“I Was Proud and Humbled to Stand With Such Brave Educators”

Catie Tombs
Shula Bien

Last week, Oakland charter school teachers took a brave step, joining striking public school teachers on the picket lines. Two teachers, one charter and one public, explain what it was like to organize side-by-side.

Striking teachers and supporters in downtown Oakland. Eric Blanc

Interview by
Meagan Day

Negotiations are currently underway between the Oakland Unified School District and its teachers’ union, which went on strike last Thursday. The strike started strong, with fewer than 10 percent of all students in school and 85 percent of teachers on the picket lines. And it has stayed strong, with pickets, mass rallies, and marches occurring every weekday.

Among many powerful displays of solidarity, from unaffiliated labor unions and devoted community members, one in particular stands out: teachers from ten charter schools across Oakland engaged in a wildcat sympathy strike.

One of these teachers is Catie Tombs, who encouraged thousands of public school teachers to fight privatization at Friday’s mid-day rally. Eighteen of the twenty-six teachers at Tombs’ charter school, ARISE High School, walked out and joined teachers on the picket line at the public school Elmhurst Community Prep.

Elmhurst teachers were enormously heartened by the development, and welcomed them with open arms. One Elmhurst teacher, Shula Bien, used to work at charter schools in Chicago, including Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS) where teachers went on strike earlier this month.

Jacobin‘s Meagan Day spoke to Tombs and Bien about what it’s been like for charter and public school teachers to strike side-by-side.

Catie Tombs

Age thirty-one. Teacher for four years, now at ARISE High School.

I worked with youth peripherally, outside of the classroom, for about five years before becoming a teacher. I was running the afterschool program at a charter school, and they offered to help me get my credential and move into the classroom. So that’s how I became a teacher at a charter school.

What drew me in at first was the mission and vision of the school, which was rooted in social justice, equity, and racial justice. I was like, “I can be a part of that mission. I understand that charters are problematic, but I think that we’re doing good work here.”

That school, and the one I work at now, are independent charters. They don’t belong to a network, and all the administration is done in-house. I was attracted to the freedom in curriculum planning, and it seemed like we could provide an alternative approach that maybe students couldn’t find at a mainstream comprehensive high school.

The Oakland teachers announced that they were going on strike, and some colleagues and I started to talk about it. We ended up going to a community meeting, one of the informational sessions that the teachers’ union held. We started having conversations at lunch about how we could show solidarity.

I’m 31. I think when charter schools first started being pushed, around the age that I graduated college, a lot of teachers my age didn’t understand the intricacies of how the money comes through and where it comes from. A lot of people still don’t.

As I started to explore that more in Oakland, I was like, “Wow, this is really not okay.” It’s not okay that we’re siphoning off dollars, that we’re under-serving the community, that we’re pulling resources from public schools. Clearly there are these powerful billionaire interests, and we’re cogs in the wheel of their agenda. So the first was step educating colleagues and doing some reading together. And actually, some of the reporting that y’all [Jacobin] have done was really helpful.

For example our school takes money from a group called Educate78. They were in my classroom just three weeks before I started learning about who they were. That was really a powerful moment for a lot of us. Yes we have a social justice, but is that reflected in our budget? The budget at our school is fully non-transparent, and that’s a problem.

And the lack of regulation doesn’t just hurt the district. It directly affects the working environment for charter educators. It allows predatory practices in terms of HR, unclear or biased pay, unlisted positions that that should be open to internal candidates but don’t get offered to us. Lack of regulation hurts us as workers. Even people who love teaching at their charter school have to see that this regulation isn’t helping us.

As the strike drew nearer, it felt hypocritical to remain in the classroom. Our school’s mission is to discipline, nurture, and train future leaders in our community, so walking out felt in alignment with that mission, modeling what solidarity looks like for our students. When I explained that to my students, they were like, “Yeah, obviously you’re going to be out there.” They got it. A lot of them have family in Oakland public schools and were informed about the strike.

So we started organizing, and of our 26 staff members, teachers and student support staff, 18 of us committed to be out on solidarity strike, a sick-out kind of thing.

Our original ask was to walk out for two days, day one and day two of the strike. My colleague connected us with Elmhurst, where she used to work, and we decided we’d join the picket there. So that’s what we did. We did some separate fundraising between ourselves for food, and we set up shifts. We also sent people to the solidarity schools.

