“We’re Fighting a Mean-Spirited and Antidemocratic Attack on Public Education”
Oakland teachers aren’t just fighting for a living wage and better working conditions. They’re fighting against the closure of dozens of schools, which would pave the way for the privatization and destruction of public education.
- Interview by
- Meagan Day
On the first day of the Oakland teachers’ strike, I met up with Oakland teacher and union activist Tim Marshall at the rally downtown. Marshall has been an Oakland public school teacher for twenty-two years. He sits on the organizing committee for the Oakland Education Association (OEA), the teachers union that’s fighting for a living wage, smaller class sizes, more student supports, and an end to school closures. He’s also a cluster leader, in charge of organizing union activity at a handful of school sites. And he’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), having joined in the big post-Bernie membership wave.
My name is Meagan Day. I’m also a DSA member, as well as a staff writer for Jacobin. I interviewed Marshall on Thursday in Oakland, to get a sense of what’s really at stake in the teachers’ fight.
Marshall and I peeled off the rally the pickets had converged into, and settled into a restaurant called Ed’s Cheesesteak. From our booth, we could hear more than five thousand teachers chanting and singing outside City Hall. Before the interview began, Marshall got a phone call from a leader at one of his school sites. “It’s a propaganda war right now,” he told the organizer on the other end. “That’s why you take attendance. We need to show that we shut it down.”
Marshall hung up and pulled up an app on his phone that showed attendance percentages at schools across the city. Many of them were in the single digits. He pointed to one, a major aberration with a thirty percent attendance rate. “This is a problem,” he said. “We’ll be sending DSA members out to this picket tomorrow morning to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
I talked with Marshall about the Oakland teachers’ fight, the role of billionaires in dismantling public education, what’s so undemocratic about charter schools, and the right of every student to an equitably funded school that reflects and responds to the community where they live.
After the interview, we walked outside to find nurses from the California Nurses Association chanting, “Without teachers, we wouldn’t be nurses!” and elementary school children chanting, “Get up, get down, Oakland is a union town!”
In January, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) announced that they were considering closing twenty-four of the district’s eighty-six public schools. Since then, opposition to school closures has been integrated into OEA’s demands, alongside the original three: a living wage, smaller class sizes, and more student support staff.
In the media, the school closures issue is getting less attention than the other three. I heard a segment on the radio this morning that neglected to mention it. But in a way, it’s the framing demand, because it’s the greatest threat to public education in Oakland.
What is the district threatening to do, and what’s their broader agenda?
The district recently announced the official closure of two schools, one in the hills and one in the flatlands, but both are part of a massive downsizing plan that they have, a blueprint for the district that is similar to what’s called the portfolio model.
The portfolio model is a model in which districts pit schools against each other, assess them based on criteria that are not necessarily the criteria of the community, and close the underperforming ones, ultimately reducing the number of schools in a public school system. Proponents of this model speak about schools in the language of corporate competition: investments, bargaining chips, productive and non-productive assets.
The district meant to phase this in, but word got out and now Oakland parents are up in arms about their kids’ schools being closed. The people on the school board are defending it as a cost-cutting measure, which is not true even according to their own internal documents, which we’ve seen. It doesn’t save them a substantial amount of money. It only makes sense if you understand that it’s part of a bigger plan, which is to hand over closed schools to charter school operators and/or sell off properties to developers to transform and gentrify Oakland.
In the public sector, austerity is only superficially about saving money. California has the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation, and we could end austerity in public education in a heartbeat.
But there are two main reasons this doesn’t happen. First, rich people control our political system and fight tooth and nail for tax breaks for themselves. And second, austerity is a pretext for privatization, which promises to make rich people even richer. Can you tell me how that works in education?
That’s right. Oakland has already closed over a dozen schools in the last decade, and those schools have almost all been replaced by charter school operations. Partly that’s because of Proposition 39, which is the charter school law in California, and partly it’s because of the school board’s own bias and their plans to encourage privatization.
This is a long-standing policy of the district. In 2003, they proposed giving away thirteen of their own schools to the charter school companies. I was one of the organizers who went out to those schools, told teachers and communities what their rights were, and talked to them about how to fight back, and we saved eleven of those public schools.
But those schools were severely underfunded, were labeled underperforming as a result, and are on the chopping block again. So our union has taken up ending school closures as a key demand, one we’re trying to bring to the bargaining table.
We’re inspired in part by the incredible resistance from the community at Roots International Academy. Teachers, parents, and students at Roots have been fighting the closure of their school for months.
