Funk: Are teacher strikes the answer?
Photo courtesy of Oakland Education Association.

As superintendent of the largest high school district in Northern California and proud leader of a very stable, professional and progressive Board of Trustees, I wonder what the impact of the recent teacher strikes across the country will be on my district and districts in Santa Clara County who face the same financial restraints.

The strikes are happening in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and, of course, most recently in Los Angeles and Oakland. Despite our dedicated, hardworking and supportive workforce, school districts like mine face financial burdens due to declining enrollment, rising pension costs, rising special education costs while California’s education funding ranks 41st in the nation.

I understand the frustrations that public educators are displaying because of the economic pressures here in California and, specifically, in Silicon Valley.

With the median home priced at $1 million and, in the case of East Side Union High School District, a beginning credentialed teacher earning $59,000, the reality of owning a home for new or recently hired teachers is more of a dream. For classified employees, such as custodians, secretaries and food service workers, ownership is not a reality.

Strikes are a last resort for teacher unions. In fact, Education Week reported that there were 84 teacher strikes during the 1990-1991 school year, the bulk in Pennsylvania. Between 2010 and 2017, there were fewer than 13 strikes in a year. Teacher activism seems to be at an all-time high. In 2018, there were 24 strikes and, of course, the two most recent strikes in 2019, Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified.

I wonder if the Los Angeles and Oakland strikes were worth it?

It was reported that Los Angeles Unified lost approximately $350 million (which it will never recoup) during the strike and Oakland lost approximately $1 million per day, which further damaged the trust between district leadership, teachers, students and families — all for a raise that neither district can afford without making major cuts, which will have a negative impact on students and further erode the opportunity gap and increase the achievement gap.

Teachers should not have to resort to going on strike to earn a reasonable salary and live in or near the community they serve. Strikes are a no-win situation for all involved. The real question is, “Why do we not value the teaching profession and public education?”

Case in point: California is the fifth largest economy in the world. We have the highest Gross Domestic Product of any state, yet we rank 41st in per pupil funding, 45th in the percentage of taxable income spent on education and 48th in staff per student (class size and counseling).

Even when school districts such as San Jose Unified School District take the courageous stance on developing employee housing projects, they get pushback from communities that say, “Not in our backyard.”

We place on them the enormous responsibility of educating our children, but public school teachers are not welcome in some communities to live in executive housing at below-market rates to help hire and retain teachers.

We have outstanding private schools in San Jose, which include Bellarmine, Valley Christian, Archbishop Mitty and Harker School. It costs families upwards of $20,000 per year to send their children to those schools. If you reside in a basic aid school district, per pupil allocation is upwards of $20,000, yet the majority of public schools that fall under Proposition 98 or the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) receive $11,500 per pupil allocation.

What am I missing here? It costs money to provide a quality public education. Educators should not have to beg the Legislature to fund our school system to be among the top ten of states in the nation.

Going on strike is a bold, last resort action for teacher unions.

I’m afraid this could become the norm because funding schools at the current rate does not take into account living in Silicon Valley versus living in Redding, Eureka or Fresno. The cost of living in the Bay Area is more restrictive than in any other area of California.

I wonder if it is time for a spring rising where all public educators storm Sacramento and demand the state to significantly increase funding for public education. I would much rather see that type of strategy where the California Teachers Association (CTA), Association of California School Administrators (ASCA), California School Board Association (CSBA) and Parent Teacher Association (PTA) rally together, with one common goal — to ignite this conversation at the state level where it belongs instead of destroying relationships in communities where strikes take place.

We need to stay united. The enemy is not school districts, it is the apathy toward public education. We need to force the Legislature to prioritize education as the most important initiative that the state funds.

San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at funkc@esuhsd.org or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.

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