News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

February 08, 2019

Hundreds of OUSD students walked out of class today. Two student organizers tell us what they’re protesting and what’s next for their movement.

Hundreds of Oakland students walked out of their schools this morning to protest low teacher pay, school closures that target working-class families of color, and overcrowded, under-resourced classrooms.

Although the student organizers of today’s student walkout are young, today’s success shows they’ve already worked through political complications that dog organizers twice their age: how to nurture a multiracial movement that draws power and legitimacy from popular material demands.

Majority interviewed two of the organizers behind today’s action, Lauren K. and Theo Z., both seventeen-year-old students at Oakland Tech. They began their work as student organizers in the wake of the Parkland shooting, when thousands of Oakland students walked out off class to join the March for Our Lives.

However, the broad popularity of that walkout didn’t translate into a diverse membership for their core organizing club at Oakland Tech, which dwindled to a handful of white students in the months after the march.

Majority: What’s different about this week’s walkout?

Theo: What the district is doing is disproportionately targeting minorities and low-income families, and the schools that are closing, none of them are in the hills, they’re in East and West Oakland. It’s a more relatable issue for more students [than school shootings]. The interesting thing about school shootings is they’re the only type of gun violence based in the suburbs.

Lauren: A problem we had was [the original members of the organizing club] basically just reached out to their friends to join, and the school is segregated into small schools that break down by race. Everyone is reaching out to their friends within this segregated school, so the club wasn’t diverse. But with this event, we’ve joined students from all over the school, people who’d never been part of the club. This time around, we have a very diverse group of leaders.

Why did you call a sickout?

Lauren: I’m sure you heard about the teachers’ sickout they had a couple weeks ago. So a few problems we noted with that: a) all the teachers lost money because they were not teaching, they were not in class, and that’s the same problem they will have with the strike, so while teachers will put pressure on the district they’ll also be losing money, and b), when the teachers did their sickout all the students who were absent were marked present which is…

Theo: Super illegal.

Lauren: Very, very wrong. And the district didn’t lose any money from that because according to them we were all present. … The difference in the student-only sickout is that the teachers will be in class so they will be making money which I think sends a powerful message that we support them, they can keep making money, and work is being done.

Why are you organizing in support of the teachers?

Lauren: As students, we see better than anyone how hard our teachers work, and we know that they’re not getting paid enough to live in  Oakland which is ridiculous. They should be able to afford to live here. And on top of that, we see our counselors who have 700 students. One counselor has a caseload of 700, that’s ridiculous. We see the resources our teachers lack. We know better than parents, better than anyone how much our teachers deserve this. So I don’t think there’s really any better party to advocate for them.

Theo: One thing that struck me as really important is that teachers have always been our advocates and our mentors. At first teacher rally, a month ago at Frank Ogawa Plaza, I noticed the demands were more nurses and more counselors, and that doesn’t even really affect the teachers, that’s just about us. They care so much about us that they would go on strike about how many counselors they have. So I think that we should be giving back.

Now that you’ve got a bigger presence, if the sickout is successful, where do you think this movement is going?

Theo: The hope is, if this goes well and we get good media attention, that we can go up to the state in Sacramento, because they’ve got a $30 billion surplus. California’s the 5th largest economy in the world, and the 43rd state as far as funding for education goes, so they should spend some of it on education.

Why do you think they don’t spend it on education?

Theo: Well if you look a Jerry Brown, he’s just big on saving money, which was certainly what California needed when he took office, so I think that was a big thing, like we were in massive deficit up until 6 years ago, I believe, so I think  that’s been a big issue. And I think the other issue is that when you have school districts like OUSD there’s this perception that if you give these districts all this extra money they’ll just lose it.

Lauren: Which has happened. The district lost millions with no trace. Circling back to our motives, we came to the conclusion that teachers and students would be pretty effective negotiators if it does come to the point where we need to appeal to the state, more so than these district administrators, and that is why we want to establish ourselves as just these really passionate organizers. I’ve been obsessively checking this parent Yahoo chat for the last four days reading every single comment that anyone has made, and a lot of people are commenting “Well I don’t think the students are thinking this through and I don’t think they realize how their actions are going to affect people, they’re trying to help but they haven’t thought this through.” It’s funny, it’s ironic actually, because we really have thought this through, but people don’t assume that and because of that we’re not listened to.

Why do think we’re seeing these same funding problems across the state and the country, in LA and West Virginia and Arizona?

Theo: if you look at the average net worth of, this is on the national level, the average net worth of a congressperson is seven and a half million dollars. Their kids are not going to public schools, so to them it’s not a priority. I think another big thing is, it isn’t seen as a job creator in the same way as a bridge is, so hopefully the money would be spent for increasing teacher salaries, not just hiring more teachers and not paying them a living wage, and legislators are really far too worried about getting re-elected and having something to point to that they did, and school funding, the effects would be slow, it doesn’t have the new jobs you can point to. And donors, donors are rich, and so you’re not going to get nearly as much funding for your next campaign for funding a public school as you would for like, if a state congressperson managed to repave Broadway – it doesn’t need it right now – the businesses on Broadway would give them a ton of money for it. They would create a PAC and give them a ton of money for it, but nothing like that’s going to happen for a school. So I think the current electoral system being based on money and quick turnover, schools don’t fit well in there.

Do you think charter schools play a role in today’s crisis?

Lauren: We were just reading about it a little bit today. Because money is being diverted to charter schools but they have this more selective process of admission, it can be a big disadvantage to lower-income families, because as Theo was talking about, you can send your child to a charter school but you can also give them tutors and all these resources they need to qualify when lower-income families don’t have that. So what you end up with is schools that lack even more resources and these children with just nowhere else to go.

Theo: Another thing about charter schools is they’re not part of unions. I know what’s happening right now is the NLRB, they’re trying to make sure teachers aren’t able to have collective bargaining anymore, they’re trying to end unions really.

Why do you think there’s this war on unions?

Theo: Unions just give power to the working people. But with the school board, if a charter school is underpaying their teachers, they don’t have to deal with that, and that’s less teachers that are going on strike if the school board refuses to pay our teachers at the actual schools. I think its important to have power to the working people, because if we live in a capitalist system, the working people have everything skewed totally against them, and there need to be ways to fight back, because the oppression by the rich is reaching all-time highs, and America is coming into a new aristocracy, almost.

So what should we expect from Friday’s sickout and march?

Lauren: So tomorrow’s biggest purpose is the sickout. Our goal is to have as many students as possible leave school, because then we accomplish our goal, we gain our negotiating power, and we exert the biggest power students have which is to not come to class. The purpose of the march is to show that students care and they’re not just taking this as an opportunity to have a three-day weekend. Our big protest is the sickout but the march is our way to demonstrate how much we care.