Archive | February, 2012

Why Are They Going After OEA?

5 Feb

Written by an anonymous retired Oakland teacher

OEA has been on the state and national radar screens of the corporate reformers at least since the 1996 Oakland teachers’ strike, which was responsible for the state of California reducing class sizes statewide to a maximum of 20 students per class in kindergarten through 3rd grade. And OEA, more than any other teacher union in California, has been a center of opposition to the corporate takeover of education.  Finally, OEA’s campaign to “Bail Out Schools and Services, Not Banks” anticipated the groundswell of opposition that the Occupy movement represents.

Class size is again under attack — the state has increased class size as part of cutting state funding for public education. Charter schools are spreading. It’s not an accident that OUSD has launched this union-busting attack on OEA at just this time (see article on Mutual Matching).  Undermining OEA would at one fell swoop eliminate one of the biggest potential obstacles to increased class size and to the gross closing of public schools and proliferation of charter schools.  And it would take out one of the most persistent voices for making the banks pay back what they got away with in the Great Bailout Heist of 2008 – 2009.

“The Four Autonomies”: Autonomy over Budget, Staffing, Curricula, Schedule

5 Feb

Written by an anonymous retired Oakland teacher

Who could be against autonomy?  It’s such a positive-sounding catchword. But unfortunately, “The Four Autonomies” includes the same union-busting provision to eliminate seniority as does “Mutual Matching”.  And because it goes still further, it would be even more harmful to Oakland teachers, students, unions, and public education.

Autonomy over budget: Without adequate funding, autonomy over budget can and will be used against schools, and especially against the schools in the most need: schools in high-poverty areas.  As a matter of fact, that’s precisely what has happened in Oakland for the past eight years, since then-OUSD-state administrator Randolph Ward instituted “Results Based Budgeting” (RBB).  School budgeting was decentralized; the result has been years of failure.  Essential central services were downsized – eliminated or severely cut back (for example, school maintenance was virtually eliminated), forcing schools to purchase these from private companies.  Schools were not given enough funds to cover their expenses adequately, so they were forced to cut back on essentials.  Consequently, most middle schools closed their libraries and consolidated (cut) their librarians, as did some high schools (e.g. Castlemont).  Many teachers reported that when they complained about libraries being closed, lack of adequate custodial and clerical staffing, broken copying machines, etc. they were told by principals: “It’s your choice. Do you want a librarian or a teacher? Do you want a copying machine or a teacher? Etc.”  Administrators pressured veteran teachers to retire or leave, because they were higher-paid than beginning teachers (this is key to the campaign against seniority, which protects veteran teachers).  In this way, the district tried to push the problems down to the school level, telling school staffs that the lack of funding for classroom instruction, libraries, and maintenance was their fault and they should choose their poison.  And, they pitted veteran teachers against new teachers.  Year after year, the district would admit that RBB wasn’t working well; but year after year they continued to push it, making at most cosmetic changes.  Now they’re rolling out the same old failed program in a new wrapper: “Autonomy over budget”.  Don’t be fooled.

Autonomy over staffing: This would allow schools to choose their own staffs.  This is what “Mutual Matching” proposes, and we have already seen that this means ending seniority and how harmful this would be (see article on Mutual Matching).

Autonomy over curricula: Without seniority and due process protection, there can’t be real autonomy over curricula.  That’s because there can only really be autonomy over curricula when teachers are free to determine how to present course materials – in what order; with what supplementary materials; etc.  But the corporate education reformers push back against this kind of curricula autonomy.  Over the past five years OEA has tried to get the district administration to agree to proposals which would do this:  reduce district testing; give teachers control of the sequence in which course content is presented (which would allow teachers to use better texts and supplementary materials that present coursework in a different order than the standard texts); etc.  The district did not agree to a single one.

Autonomy over Scheduling:  This means letting school staffs decide to work longer school days and / or longer school years, and to decide how much or (more to the point) how little they will be paid for the extra time.  This is a way around longstanding protections.  It allows principals to pressure staffs at their schools.  And, say, several teachers and clericals are against longer work days or years, but are outvoted.  What do they do?  Where do they go?  (Remember: “Autonomy over Staffing” would eliminate their seniority protection.  In effect, they would be told: go along or you’re fired.)

Furthermore, there already is a waiver procedure, where school staffs can apply to the OEA Executive Board for waivers if they want to work longer hours.  There is little doubt that those waivers would be approved – if the schools were to pay teachers at their regular pay rate, and if it allowed teachers to opt out without getting laid off.

OUSD Board of Education: Who are you Fighting for?

5 Feb

Written by an anonymous educator who teaches at East Bay elementary and high schools 

In the middle of the 60 seconds that they gave him to speak, an Oakland community member looked up to see seven blank faces.  One of the board members, Gary Yee, seemed to be almost nodding off and so the man speaking asked him “Are you bored?” To which Yee responded by nodding his head, yes, expressing clearly what many people in the room could perceive as the sentiment of all of the seven people seated in front.  The Oakland Unified School District Board of Education members sat facing a full room of people and seemed to have no reason or desire to listen to the comments, concerns, tears, and frustrations of the community ranging from the murder of an OUSD student by a police officer to the closure of multiple elementary schools.

In order to understand how we arrived at this moment I attempt to answer some questions: What is the role and what are the actual powers of the school board? What is the history of the OUSD school board? Is the school board accountable to the community, teachers, and students of Oakland?  If they aren’t accountable to the community, whose interests and direction are they following?  And what can we do so that the concerns of the community are front and center in their decisions instead of 60 second sound bites they appear to endure and ignore before continuing to push another agenda?

Here is an attempt to place this moment within a larger context of history and policy; to understand who the board of education really is.  The school board is elected by the voters of Oakland.  They serve terms of four years and can be re-elected.  They are part time employees, paid a stipend of roughly $750 each month.  As stated in the OUSD Board Bylaws, the board “is elected by the community to provide leadership and citizen oversight of the district’s schools.” The bylaws also say that the board has four major roles: setting a direction, establishing policies, ensuring accountability, and providing community leadership. [i] In actuality the powers of leadership and direction are a balancing act between the superintendent and the elected board of education.  The board has the power to hire and fire the superintendent.  Both the superintendent and the board have the power to propose policy and direction for the district.  All major policy (either proposed by the superintendent or the board) must be approved by the board.  Although they have the power to approve/reject policy, the implementation of that policy is the responsibility of the superintendent.  This means that the board has little power over the daily functioning of schools but still holds ultimate power over the superintendent, who does control the daily details.  The bylaws state that when considering policy, the Board shall “involve the community, parents/guardians, students, and staff in developing a common vision for the district.” Although their power is somewhat limited, they are our elected officials and fundamentally should be assuring community input and control over the inner workings of the school district.

