The Battle for Control of Oakland’s Public Schools By J.DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday December 17, 2004

The great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass once cautioned us that “power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has, and it never will.” While this may be small comfort to Oaklanders agonizing over the present state of their public schools, one of my old ministers used to say that “if you want to get yourself up out of your bed of affliction, children, you must first pull off the covers.”  

This week Randolph Ward, the state-appointed administrator of the state-run Oakland public schools, has announced a new round of potential school closings because, according to the explanation in the Oakland Tribune, of “low enrollment, terrible test scores, or both.” Jonah Zern, an Oakland Education Association member and an activist with Education Not Incarceration who regularly sends out e-mailings on this stuff, puts the list of potential closings at five: Lowell, Golden Gate, King Estates, Carter, and Washington. That would equal the number of schools Mr. Ward has already closed in a little over a year since he was dropped on Oakland. Longfellow, Foster, John Swett, Tolar Heights, and Burbank have already closed their public school doors. 

In addition, Mr. Zern lets us know that 13 other Oakland schools—McClymonds, Bunche, Edna Brewer, Manzanita, Calvin Simmons, Havenscourt, Highland, Claremont, Allendale, Hawthorne, Stonehurst, Sobrante Park, Cox, Lockwood, Webster, Jefferson, Melrose, Whittier, Prescott, Horace Mann, Elmhurst, Manzanita, Madison, Rudsdale and Village Academy—may be radically transformed by the Ward Administration because they have failed to meet up with the standards of President Bush’s Control Of Education Law (it’s officially/unofficially called the No Child Left Behind Act, but why should we go around repeating Karl Rove’s talking points?). 

Under Mr. Ward’s proposed plans, those 13 schools will most likely be put into the hands of some charter school organization, who will be asked to transform the schools using the same meager finances available first to the Oakland Unified School District and then to Mr. Ward. That seems to guarantee continued chaos, confusion, and more school closings. 

It is the lack of full available funding for public schools that got Oakland into this trouble in the first place. The problem is that if you’re given a list of groceries to buy and not enough money to buy the groceries, you’re never going to be able to balance things out, no matter what you try. 

Like all other school districts in the state, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) was charged with providing adequate education for its students. The state collects money from citizens in its various municipalities and then returns a portion of that money—in the form of a per-pupil average daily attendance stipend (called the ADA)—back to the school districts of those municipalities. Berkeley—a city of bright people directly to Oakland’s north—determined long ago that the amount given back by the state was not enough to do the job properly, and so voted in their own supplementary tax in the form of something called BSEP (the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project). Oakland parents love their children as much as Berkeley parents do, but thanks to Proposition 13 voting in local taxes is a difficult two-thirds hurdle that Oakland was unable to overcome, and so Oakland schools languished. 

One of the results was that for years, OUSD did not have enough money to pay its teachers properly, and so in the last year of local control, the administration of former Superintendent Dennis Chaconas—trying to jump-kick Oakland education into the 21st century—granted Oakland teachers a pay raise large enough to make Oakland competitive with other school systems in the Bay Area. The district later discovered that it did not have enough money to make those payments and the state stepped in. There is evidence and allegation that other factors contributed to OUSD’s fiscal problems, but without the teachers’ pay raise, those other problems could have been managed, the district’s budget would have remained balanced, and Oaklanders would have still been running their own schools. 

And so Oakland’s schools were seized because of “mismanagement.”  

Going back to the grocery store analogy, it is like the parent (in this case, the state of California) punishing the child (in this case, the citizens of Oakland) for not bringing back enough groceries, even though it was the parent who failed to provide enough money to buy the things on the list. 

And that leaves Oaklanders fighting the battle against the Bush Administration with someone else’s general in charge, a general who may not even be interested in saving Oakland’s schools for Oaklanders. 

Initially, we were told that Mr. Ward’s charge from the state legislative action taking over Oakland’s schools was to balance the budget and repay the line of credit advanced by the state so that the Oakland schools could be returned to Oaklanders. 

But in the year-and-change since Mr. Ward took over, we have heard less and less about his plans for loan repayment and return of local control, more and more about his own ideas for how Oakland’s schools should be managed, as if he is settling down contentedly in the job, with no end in sight. In fact, if there is, indeed, a timetable existing someplace which shows how and when the schools will be put back in Oaklanders’ hands, I haven’t seen it. 

Mr. Ward’s style of management appears to be like that of someone running a chain of banks or supermarkets; that is, close down any outlets that prove unprofitable. We have seen how such corporate thinking has affected Oakland, which has large stretches that the Wells Fargos and the Safeways of the world have abandoned. But public schools are not profit centers. They are services, with larger-than-education functions to anchor and stabilize the neighborhoods in which they exist. Maintaining them is a cost of retaining community. 

Oaklanders—being reasonable people—have spent the past year trying to reason with Mr. Ward over this problem. But perhaps the Age of Reason is coming to its inevitable conclusion, withering over its own lack of appropriateness to the actual situation. This is a struggle over power—the power of who shall control Oakland’s schools—and power concedes nothing without a demand, so said Mr. Douglass. True when Mr. Douglass. Still true, today. Perhaps some more direct-type of action is in order, like in the old-school days.