dollars and devastated funding for students in our schools that has only been partially restored by the state as the economy strengthened. This has hit low-income communities with a majority of black and brown students the hardest.
As a student, every year I’ve been at Oakland Technical High School I have seen a beloved adult leave our campus. This year we lost Rebecca Wolf, who raised me over these last three years. When I was a freshman, she taught me how to be organized, how to have a diligent work ethic and how to ask adults for help. She knew who I was outside of school. She knew my parents, my siblings and my home life. However, she left because her salary as a Teacher on Special Assignment wasn’t enough to live in Oakland with her several roommates.
For parents, not having trusted adults like Ms. Wolf is equally hard. Last summer, my daughter, Aman, was so excited about school. Her teacher, Mujidat Olowo, told her she was going to visit her at home — Aman told all the children in the neighborhood. After seeing me and Ms. Olowo talking in our living room, Aman began to be much more motivated around reading. In less than two months, her reading improved dramatically and she learned to read new chapter books. She started the first week of fourth grade last fall excited about learning, but she didn’t have a teacher. Weeks came and went and her class still didn’t have a permanent teacher. Eventually, Aman didn’t want to go to school anymore. She told me she felt as if adults didn’t care about her and her classmates. Months later, they still haven’t been able to provide a teacher who has received the support and training needed to support Aman and her friends in their learning. Aman is worried about what this is going to mean for her future and so am I.
For us, the teacher strike is more than just about wages. It’s about fighting to keep our role models, extended family members, and essential support systems. It’s also a warning sign of how much is at stake for our communities if we continue to underfund schools.
No matter the outcomes of the Oakland teacher strike, we know it will only be temporary. The real solution is to fully fund education in California. In 2020, we’ll have the opportunity at the ballot box to pass Schools and Communities First, a tax reform initiative that could restore up to $11 billion for our schools and other vital community services, such as emergency services, libraries, and affordable housing. All across the state, there are many districts and communities of color like ours that are losing educators every day. Unless we come together to do something about it, our families will continue to lose.
Belize Gonden-Cruz is a senior at Oakland Technical High School and a student leader with Californians for Justice. Zaineb Alomari, an East Oakland Havenscourt resident, is a parent of six, ages 3 months to 19-years old, and a parent leader with Oakland Community Organizations.
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