A brief history of the board decisions and stances during pivotal moments in the last 15 years of OUSD history can begin to answer the question of who the board is accountable to in actuality.

In 1996, Oakland teachers participated in a 26-day strike, the longest teachers strike in California history.  The impetus for this strike was the failure of the district to negotiate in the best interests of Oakland classrooms and consider seriously the demands of the teachers (who were demanding smaller class sizes).  In one account of their negotiations, Oakland’s Montclarion  states “…All but one of the board members took part in an impromptu walkout,” going on to explain that this was their “response to criticism from the audience”[ii]. In the third week of the strike, when the board was still refusing to listen to the public, a group of parents were even pushed to begin organizing to recall three school board members in response to the board’s continued refusal to propose significant cuts to administration in order to fulfill teachers and communities demands.  [iii]

It is clear that in 1996, the board did not have the same priorities as the strike’s slogan “Classrooms first” and “Chop from the Top”.  In reflecting on the situation, we cannot put all of the blame on the school board either. There are clearly many forces at play including: the superintendent, other administrators who might lose their job if “Chop from the Top” was taken seriously, and insufficient funding for education from the state. Yet, the board has the responsibility to truly advocate for the Oakland community, students, and schools. They ought to do this even, and especially, against the interests of those who have power on the inside (administrators) or those who have power on the state level.  By furthering the rhetoric that there is simply not enough money for smaller class sizes, they are complicit in attacks on students and public education.  Fifteen years ago, OUSD board of education was not prioritizing community, teacher, and student demands, and a 26 day strike was necessary to even begin to get these priorities on the table.  Although the community did not win the reduction in class sizes during that strike, this struggle pushed the issue of small class sizes into the spotlight and led to the state of California mandating a 20:1 student:teacher ratio in K-3 classrooms statewide in fall 1996.[iv]

The board of education also played a major role in the overspending and flawed accounting that led OUSD into a massive deficit and the state takeover that followed in 2003.  Before the state even took over, the school board laid off 300 teachers and counselors and 260 support staff.[v]  During the state takeover there continued to be devastating cuts across OUSD, including cuts to libraries, counselors and adult education.  Despite these cuts, the debt owed to the state increased from $37 to $100 million during those 6 years.  This debt has left OUSD paying the state $6 million each year from funds that are greatly needed in Oakland schools.  The payment of this debt is another opportunity for the board to take a stand against outside power in order to make possible the education that all Oakland students deserve.  So far, the school board has done nothing to challenge the state and keep that money in order to serve their constituents: the students, teachers, and community of Oakland.  Although OUSD was officially returned to local control in 2009, the state takeover continues to influence the policies and choices of the school board.  In fact, full local control has not been restored: because OUSD still is repaying the $100 million loan to the state, a state trustee has veto power over all OUSD financial transactions (including contract settlements with school worker unions).

During the takeover, OUSD school board and district operated completely under the exclusive control of consecutive state-appointed administrators.  All three of these administrators: Randolph Ward (2003-2006), Kimberley Statham (2006-2007); and finally Vincent Matthews (2007-2009) were graduates of the Broad Urban Superintendents Academy.[vi]  Many lower level administrators during that time (some of whom continue to be employed by OUSD to this day, like Troy Christmas, executive director of labor relations) also participated as interns or residents in Eli Broad’s programs.

The Broad Superintendents Academy trains “top executives in business, the military, nonprofits, government or education” [vii] to be superintendents in urban school districts.  This academy seeks to transform school districts into “effective public enterprises”[viii] through this specialized training for powerful executives and then a promise to support the graduates through job placements in school districts.  When Eli Broad was asked whether he still saw a role for local government control of education, he stated that he did not and believed that the power should lie with governors and the U.S. Department of Education.[ix]  This is clearly antithetical to the board’s stated purpose of ensuring “citizen oversight of the district’s schools”, which is why the Broad influence on OUSD is so disconcerting. This institute pushes a model of managing education as if it was a private business and moves the direction of our public education system away from community, teachers, parents, and students towards the powerful and private interests of this country.  This institute continues to have deep and powerful influence in OUSD.

Broad has also been an outspoken advocate and bankroller of charter schools.  It’s not surprising, then, that the Broad-dominated state takeover of OUSD resulted in quadrupling the number of charter school students – from 2,000 in 2002 to 8,000 in 2009. Today Oakland has 35 charter schools and has the highest percentage of students in charter schools (18%) of any California urban school district. Today, the board is continuing to consider new charter school petitions, while simultaneously closing public elementary schools.  Tony Smith claims that there are too many schools for the number of students in OUSD, but it seems that they are just substituting charter schools for public schools.  Tony Smith and many school board members have stated that closing schools is an unfortunate necessity given how many schools we have for the number of students in the district.  The school board is largely responsible for the approval of Oakland’s 35 charter schools.

Looking through this brief history helps us understand the priorities often motivating the board and also some of the newer directions they are moving in.  The board of education has limited power and is managing a difficult position constrained between continued state (Broad) control and ever-decreasing funding.  This position does not release them of the responsibility to tirelessly advocate for the communities, students, and parents that elected them.  We must demand of them to be nothing less than our fiercest allies, calling for what is needed of the state and fighting, in this climate of increased privatization and corporate control, for the public education our communities need.  We as community members, parents, educators, and students, must demand that the OUSD board of education is truly accountable us.

[i] Board Policies. BB 9000.

[ii] Justice, Jason. 1996: Classrooms First! – A History of the 1996 Oakland Teacher’s Strike.

[iii] Olszewski, Lori. Move to Recall 3 Oakland School Board Members / Frustrations increase as strike persists. SFGATE. 4/4/96.

[iv] California Department of Education,

[v] Murphy, Katy. Oakland school district: Is it better off after the state takeover? Oakland Tribune. 3/26/10

[vi] The Broad Report, Randolph Ward, Broad Superintendents Academy Class of 2003. 7/12/10.

[vii]  Katz, Alex. Executives trained by Turnaround Nonprofit. The Oakland Tribune, 8/11/03

[ix]  Ryssdal, Kain.  Running Education More like a Business interview with Eli Broad. 12/8/11.

