Column: Undercurrents: History Lesson: Making a Mess of Our School Districts

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday April 14, 2006

During the last time American political jurisdictions openly maneuvered to keep African-Americans from voting—for you young readers, we’re not talking about Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, but Alabama and Mississippi in the 1950s and early ’60s—there used to be a joke told by black comics about the black fellow who came back home to South Carolina to register to vote after spending many years in New York and Philadelphia, a bachelors degree in American history from Temple and a masters in government from NYU in his pocket. 

In those days, Southern registrars used what they called the “literacy test” to keep black people from registering. A prospective black voter had to read, and then interpret, several government documents to the satisfaction of the registrar, who sometimes could not read the documents himself. 

As the joke went, the registrar pulled out the Declaration Of Independence, asked the black fellow to read a passage, and then said, “What does that mean?” The registrar then got a copy of the Constitution, pointed to an obscure clause, asked the black fellow to read it, and then said, “Now tell me what that means.” Then came an old dog-eared Federalist Papers, a request to read a paragraph out of one of the articles, and then the question: “What does it mean?” The black fellow expounded on each answer for 15 minutes or more, providing citations to various texts he had read on the various subjects. He’d gone to school for this, after all. He was well prepared. 

Finally, the white registrar went into the back of his office, rummaged through some old books, and came back with a copy of Plato’s Republic. “Pick a passage, any passage, and read it,” the registrar said. The black fellow opened the book, leafed through it a moment, and said, “This book’s in Greek. I don’t read Greek.” “That’s OK,” the registrar replied. “Just tell me what it means.” The black fellow thought a moment, closed the book, and handed it back to the registrar. “It means I’m not going to be able to vote,” he said. 

Sometimes, we sadly discover, the results of government policy are pre-ordained, and the various actions leading up to them are merely for the show. 

So it was with the takeover of the Oakland public schools. 

In the first UnderCurrents column for the Berkeley Daily Planet, in April of 2003, I wrote about three separate calls, over the years, for state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District. Each, interestingly enough, involved a different announced reason for the threatened takeover (in 1998 the desire by some state officials to get rid of then-OUSD Superintendent Carol Quan; in 2000, it was over a discrepancy in reported attendance figures; in 2003, the year the Oakland schools were finally seized by the state, it was because of overspending the budget to finance a teacher pay hike). Interestingly enough, too, each of the three calls for a state takeover in the past eight years involved state Sen. Don Perata in some way. 

Despite the fact that this was the largest school seizure in California history, and a complete disenfranchisement of Oakland voters over the running of our school system, the East Bay public still knows almost nothing about how, and why, the State of California came to take over the Oakland schools. 

But at least now, thanks to a recently-published book by local author, educator, and political activist Kitty Kelly Epstein, we have some valuable insight into an earlier attempt by the State of California to take over the Oakland schools, this one ten years before Mr. Perata began making his threats in 1998. 

In 1988, Ms. Epstein writes in A Different View Of Urban Schools; Civil Rights, Critical Race Theory, And Unexplored Realities, the Oakland school district was facing a fiscal crisis and needed to make severe budget cuts in order to balance the budget. Epstein says that a coalition of public officials—including then-state Superintendent of Education Bill Honig, then-state Assemblymember Elihu Harris (at that time a candidate for mayor of Oakland), then-Alameda County School Superintendent William Berck, and Sheila Jordan, the only white member of the Oakland school board—began pushing for state intervention into the Oakland schools, even though the majority-black school board had not sought out a state loan, and the budget was still balanced. Harris went so far as to introduce state trustee legislation in the state assembly. 

But the school board, led by members Sylvester Hodge and Darlene Lawson, arranged the sales of something called “Certificates of Participation,” $10 million in financing that made a state loan—and a state trustee—unnecessary. “Honig declared that he would block the sales of certificates,” Epstein writes, “but Hodges and Lawson had done their homework carefully. Other districts had already used this method of financing, and the board members had carefully worked through the necessary procedures before announcing the plan.” 

Folks who followed the 2003 Oakland school takeover will see some interesting echoes from what happened, or didn’t happen, in 1988. In 2003, in the frantic weeks before the Oakland School Board was stripped of its power and Randolph Ward was sent in to run the Oakland schools, the local board produced a balanced budget that would have ended the need for a state loan, and a state takeover. That balanced budget was based on the temporary transfer of construction bond funds, a transfer that board members said was being done by other school districts around the state. But even though the district’s bond attorneys—the same attorneys that advise the state, by the way—said that the construction bond transfer was legal, the Alameda County Superintendent of Schools held them up, and eventually they were blocked by an “opinion” by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. And who was the county superintendent who played such an important role in keeping Oakland from bailing itself out in 2003 and retaining home rule? If you guessed that it was the same Sheila Jordan who Epstein says was pushing for state takeover as an Oakland School Board member in 1988, you win the prize as a careful reader. 

As important as Epstein’s account is of the 1988 abortive takeover, her description of what happened immediately after is even more instructive. One year after Oakland resisted state takeover, she writes, “the neighboring Richmond school district … went broke and was forced to accept the $10 million loan originally slated for Oakland. They were also forced to lay off hundreds of teachers and cut the salaries of those teachers who remained. Today, more than a decade later, that district, now called West Contra Costa County, has not yet recovered financially. Interest and fees on the loan were so high that the loan will not be repaid and local control restored until 2018. In contrast, Oakland did not lay off teachers or cut salaries [during the 1988 financial difficulties]. And by the time Sylvester Hodges ended his tenure as chair of the district’s Budget and Finance Committee, the school district had achieved Standard & Poor’s highest bond rating and had accumulated a substantial cushion of reserves.” 

(Ms. Epstein’s book, which concentrates on how the issue of race affects American public education, using Oakland as a prime example, is an essential text for people wishing to understand what’s going on in public schools these days, by the way.) 

The state has made a royal mess of things amongst the Oakland schools, if anyone is watching. With Oakland further in debt than when the state administrator took over, the school district is being slowly dismantled and outside companies coming in and seizing campuses like the European colonial powers once seized African villages and communities. Meanwhile, a potentially devastating teacher strike looming, is there anyone around who will now argue that letting the state take a hand at running the Oakland schools was a good experiment, and Oaklanders couldn’t have done this better, our own selves?  

But as we said, sometimes, the results are pre-ordained, and the various actions leading up to them are merely for the show. For a long time, there have been folks deeply interested in taking over Oakland’s public schools. Now that they’ve finally done it, we may begin to finally understand why. But that’s a subject for another day, and another column.