In 2008, beset by dismal teacher retention, low achievement, and a gaping budget deficit, the Oakland Unified School District turned to voters to raise its teachers’ salaries, which are the lowest in the county. But Measure N failed, in part because the teacher’s union itself refused to back it out of opposition to the fact that the some of the funds raised by the measure would go to fund charter schools. Now, two years later, the district has seen more cuts, and tensions over salaries have risen even further, culminating in a one-day strike last spring after the school board imposed a contract with no raise. With the Oakland Education Association now taking a neutral, rather than opposed stance, backers of Measure L are hoping that Oakland’s voters will choose to raise salaries this time around, despite the fact that the measure faces opposition both from within and outside of the union.
Measure L would assess a tax of $195 per parcel per year for the next ten years (with some exemptions for low-income property owners) and is expected to raise $20 million a year. If passed with a two-thirds supermajority, about 80 percent of that money would go toward raising teacher and support-staff salaries, and 5 percent would go toward professional development. But the remaining 15 percent of Measure L’s revenue would be funneled into salaries at charter schools, which the union staunchly opposes because they’re privately run. So even though L would raise its members’ salaries, the union dropped out of the parcel tax committee last fall, and recently voted to neither oppose nor support it.
Given the union’s history, supporters of the tax are calling this a victory. According to union president Betty Olson-Jones, the fact that the union isn’t actively opposing the measure is an indication of “just how dire the situation has become.” The district has long been plagued by high teacher turnover — about 300 teachers a year leave Oakland for other districts and professions, according to the text of the measure. Many supporters and opponents of L agree that the only way to retain teachers is to pay them more, and that quality of instruction is at least partly tied to teacher retention. But opponents both within and outside of the union have raised criticisms of the tax’s support for charter schools, as well as the fact that it’s a flat, rather than progressive, tax and that it contains what some see as ambiguous language surrounding teacher effectiveness.
“This is a tax that taxes the poorest man and the richest man at the same rate,” said Noel Gallo, the sole school board member who voted against the tax when it came to the board in August. And Ben Visnick, who preceded Olson-Jones at the union and who is now running for school board, argued that the language of the measure calls for raises for effective teachers without offering any meaningful way of measuring effectiveness.
But Peter Fiske, a parent who has been volunteering for the Yes on L campaign, said that even though the measure is not perfect, the district has no other options after already cutting $122 million and 600 employees from its 2010-11 budget. “There’s only so much perfection you can have,” Fiske said. “We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater here.” With the state facing a massive budget deficit, Fiske continued, Oakland’s only hope is its taxpayers. “They are never going to help us,” he said. “This is the only thing we can do. Unless there’s some dramatic change in state funding, there’s no other way to raise teacher salaries.”
However, as the Bay Area continues to face high unemployment, a flagging economy, and a high foreclosure rate, some believe that imposing another tax on Oakland’s voters right now would be unfair. “It’s very clear, considering the state of the economy, that it’s the wrong time to be asking for money,” Gallo said. “I don’t want to put my hand in people’s pockets.”
Gallo also said he’s skeptical of the notion that salaries are even Oakland’s silver bullet in the first place. “It’s not clear to me that we’re going to do any better in terms of performance. You have to be able to spell out for me that you’re going to do better.” He suggested that Oakland’s poor teacher retention rate is less a function of low wages than it is of other, more impressionistic factors like work environment.
Fiske, however, argued that with the budget as it is, more money can only help the schools. “I can’t see a way that more money wouldn’t help,” he said.