Reform or De-form? The Corporate Attack on Public Education

5 Feb

Written by an anonymous Oakland after school teacher 

Public education is full of buzzwords these days: reform, competition, accountability, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top (RTTT), charter schools, choice, autonomy, mutual matching, and the list goes on.  So many buzzwords can be overwhelming and confusing.  Suddenly, education seems like either a crazy science experiment or like its finally getting the change it needs.  So how do we understand all of this?  By taking a step back and starting at the beginning.  To clarify the picture, let’s look into why these experiments are happening, who is behind them, and where they might take us.  Unfortunately, the answers are not positive.

To explain the genesis of these changes is very complicated but the most significant reason is also fairly straightforward: capitalism needs to make profits, and corporations and politicians must ensure the conditions under which it can continue to make profits.  This iron law has a few effects.  The first is in the job market.

Public schools play a hugely important role in our society training the next generation of workers. For the past few decades, though, American corporations have been trying to change how we, the workers, fit into global capitalism.  To compete with lower wages—meaning higher profits for employers—in other countries, corporations have been doing their best to slash our paychecks. One of the best ways to do this is by cutting the first job training program every worker goes through: school.   When our education is cheapened or outright destroyed, our wages go down.  More high school dropouts mean more cheap workers.  Thus, the increasing inequality within our schools and communities is not a sad by-product, but actually one of the intents of corporate “reform” of public education.  This is also why the 1% has been attacking other wage-cushions for years, like, Section 8, food stamps, and unions.  Their most recent excuse—they change all the time—is that we need to “live within our means.”   Of course, this really only applies to us, while they greedily grab trillions of dollars in bailouts and tax cuts.

Another result of capitalism’s effects on education can be answered by revealing who is behind this “reform” agenda.  Overwhelmingly this is the rich and powerful—not our neighbors starting charter schools out of desperation for quality community schools.  Nationwide these wealthy “saviors” have funneled millions of dollars to rewrite national legislation (such as NCLB and RTTT), create local front groups, and develop powerful networks of politicians, administrators, and businessmen.  For example, Eli Broad, a billionaire LA real estate developer, runs a school for administrators in LA that trained all 3 OUSD state administrators during the state takeover from 2003 to 2009, as well as numerous current OUSD executives. He actually pays parts of their salaries to entice OUSD to hire them.  He has similar allies implanted across the country.  Our obscenely rich “saviors,” however, are not so angelic, of course, and there are strings attached to their “gifts.”

For one, many expect to directly profit off of their investments as for-profit charter schools and outsourced education services become huge-money makers.  Second, beyond for-profit ventures, these billionaire “saviors” have magnified their influence and dollars to force corporate-oriented values and practices into all of public education.  Nationwide, the norm is becoming corporate models of test-based accountability, pay-for-performance, “efficient” classrooms, and business-style management.  The problem, of course, is that schools should not be run like businesses.  The education of human beings is necessarily a complicated process that cannot be done with assembly-line efficiency nor measured and planned simply through tests and data crunching. It takes stable teams of well-trained teachers supported by equally strong and stable communities.

Perhaps the largest flaw of all with the corporate de-form agenda is what it ignores or, worse, what it hides.  About 2/3rd of what determines success in-school is actually out-of-school factors, such as socio-economic status, family life, health care, and access to healthy and sufficient food just to name a few[i].  All of these have worsened with the recent crisis, but do any of them figure in the plans of “reform?”  Of course not!  In fact, our “saviors” are actually unable to do anything about them because they caused many of these problems in the first place.  They cut their own taxes while defunding our schools and services.  They laid off millions of workers while giving themselves bonuses.  They took trillions in bailouts and then asked us to foot the bill.  One of the biggest tricks of the “reform” agenda is that it attempts to erase this history of corporate-driven inequality and the overriding impacts of this inequality on schooling.

Recognizing this we must realize that this is not simply a fight between different, equally well-intentioned reform agendas to improve public schools.  The corporate reformers are, in reality, fighting for their particular, corporatized vision of public schools that maintains profitability for their fellow capitalists.  They do not want quality public schools accessible to all students, regardless of their privilege or abilities.  If that was the case, proven reforms already exist, such as smaller class sizes, experienced teachers, and more community social services.  But these cost money, something the 1% has too much of and, yet, to them, never enough.  Meanwhile, the corporate reformers’ plans have been studied and proven—to be ineffective!  Charter schools, on the whole, underperform public schools[ii].  Experienced teachers outperform and outlast crash course Teach for America teachers[iii].  Test-based standards lead to ineffective test-based curricula[iv].

What should become clearer as we step back is that the corporate reform agenda does not reform public education at all.  It is leading it to its destruction.  At this moment we face the same corporate agenda that has swept through welfare, labor protections, and environmental rights.  In all of these cases, corporate reformers, working with both political parties, sought to destroy public services and regulation in order to support corporate profits.  For public education it is the same sorry story, reform is the excuse, destruction is the goal.  This leaves us with one simple response: fight like hell.  We must demand our own reforms on March 1st and beyond.  We must demand that the banks bailout the district’s debt.  We must demand that teachers’ rights be respected.  We must demand that every student has a quality public school.  We must demand public education for the 99%, funded by the 1%!

[i] Gerson, J. (2012).  “The Neoliberal Agenda and the Response of Teacher’s Unions.” The Assault on Public Education. Ed. William H. Watkins.

[ii] Bracey, G. (2004). Setting the Record Straight (2nd Ed.).

[iii] Gerson, J. (2012)

[iv] Kohn, A. (2012). “Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow.” The Assault on Public Education. Ed. William H. Watkins.

What can Oakland Learn from Chile?

5 Feb

“Miles de jóvenes se han tomado sus colegios y universidades, exigiendo al gobierno una educación gratuita y de calidad, despertando a un país entero.  Paros y huelgas han marcado un año repleto de la creatividad constructivo de una generación que se ha atrevido a luchar por la gratuidad del conocimiento.”

“Thousands of young people have taken over their schools and universities, demanding that their government provide free, quality education.  In the process, they have awakened an entire country.  Hunger strikes and work stoppages have marked this year, a year that has also been full of the creativity of a generation that dares to fight so that knowledge can be free.”

- “Shock” by Ana Tijoux (French-Chilean hip hop artist)

Written by an anonymous Oakland high school teacher

The demand for “free and quality public education” has been reverberating through the streets, classrooms, business places, work stoppages, hunger strikes, and kiss-ins of Chile.  This phrase is the simplified message behind a much more detailed list of demands addressing issues such as access, funding, public control, equality, and privatization of the Chilean education system.  In the current moment of accelerating privatization, testing, austerity, and cuts in the US education system we have an incredible amount of learning and inspiration to draw from the education movement in Chile.