Roots is a small, underfunded school in East Oakland. It serves students in the Havenscourt neighborhood, one of the poorest in Oakland. Almost all of the students are black and brown. These students are being punished for predictably low test scores, even though what test scores measure most is poverty, lack of access to resources and support.
The district offered a couple of alternatives when they announced they were closing Roots. One is something called a “golden ticket” which supposedly gives students entrance into a better school someplace else in Oakland. That could mean a charter school or a public school in the hills.
Not only are the students unlikely to be able to physically get to these schools, but it undermines the idea that students should be able to go to a school in their neighborhood, one that reflects and unifies their community, is funded equitably, and offers a high-quality public education.
Another option the district floated is a public school site thirty-two blocks away, down International Boulevard, which is a dangerous walk for anybody. A lot of these students don’t have money for the bus both ways every day. It’s an area of high crime and high sex trafficking, so to send middle-school age students down that street for thirty-two blocks is lunacy.
But that’s not really what’s going to happen, anyway. Roots has a physical school structure, and it won’t sit empty for long. A charter school will probably just open up in its place and many of those kids will end up going there, right?
Very likely. And though it’s unconfirmed, we think we already know the charter school company that’s thinking about coming in.
Let’s talk about the stakes. If twenty-four schools are closed in Oakland in the next few years, who wins and who loses?
The community loses. Charter school companies win, and the billionaires who are funding the school privatization movement win.
And not all of them are charter school operators, they’re just ideologically committed to dismantling public education. The Koch brothers are smart. They understand what’s at stake. They understand that by pushing this agenda, they will break unions as they have done in cities like New Orleans, which has no public schools left and therefore basically no union presence in education.
And they know that they can dismantle the social expectation of quality public education for all. They want to subject education to free-market principles, and usher in an era in which all schools, teachers, and students compete against each other for survival.
You mention the Koch brothers because their money swirls around in the education reform movement?
Yes, and when they’re not directly involved, there are always other wealthy libertarian types. Like Netflix founder Reed Hastings who has thrown a lot of money into local school board races.
Reed Hastings has even said that charter schools are preferable because they have “stable governance” instead of rotating school boards. Of course the very reason we have school boards is so they can be elected, democratic, and accountable to the public.
As it stands, the democratic nature of school boards is compromised by the fact that billionaires like Hastings throw so much money into school board elections. The solution to that is to get big money out of those races. But a guy like Hastings envisions instead a libertarian dystopia where all decisions about education are made by private corporations behind closed doors.
That’s why charter schools are their dream. Charter schools are all about public funding and private control. They are not subject to the same transparency laws. They don’t have the same kind of oversight and accountability — even the nominal accountability that we hope for in Oakland and don’t always receive. But at least we can set that demand. Nobody can set that demand on the board of a private charter school company and expect it to be met.
Neighborhood schools are given over to these fly-by-night companies, and they can stay or leave, unionize or not. Communities lose their right to demand specific outcomes, and to affect change inside of a school system.
For a long time I taught third grade at an elementary school in East Oakland. It went through this process of being condemned as a failing school. We fought to demand that it stay open, and we transformed it into a new school. We had to give it a new name, but the staff remained intact mostly, and we fought successfully to preserve the rights of the community that we had worked so hard to build relationships with.
Those rights would not have been respected by a charter school. For instance, I’m a bilingual teacher and we provided bilingual education. The community decided that’s what they wanted, the teachers supported and provided that. But a charter has no obligation to listen to the community. They don’t have to listen to anyone besides CEOs.
Worse yet, charter schools often accept kids who don’t speak English well or kids with special needs or behavioral problems, count them at the beginning of the year and receive funding for them, and then over the course of the year “counsel them out.” That means pressuring their parents to take them out of the charter school, so the school’s test scores will remain high and they will attract more customers. It’s called dumping.
Public education is a labor movement stronghold in an anti-union political climate, and it continues to represent the idea of a universal public good in an increasingly individualistic and privatizing world. To what extent is the assault on public education a form of retaliation for these transgressions?
To a great extent. We all know that union density and union membership in the United States has fallen off precipitously, especially in the last two or three decades. But billionaires aren’t content. They see that public-sector unionism is one of the last bastions of an organized working class, and a defender of the rights not only of union members but also the democratic rights of the broader community. And that’s an obstacle. They want it all. They want the whole pie.
In education specifically, Oakland is a laboratory in which privatizers have been successful at establishing a foothold, and getting their ideas to become prevalent among school board members and high-ranking members of the administration. To do that, they’ve needed to delegitimize the public school system. And in order to make their case, they’ve starved us into austerity.