I’m going to be honest, I was surprised that the teachers were like, “Yeah, please come through.” We didn’t want to step on toes. We didn’t want to take up unnecessary space. But they welcomed us. They were super generous. We even learned that we’ve taught some of the same kids. Shula and I just talked about a student that we both love so much. She was in her classroom two years ago, and she was in my classroom last year. We are connected in so many ways. Feeling that connection on the picket line was really powerful.

In terms of organizing together, I think we’re only limited by our imagination. We’re building a world that we haven’t seen yet. We have to continue to build relationships between district and charter educators, push for transparency and accountability, call for a cap on charters, and stand against the expansion of charter networks. I also hope to see some movement in the future where we can stand together in Sacramento and demand higher investment in our students.

I think it’ll take some time to educate charter educators and to build bridges with district educators, because the hurt is real. But it has to be about putting Oakland families first.

Shula Bien

Age thirty-two. Teacher for ten years, currently at Elmhurst Community Prep.

Before coming to Oakland and teaching in a public school, I lived in Chicago, where I taught at two charter schools. The first school network I worked for was called UNO Charter Schools. The second one is called Chicago International Charter schools, or CICS. Some of their teachers just went out on strike earlier this month.

The second school that I worked at, the CICS school, was managed by multiple different companies when I was there. It was started as a local charter school. The principal and assistant principal, who founded the school, were both from Chicago. By the third year I was there, there had been three rounds of total administrative turnover, including both the admin team at the school and also the charter management company.

Eventually the school was managed by a company out of New York. This executive would fly into Chicago once a week and walk through the schools, interrupting teachers while they were teaching and yelling at kids who were acting out.

The company refused to publish their budget and lied to us about it. We were grossly underpaid. The salary schedule didn’t exist, so when we started to communicate more with each other, it became clear that our salaries were all over the place. Two years in a row we had big confrontations about the budget. They were making sloppy mistakes in addition to being dishonest.

My last year there, there was a charter school funding bill on the ballot. It would increase the amount of funding that charter schools would get from the state. The company told us that we had to attend a rally in Springfield in support of this bill. They told us we had to use our parent teacher conferences, which are very limited and precious time that you get with each of the parents, to have this conversation and get parents to sign petitions in support of the bill.

When that came up, I immediately thought, this is malpractice. I raised my hand and asked, “Is this ethical?” I don’t know if it was that, but something happened along the way that got me labeled as a questioner. I ended up losing my position at the school.

I had done a lot of things for that school. I started the student government, for example. So I demanded an explanation, and was refused one. I wrote a letter to the executive director, and she finally called me and told me that it was because I was questioning the model that they decided to not renew my contract.

The school I taught at was in a gentrifying part of Chicago, and eventually the parents got together and kicked that particular company out. But they continued to run schools on the South and West Sides, in more high-poverty communities and communities of color. We heard stories about kids being forced to march back and forth as a form of punishment.

After I left that school, I decided I would never work in a charter school again. There are some good charter schools and great teachers, but the system is just not one that I believe in at all.

Charter schools are privately run schools that are funded with a mix of public and corporate money. There are huge foundations and nonprofits dedicated to closing public schools and reopening them as charters. In Oakland, every single member of our current school board has received campaign money from these groups over multiple election cycles. The money often comes from groups like GO Public Schools and can be traced back to billionaires like the Gates Foundation and the Walton family.

Charter schools don’t have the same relationship to the community that neighborhood public schools do. They don’t serve all students. They serve fewer English language learners and special needs students than public schools. They serve fewer black students than public schools. As we move toward privatization, we also move back toward segregation.

Here in Oakland, I was active in organizing for the strike. I did not expect charter school teachers to come out and support us, much less have sympathy strikes. There have been so many moments during this strike when I’ve been surprised, but the thing I least expected was to see a whole crew, not just like a couple people, but almost an entire staff that had taken such a brave stance.

I know what it’s like to be in one of those schools. You may like your school, but you don’t have any rights. OEA members are protected by the contract, and when it comes to striking, it’s way less scary because we’re all in this together. It is rebellious, but it isn’t the same. Those charter teachers really went out of their way to participate in the strike.

When they came to our picket line at 6:30 in the morning both days, and went down to the rallies and back with us all day, I was proud and humbled to stand with such brave educators.