This movement erupted across the worldwide stage in April 2011 (although its seeds were planted in the 2006 student movement in Chile that shared many of the demands of today).  Throughout 2011 we saw students taking control of their own high schools and universities across Chile.  There were also vast alliances built between high school students, college students, teachers, professors, unions, labor coalitions, and political organizations.  These alliances led to mass marches, work stoppages, and the takeover of schools.  Feeling pressured by this mass mobilization, the government first responded with police repression and later by offering various proposals back to the movement in order to begin communication with young people about the demand for a radically different education system.  These proposals did not ultimately fulfill the demands that the movement was fighting for, yet it has made the issue of education central to political struggle in Chile and has inspired the world.

If we are to wage an effective fight for the education that we so badly need in this country, we must look to examples like Chile.  Our demands in many cases remain too small or too broad.  We struggle to keep open 5 schools and even if/when we succeed in this struggle (which will be a huge and important victory—for those school communities and for OUSD) we are still entrenched in an education system that is unjust, unequal, highly competitive, and becoming privatized and corporately dominated in a way that is nothing less than terrifying.

It is true that our struggle must include speaking at board meetings and holding protests with thousands of people in attendance to oppose the elementary schools that are being shut down (such as the 5,000 who attend the rally at Lakeview Elementary School on November 19th).  Yet, for us to achieve the education system our students and society at large deeply need, we must imagine more creatively and powerfully: organize smarter and more militantly.  We must begin to have hundreds of school occupations and takeovers like Chile had in the end of June.  We must have committees at each school and a national structure of coordinating these groups (various national student organizations were crucial in building the mass mobilizations in Chile).  We must begin to coordinate with strikes and worker struggles around the country.  We must have hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demanding a different education system (400,000 students, teachers and community members filled the streets of Chile during July and August).  This is where we must move the struggle because our education system shapes our society and the power to build our world will never be willingly handed to us. We must take it.

The Deceptive Promise of Charter Schools: A New Orleans Case Study

5 Feb

Written by an anonymous Oakland after school teacher

The recent national fixation over charter schools as the solution to a decaying United States education system can be seen in a slew of big budget documentary films such as Waiting for Superman and The Lottery.  Major players in the mainstream education reform movement, like large philanthropic organizations backed by wealthy corporations, have constructed the image of the savior charter school and marketed it as the cure for a broken public education system.  We are seeing these publicly funded yet privately run institutions spring up across the nation, particularly in poor communities of color like Oakland, New Orleans, and Washington DC. The debate is growing over this new brand of schools that lacks union protection for teachers, offers site by site administrative autonomy over budget, curriculum, staff hiring and firing, hours in the school day and year, and are often funded by large philanthropic organizations that are backed by corporations.  Here at home in Oakland, the local dispute grows over the Oakland Unified School Board’s decision to close 30 schools, with some of the lowest enrollment and test scores, in the next five years, as the number of charter schools in Oakland continues to rise.  Many community members opposed to the school closures believe that there is a correlation between the school board’s decision and the trend towards charterization of the district, while board members insist that it is simply a money saving measure.  In order to gain a deeper understanding of the debate over charter schools and how they may affect Oakland, we must look at the birth place of the charter school privatization movement and the city with the highest number of charters in the nation, New Orleans, Louisiana.

A major critique of charters is that, due to their relationship to corporations and thus the free-market, they adhere to many negative characteristics of the for-profit capitalist market.  Scholar Kenneth Saltman lists these characteristics as competition, choice, efficiency, monopoly, turn around, and failure.[i] These aspects show themselves in the New Orleans charter school system through competition at all levels of this privatized and results driven structure: between traditional public schools and charters, students, parents, teachers, and individual charters themselves.[ii] With this article I will discuss how each of these capitalist characteristics show themselves in New Orleans charters through selective admissions processes, teacher and administrative recruitment, teacher lay-offs, school closures, parent choice, union busting, racial tension, and overemphasis on test scores.

The conditions previously discussed began in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina. The storm was used as a catalyst to decimate what was once known as the public school system in New Orleans and replace it with charters. State legislation was passed that deemed all “failing” schools, be taken over by the state run and installed Recovery School District (RSD).  Failure was determined by a School Performance Score (SPS) based on standardized test scores.[iii] Paul Pastorek, the state education superintendent appointed directly after Katrina and the mastermind behind these reforms in New Orleans, used this opportunity to turn 107 out of 128 Orleans schools that constituted as failing over to charter providers.[iv]  Before the storm only 2% of students attended charters in New Orleans compared to 78% today.[v]  Many education reformers from outside New Orleans optimistically jumped at the chance to be part of this “education experiment.”[vi]

The mainstream media and charter school proprietors framed the tragedy of the hurricane and the subsequent overhaul of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) as a positive “opportunity” to re-invent New Orleans’ educational landscape without regard for the already existing structure and the people that lived within it.  The objective as propagated by Pastorek was to create a model that could be used in other impoverished urban districts across the nation.[vii]  Although the leaders of this charter insurgence claim it was not a predetermined scheme, the rebuilding of the previous public school system was de-prioritized when the Federal government chose to give $20 million to charters over public institutions.[viii]  Some critics of charters see this rhetoric as propaganda shrouding the privatization of public education, as well as, an offense to all of those displaced and deceased due to Katrina.  There is a sense that the historically mostly black communities in New Orleans are replaceable and almost impeding the development of this grand experiment in school privatization.

In 2010,  Superintendent Vallas told parents that if they don’t like a charter school they can “vote with their feet.”[ix]  This statement is particularly problematic due to the implication that the only community oversight for which charters must adhere is to individual parents.  The statement highlights the lack of public say within these decentralized autonomously run yet publicly funded entities.  The RSD has no publicly elected school board and thus the superintendent, who is legally required to be selected by a publicly elected board was appointed by Louisiana’s Governor. [x] Therefore, without public input into who is running, approving, and overseeing these charters how can there be true community control of them?  Author Leigh Dingerson calls this “challenge to democratic values” as an open “flea market of entrepreneurial optimism that is dismantling the institution of public education in New Orleans.”[xi]  This is contradictory to the rhetoric that charters are at the forefront of advancing public education towards a more just and effective education system in the United States.