That’s why they pack us into classrooms, it’s why the heat in my room only occasionally works, it’s why the windows don’t close properly during smoke days caused by devastating wildfires, it’s why there’s mold in the classrooms, it’s why there aren’t enough adults to safely staff most of the schools, it’s why there aren’t enough nurses or counselors, and so on.
A terrible consequence is that in pointing to the effects of austerity to delegitimize public education, the privatizers have actually persuaded some people in social justice circles too. I’ve heard people who care about racism, for example, justify charters by talking about the “harm that the public school system has done to black and brown kids,” not realizing that what they mean is the harm that egregious underfunding has done to those kids.
I think that’s what you’re getting at — that part of the privatizers’ strategy is to make public education seem not worth defending. To make us feel like there’s something flawed, maybe even something dangerous about public schools, and to get us to give up on the idea.
It’s like the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA was created with a piece of progressive legislation, but it’s now being run into the ground on purpose by Trump to pave the way for shutting it down altogether. The same is happening in many cities across the nation to public education.
Public education is ours. The fight for public education is a fight by and for the working class, from the earliest attempts to build something like it in Massachusetts in the 1830s and 40s, through the desegregation fights of the 1950s and 60s, continuing into these fights today to preserve public education for all — not for a few, not for a talented tenth, but for everyone.
In Oakland there is literally a chief officer in charge of “innovation,” but what she’s really in charge of is innovating us out of existence, closing schools and transforming them into charters. Those charters may or may not be innovative on their own, but I’m telling you that they are undemocratic, they are often corrupt, and they are not the key to providing quality public education for all.
You’ve taught in Oakland public schools for twenty-two years, and before that you taught for a few years in Los Angeles and Chicago. You’ve also been fighting to correct course for a long time, alongside some very dedicated teachers who care deeply about public education. I’m sure it’s been both inspiring and demoralizing. What’s different about this moment?
I was a bilingual instructional aide in Los Angeles when I was a college student. There I met some people who became instrumental in the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) reform movement, including some young kid everybody was talking about named Alex Caputo-Pearl, who is now the president of the union and led their phenomenally successful strike last month.
And then in 1992 I went to Chicago and worked for a short time as a substitute. There I worked with members of what would eventually become the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which led their groundbreaking strike in 2012. Back then, the victories of 2012 were just a gleam in their eye. Just like in Los Angeles, they had a dream of organizing a rank-and-file resistance to a union misleadership and of connecting community struggles to labor struggles.
So I’ve been familiar with reform efforts inside teachers’ unions for many decades. And I will say it has sometimes seemed like a long and lonely struggle. But this moment is different. People who aren’t us seem to be understanding what’s at stake.
There’s more sympathy for the labor movement in general from the public, and there’s more support for strikes within the labor movement. This strike, for example, has seen a lot of support from our AFSCME and SEIU brothers and sisters, just to name a couple.
I think the additional wild card has been these young people. The young people of our union are much more fearless resisters against their principals. They’re also much more vulnerable, because the rents are rising and the reality of being a twenty-five-year-old teacher is not the same as when I did it. They never paid us well in Oakland, but rent in Oakland used to be cheap.
And the support of younger socialists has been crucial. It’s not like how it used to be, with radicals isolated in their unions, the residual effects of the Cold War and red-baiting forcing them to disguise their politics. DSA is much more out front.
The role that East Bay DSA has played has been really welcome in the union. There are DSA members who are teachers on the organizing committee, and there were DSA members out on picket lines all over town this morning. In the lead-up to the strike DSA has cosponsored events with the union and taken on a huge logistical burden to make them happen. Bread for Ed, a massive fundraiser to feed kids during the strike, would not have happened without DSA. Much of the solidarity school organizing would not have happened without DSA.
The other day I had an exchange with our union president Keith Brown. I said, “Thank you for all you do,” and he responded, “No thank you brother. You brought the squad.” And by the squad he meant DSA.
The union leadership understands that the messaging of this fight can’t just about bread and butter for teachers, it also has to be about building better community schools and fighting off a mean-spirited and antidemocratic attack on public education. So that perspective was already there in the union.
But the union leadership has been very appreciative of the role DSA has played, and the cross-fertilization of ideas between the union leadership and DSA activists has helped our messaging take on a new character, emphasizing class struggle against the billionaires.
It’s going to help us in this fight if we can link the struggles of the community to the not-so-secret plans of billionaires and privatizers to dismantle public education. The socialist vision is helping stiffen our resistance to that plan. And I think it’s resonating with all these people right outside of this restaurant.