The Black New Orleans community, particularly the Black middle class that, before the storm, was made up of mainly teachers, has been adversely affected due to charter proliferation. 7,500 teachers and staff were laid off in 2006 after the storm, 75% of whom were Black while 100,000 New Orleans residents have yet to return to the city.[xii] The termination of many teachers was due to the yearlong failure of OPSB to reopen schools after Katrina resulting in the expiration of the teacher’s union contract.[xiii]  Linda Johnson, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s President, responded to the lay-offs by saying it “was the only way to eliminate the collective bargaining agreement and leverage the opportunity to start anew.”[xiv]  One can draw parallels to the 2003 state takeover of Oakland Unified School District with its school closures, lack of union protection for teachers, and the subsequent move towards charters.[xv]

With the teacher’s union out of the way and so many native New Orleanians gone the trend in the Recovery School District was to employ and recruit majority white board members, administrators, teachers, and staff from outside of New Orleans.  Organizations such as New Schools for New Orleans and New Leaders for New Orleans, affiliated with the leading charter chain Knowledge is Profit Program (KIPP), sit at the top of the charter system determining the course of these schools through providing a rigidly structured charter incubation system that trains, recruits, and funds administrators from the financial sector.[xvi]  The landscape inside classrooms is also changing on account of large federally funded teacher recruitment programs like TeachNOLA and Teach for America.  In New Orleans, before 2005 there were only 10% new teachers and 73% of teachers were Black.  In 2010 the number of veteran teachers had dropped to less than 46% and 40% of all teachers were white.[xvii]  Similarly, this trend can be seen in Oakland as the percent of African American teachers is on the decline and new white administrators and teachers move in to take their place due to gentrification, charter schools, school closures, and teacher recruitment programs.[xviii]

Some long-time residents of New Orleans fear what this influx of transient white educators will do to the fabric of a once vibrant and tight-knit community.  They believe that native black veteran educators can better support New Orleans’ students because they understand their needs, culture, and history. [xix]  Veteran teachers are more skilled and better equipped to manage a population of students with trauma due to Katrina and pre-Katrina impoverished New Orleans.  Nevertheless, the number of white first and second year teachers continues to rise due to no-experience necessary teacher recruitment programs, providing charter schools with a cheap, malleable, and disposable workforce.[xx]  Many of these new teachers leave, quit or are fired within a year or two.  A concerned teacher spoke out at a school board meeting saying, “For students that no one wants to deal with, there’s too much instability among teachers, which also leads to instability for our students…There’s instability that then goes into the community.  We need stable communities.  Stable schools will give us stable communities.”[xxi]

This instability is seen, as well, in constant teacher turn around and charter and public school closures.  In order for RSD charters to stay open students must be scoring high enough on standardized tests by the school’s fourth year.  The charters that end up being shut down, only to be replaced by big chain charters like KIPP, are often those with the lowest budget and not backed by large philanthropic organizations like the Gates or Broad Foundations.  Furthering the racial tension spawned by the charter debate, many of the charters on the chopping block are run by black native community members who seek to gain more community involvement and control over their children’s education.[xxii]  Recently Pastorek remarked on RSD’s perpetual school closures by saying, “We put people in business and we take people out.”[xxiii]  Inherent in this race to stay open is the ever prevailing presence of competition with in the make-up of the charter system.

Because the livelihood of charter schools is based on student success, the open-enrollment process becomes a highly selective contest based on test-scores and student recruitment.  There is pressure in public and charter schools, beginning with the Bush administration’s policy No Child Left Behind, to prove their effectiveness and get funding through standardized testing.[xxiv]  There is no proven correlation between rising test-scores and charter schools especially in New Orleans where the student body has changed drastically since the storm.[xxv]  In fact, the recent reported increase in 4th and 8th grade test scores in New Orleans that was credited to the proliferation of charter schools actually began in 2003, before Hurricane Katrina.[xxvi]  Moreover, standardized tests do not accurately represent the attainment of knowledge especially for children with unconventional learning styles, or the extent to which their education enriches and empowers students to be positive forces in their communities.

In this ruthless charter environment low performing, English language learning and disabled students become collateral damage and in the unusual case of admission for high-needs students, support services are often nonexistent.  In 2010, both a due process complaint from 4,500 disabled New Orleans students and a legal administrative complaint from legal aid non-profits were brought against the Louisiana Department of Education.[xxvii]  It is not just disabled students that suffer from these covertly exclusive admissions practices.  Low scoring and behaviorally challenged students, the youth population most susceptible to poverty, incarceration, and drug addiction, are either discarded in the few decaying public schools left, the worst performing open-enrollment charters or they drop out.[xxviii]  Julianne Hing of Color Lines Magazine puts it perfectly when she says, “New Orleans’ aggressive reforms, which were intended to address the district’s low test score rankings as well as deal with a persistent achievement gap, seem to have only re-inscribed the pre-existing inequalities.”[xxix]  How can charters claim to be assisting poor communities of color while leaving those with the highest needs out in the cold?  The real concern for communities as a whole has been overlooked by large charter providers whose goals are self-interested.

In closing, I am confident, through analyzing the charterization of Orleans Parish School District’s, that charter schools are not the answer to the preexisting problems in public education.  In New Orleans the competitive environment has bred antagonisms within the once close-knit Black community in New Orleans, where students compete for spots in schools and parents individualism is encouraged over community solidarity and collective efforts towards progress.[xxx]  The consequence of public money being used for private interests is that we, the community, have no real control over how this money is being used by Teach for America, New Schools for New Orleans, individual charters, the RSD, or corporate sponsored foundations.  Although our current traditional public education system has many problems it does allow for some community involvement and control on a federal to local level through voting and union protection for teachers.  We need to move towards a system that supports public control and input, because teachers and families know best and charters actually move us away from this goal.  I am in support of small schools where teachers have the freedom to teach material beyond what is on the standardized tests, where all schools have ample resources for basic services, the arts and extra-curriculars, and where student empowerment is the end goal. Orleans Parish School District could be the face of our children’s educational future as the presence of charters spreads in poor communities of color like Oakland. We will not see these types of schools in the charter frame work, which relates to education through competition, inequality, privatization, and humans, especially teachers and students, as commodities. Oakland has a higher percentage of charters than any other school district in California. For the sake of our children and the future of our society, is a charter district really what we, the people, want for OUSD?

[i] Kenneth Saltman, “The Rise of Venture Philanthropy and the Ongoing Neoliberal Assault on Public Education,” in William H. Watkins, ed., The Assault on Public Education (New York, NY: Teachers College, 2012), 55

[ii] The Washington Post, June 9, 2008

[iii] Paul Tough, “A Teachable Moment,” New York Times,  August 17, 2008 (

[iv] Kristen L. Buras, “Its All About The Dollars” in William H. Watkins, ed., The Assault on Public Education (New York, NY: Teachers College, 2012) 166

[v] Julianne Hing, “A Miracle in New Orleans Schools? Students Say Not Quite,” ColorLines, November 9, 2011 (

[vi] Jay Mathews, “Charters Schools’ Big Experiment,” Washington Post, June 9, 2008 (

[vii] New York Times, August 17, 2008

[viii] Washington Post, June 9, 2008

[ix] The Root, August, 29

[x] New York Times, August 17, 2008

[xi] The Washington Post, June 9, 2008

[xii] Bretin Mock, “The Myth The Charter Schools Have Saved New Orleans,” The Root, August 29, 2010, (

[xiii] Sarah Laskow, “Necessity Is the Mother of Invention,” The Daily Beast, August 26, 2010 (

[xiv] Buras, 176

[xv] Jacks Article

[xvi] New York Times, August 17, 2008

[xvii] Buras, 174-179

[xviii] Jack Gerson, Article

[xix] Buras, 176-179

[xx] John Thompson, “New Orleans Charter Schools Need to Respect Teachers’ Experience, Students’ Dignity,”  The Huffington Post, July 25, 2011 (

[xxi] Buras, 178

[xxii] Andrew Vanacore, “New Orleans Charter School Frustrations Reach a Boil,” The Times Picayune, December 6, 2011 (

[xxiii] New York Times, August 17, 2008

[xxiv] New York Times, August 17, 2008

[xxv] The Washington Post, June 9, 2008

[xxvi] The Root, August, 29

[xxvii] The Root, August, 29

[xxviii] Buras, 172-174

[xxix] ColorLines, November 9, 2011

[xxx] Buras, 164

JACK GERSON & BOB MANDEL: Mutual Matching is Union Busting: Beware of Collaborating with your Enemy

5 Feb

On January 26, more than 100 OEA members met at Redwood Heights Elementary to discuss OUSD’s “Mutual Matching” proposal.  If Mutual Matching were adopted, teachers whose positions are consolidated (i.e. eliminated) because their school has been closed or reorganized would give up their contractual rights to a guaranteed job.  Instead, they would go into a pool (including consolidated teachers, current teachers who want to change schools, and new job applicants).  (See accompanying article for details).

The forum was enlightening and revealing.  Nine breakout groups met for about an hour, giving all participants a chance to voice suggestions and concerns. There was near-unanimity that OEA should tell OUSD that we will not agree to replace our contractual placement process (Article XII of the OEA / OUSD contract) with Mutual Matching this spring.  Instead, as several teachers agreed, we should tell the district that the placement process doesn’t work because OUSD has flatly refused to implement large parts of it (especially the provisions for voluntary transfer).  Rather than complaining that the process is broken, OUSD should acknowledge that they broke it and help make it work.

Many participants called the Mutual Matching proposal part of a district strategy to blame veteran teachers for OUSD’s failures, with the goal of driving out veteran teachers and busting OEA.  But surprisingly, even teachers who have long expressed interest in exploring Mutual Matching expressed serious doubts about the district’s proposal and agreed that OEA should not be rushed into agreement on it this year.

All of this is quite heartening.  But there were some disturbing aspects.  In her opening presentation, OEA President Betty Olson-Jones reported that OEA and OUSD had worked jointly to develop a new contractual placement process, and that while OEA leadership had not seen or approved the present Mutual Matching proposal prior to its release, several ideas in OUSD’s proposal came from OEA (for one: monetary incentives to induce veteran teachers to resign or retire). Even more troubling: OEA had agreed to let OUSD pilot Mutual Matching on teachers who were consolidated in October.  At least some of the affected teachers were quite upset, and felt victimized and abandoned by the union.

Perhaps most ominous is that despite the overwhelming sentiment at the meeting to stay with the current contractual placement process and to not implement Mutual Matching, some –perhaps most – OEA leaders are still looking for ways to make it work this spring.  Thus, both before and after the meeting, prominent OEA leaders told us privately that they remained open to allowing “volunteers” to waive their seniority rights to join the Mutual Matching pool.  This is fraught with danger.  We all know how much pressure principals and other administrators bring to bear on teachers to “volunteer” for the latest pet project or “silver bullet” campaign.  Once teachers start giving up their seniority rights, it will be a huge fight to get them back.  The District will grab this opening and, having already established its power to impose, will turn the trickle into an all out assault on seniority.  It was bad enough that they were considering this before the forum.  But why, after not raising this during the forum, was this privately floated again as soon as the teacher participants filed out?

The current OEA leadership has insisted for years that OEA needs to collaborate with OUSD administration “when it’s in our mutual interest”.  They have said that OUSD superintendent Tony Smith “is not the enemy; he’s on our side” (for example, at last spring’s OEA-sponsored Town Hall meeting).  They have partnered with the district around a “Teacher Effectiveness” task force.  They have worked with OUSD on developing the Mutual Matching framework, and agreed to let OUSD pilot it.

Meanwhile, Tony Smith and the school board have played hardball. They have closed the Adult Education program, which served 25,000 students when Smith took office in 2009.  They are closing or reorganizing twelve schools this year and at least 25 more in the next two years, while more charter schools open.  They have reduced the number of nurses, counselors, and psychologists to a dysfunctional minimum. They have refused to make a decent contract offer to Oakland teachers (who are the lowest-paid in the county and among the lowest-paid in the state).  Instead, they imposed terms on OEA nearly two years ago, and now they’re trying to hit harder and harder.  Now Smith and many principals blame union contracts for low student achievement, and call for immediately rewriting all contracts (see accompanying article).  Now they refuse to arbitrate grievances, meaning they can violate contractual rights with abandon.  Now they want to eliminate seniority – that’s the meaning of Mutual Matching.

For years, OEA leadership has given OUSD administration – and especially smooth-talking Tony Smith – the benefit of the doubt.  OEA has stressed the importance of collaborating with OUSD.  But collaborating with an opponent intent on undermining the union can only end in disaster.  It is well past time to bend the stick in the other direction. We warn that many principals, with encouragement from Smith and his managers, are using site collaboration to pressure teachers to voluntarily agree to allow erosion of teaching and working conditions – for example, to make “staff agreements” to longer work days and / or longer work years at reduced pay for the extended time; for consultant-led rather than teacher-led Professional Development; for orienting instruction around districtwide exams; for accepting incursions from cyber learning / robot instruction; etc.

And while OEA has been campaigning for adequate funding for public education and other vital services from the 1%, where have Tony Smith and the school board been?   Contributors to this newsletter founded the OEA campaign to “Bail Out Schools, Not Banks and End Foreclosures”, and several of us were arrested last May when we occupied Wells Fargo’s downtown Oakland branch to call attention to our demands.  We have campaigned for years to get funding from the banks, from the Port of Oakland, and from the corporations that pay the city little or no tax.  Tony Smith and the school board have never participated.  They just turn their pockets inside out, cry that there’s no money, and tell us that we have to pay.  Some collaboration!

OEA has a vision for what schools should look like and how they should function – the OEA Vision.  We should all be clear that this is not a vision shared by OUSD.  Let’s not continue to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Let’s understand that they are using “collaboration” to induce us to agree to projects that are harmful to students, communities, and teachers: downsizing, charterizing, privatizing, and union-busting.

When we’re offered a decent contract; when the consultants and privatizers are shown the door; when strong guarantees for education focused on developing students’ conceptualization, spirit of inquiry, and creativity have replaced the current too-prevalent emphasis on test scores and obedience; when OUSD respects schools as communities of students, parents, teachers and staff; and when district administration fights for the funding needed to provide resources, programs, and staffing – then we can consider giving OUSD administration the benefit of the doubt.

Charters Divide and Conquer

5 Feb

Written by an anonymous Oakland substitute teacher

Oakland, California has always been a hotbed for radicalism.  On the morning of October 25th 2011, the Oakland Police along with numerous other police agencies “broke-up” the first Occupy Oakland encampment.  Later that night an ex-marine almost lost his life after being struck in the head by a “non-lethal” projectile fired by the police into a crowd of peaceful protesters.  The following night, October 26, saw a crowd of near 3,000 retake Oscar Grant Plaza (formerly Frank Ogawa Plaza) and vote for a November 2nd General Strike in response to the outrageous police violence from the previous day.  Also that night, not too far from where the historic Occupy vote took place, another vote decided the fate of five public elementary schools in Oakland.  The Oakland School Board decided to close these schools saving a mere two million dollars.  At that same meeting there were several charter representatives applying for charter school renewals.  The growing divide between public schools and charter schools was on full display during that contentious meeting.

As a teacher who has taught for both types of schools, I am not inspired by either model. However, where I have criticisms of the public school system, I am completely against the corporate charter model. Specifically – the nationwide ‘Knowledge is Power Program’ Charter Schools (aka KIPP) and California-based Aspire “Public” Charter Schools, who both list the following as “partners/investors” on their respective websites: The Walton Foundation (Walmart), The Broad Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft), The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Goldman Sachs Foundation, The Prudential Foundation, The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund (Gap/Banana Republic/Old Navy) and the Wells Fargo Foundation.  It is to these two charter school organizations that I chose to direct my attention.  The ruling-class – banks and corporations – that are directly responsible for creating the current conditions in urban public schools, are now investing billions in these poor working-class communities.  They maintain a facade of “concern” about the state of public education, all the while viewing these schools and students as material for making profits.  Through the lens of personal experience I will shed light on the questions of how and why these corporations are choosing to invest in the education of the working class.

Divide and Conquer

The ruling-class has always been very successful at producing and reproducing the divisions necessary for capitalism to exist.  Although public education has the potential to produce a unified working-class, it has always been ran in the interests of the wealthy.  The wealthy depend on class divisions to produce their billions in profit from the exploitation of a divided working-class.   As these class divisions, as well as race, gender and other social divisions, serve as the foundation of capitalism.  Public and private schools have always produced and reproduced these divisions, and charter schools are no different, especially the KIPP and Aspire models.

It is important to point out that not all charter schools are tied to ruling-class foundations. There are some that attempt to utilize a critical pedagogy in the interests of “progress,” “social justice” or some other loosely defined ideal.  Unfortunately, these schools are mostly isolated and often have a hard time maintaining enough public and financial support to stay open.

In conclusion, these ruling class banks and corporations are now directly investing in poor working-class education because they want to play a more direct role in producing and reproducing the inequitable conditions that allow them to enjoy record profits.  They are comfortable at the top and now have the legal structures (i.e. tax loopholes) that allow them to stay at the top.  As a teacher with experience working for KIPP, and to a lesser extent Aspire, I want to give readers a sense of why I came to this conclusion.  But before I go into these lived experiences I want to explain how these corporations, through philanthropic foundations, are able to open and run charter schools in these communities.

With foundations like these…

The current tax system allows for corporations to avoid being taxed on their profits by setting up foundations for charitable purposes.  For instance, Walmart is allowed to put a certain percentage of their profits into The Walton Family Foundation to avoid being taxed on these profits at the government’s current rates. These millions to billions of dollars that would otherwise go towards state tax revenues for necessary social services are now put in foundations who are only mandated to give six percent of those profits annually to charity.  These foundations both allow for corporations to maintain their positions atop the ruling class and manipulate education to serve their interests.[i]

The Knowledge is Profit Program – aka KIPP Schools

KIPP is a huge chain of 109 charters enrolling 32,000 students in all grade levels, with a majority of middle schools.  They serve 95% African  American and Latino students, 80% of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch.[ii]   I worked at the KIPP charter school in West Oakland for one year.  In that short time I knew this was not the type of school I wanted to work for, that this was not the model that would lead to any kind of wide-scale “educational progress” for working class Black and Latino students.

The KIPP behavioral model insures that the students will know one thing before they leave, conformity.  The typical KIPP school day is based largely on how well students are able to stand in a straight line and “assign themselves” while in line.  “Assign Yourself” is the language a KIPP teacher is required to use to let a child know that they must also be reading or working on homework while in line.  Each class must assemble outside the classroom in this fashion before a lesson can begin.  On average a KIPP student is denied at least 15 to 20 minutes of learning per day as they wait for fellow “KIPPSTERS” to assemble in a straight, silent and active line.  Of course this is my personal experience and may not be reflective of all 109 KIPP schools.  Yet, I do feel that the KIPP behavior management model is designed to produce uncritical conformist students who are “prepared for college.”  If these students never make it to college then they are readily prepared for a future of conformity in the service, military, or prison industry which are always in need of workers, soldiers or prisoners, disproportionately made up of working class people of color.

Seeds of Elitism

I want to highlight a situation I experienced during my year at KIPP.  The school shares their campus with West Oakland Middle School, a traditional public school.  This situation, where different schools share the same campus, is quite common in today’s educational landscape, a landscape that has seen the rapid rise of charter schools.  Anyone visiting the campus would notice the difference in student behavior in the hallways of the two different schools.  What that visitor would not notice is the way KIPP teachers and administrators use the less disciplined behavior of the West Oakland Middle School students to instill a sense of elitism in the “KIPPSTERS.” I constantly heard the KIPP staff tell the students how they are better than “those kids.”  Many of these students are from the same neighborhood.  However, during the school day, KIPP students would be told that they are not like “those kids” and any unruly behaviors by “KIPPSTERS” would be equated with the behaviors of the West Oakland Middle School students.  Then, after school, the students of both schools would walk home together and play at the same parks.  This imagined elitism being sold to charter school students is another example of the many divisions produced and reproduced daily in the capitalist education system.


Aspire Public Schools is another California based charter chain that, like KIPP, serves primarily impoverished black and brown youth and follows their self-prescribed “College for Certain” model.[iii]  At Aspire as well as many other charters, “open” admissions is a lottery process that the school claims is “random drawing” while, at the same time, stipulating priority to “founding families” and residents of the district. My brief experience with Aspire Schools came in the form of an interview for a teaching position at an Aspire school in East Oakland.  During my interview, I asked the Assistant Principal about the demographics of the school.  He informed me that the majority of the students were from Latino families.  The neighborhood surrounding the school is split between African American and Latino families.  I asked him if the school demographics have created any tension within the community.  His answer was, of course, “yes.” He went on to describe the piece of land that was being coveted by the charter school for use but belonged to the African American Christian Church next door.  The church was concerned that this school serves almost exclusively Latino students in a racially diverse neighborhood.  I don’t know the outcome of the conflict but it leads me to wonder, how is it that this alleged “public random drawing” continually favors one ethnic group over the other in an ethnically diverse area?  I don’t have the answer to that question, but I’ll assume it has something to do with test scores.  Whatever the reason, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that this “lottery” system results in tension between African  American and Latino families in the surrounding neighborhood.


The experiences I have had working at KIPP and interviewing at the Aspire School leads me to believe that charters are doing a great job of producing and reproducing the divisions necessary for capitalism to survive, whether it is African  American and Latino families struggling for scraps from the table of big banks and corporations or KIPP middle school students being misguided to believe in their superiority over traditional public school students.  These are only two of the many divisions being produced by the wave of charter schools that bring a divide and conquer tactic to education as well.  This corporate colonialism looks like primarily white ruling-class foundations backed by big business operating in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Of course there are many families who swear by the KIPP and Aspire Charter Schools.  I have heard many parents refer to KIPP and Aspire Schools as a blessing.  This is why we must provide these critical perspectives to all working class parents whose students go to public, private or charter schools.  The more students, parents, and teachers know about the ways in which the ruling-class divides us, the better chance we have of forming a unified movement to confront these divisions.

[i]       The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, ed. Incite! Women of Color Collective, South End Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007


A (Brief) History of the State Takeover of OUSD

5 Feb

Written by an anonymous retired Oakland teacher 

For years, the Oakland Unified School District has been a laboratory for the corporate education reformers’ assault on public education.  This trend accelerated in 2003, when OUSD was taken over by the state of California, which promptly turned the district over to the nation’s leading advocate of the “business model for education”, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad.

OUSD was allegedly taken over by the state because of a $37 million deficit.  All power was put in the hands of a state-appointed administrator, Randolph Ward, then an intern in Broad’s Urban Superintendents Academy.  State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, whose election campaign had been financed by Eli Broad, asked Broad to name the state administrator.  Ward brought in Broad residents to run human resources, labor relations, finance, and the small school incubator.  When Ward left in 2006, another Broad Academy graduate, Kimberley Statham replaced him.  She left after a year, and her successor was yet another Broad Academy graduate, Vincent Matthews.

Ward and his successors laid off school custodians, security guards, clerks, and food service workers, and outsourced their work to private companies.  They closed school libraries, “reconstituted” or shut down nearly half of all public schools, and cut electives.  They imposed scripted learning geared to high stakes tests.  They drove out veteran teachers, replacing them with Teach for America and New Teacher Project interns.

By 2009, when the state returned governance to the school board, enrollment was down to 38,000 (from 55,000 in 2002), while charter school enrollment quadrupled (from 2,000 to more than 8,000).  About 18% of Oakland students are in charter schools – the highest percentage in the state.  The cuts and downsizing notwithstanding, the district’s debt tripled under the state takeover.  That money went to contractors, consultants, and excess administrators.  Oakland spends double the California school district average on contracts and double the average on administrators.

Although local control was returned, the battering has continued.  OEA has been without a contract for more than three years.  Teachers work under terms imposed by the school district.  The district has increased class size and enforced low pay: the OEA contract included class size limits which were eliminated when the district imposed terms, and Oakland teacher salaries are the lowest in the county and 20% below the averages for California public school teachers.  This brings us to the current juncture.

ARAM MENDOZA: Debt and Austerity in OUSD

5 Feb

Aram Mendoza is a high school teacher in Oakland

Across the world, cities, states, and entire countries are facing crises of governmental debt and financial chaos. Whether it’s the ongoing budget crisis in California, the social war in Greece over how to manage the unpayable debt the country is facing, to the failure of European financial institutions, to the rising prices of basic foodstuffs in countries such as Mexico and Egypt, our world is facing a crisis of capitalism and human life that needs to be understood and challenged.

The present situation in Oakland schools is no exception. In 2003, the state of California took over the Oakland Unified School District with the supposed intention of stabilizing the district’s financial situation. The result of 6 years of state takeover was a tripling of the OUSD’s debt from around $35 million to over $100 million! Now the district is in a situation where it must pay $6 million each year in order to simply pay the interest on the debt. The response of the OUSD board of education is to implement austerity – that is, carry out a series of reforms aimed at closing schools, attacking unionized education workers (from custodians to teachers), and to continue handing out costly contracts to private educational firms.

The board of education claims that their hands are tied, and they tell us that there’s no money to be found, and the real decisions are being carried out in Sacramento. Politicians in Sacramento tell us that they’re doing as much as they can and that the problem is at the federal level. The federal government says that we need to “live within our means,” and what they really mean is that working people need to take the cuts without standing up, while they continue to make the problem worse by bailing out financial institutions that have been responsible for much of the economic chaos in recent years. But, how is it that they’re making the debt problem worse?

The first thing we must recognize is that the government primarily draws its money from one source: taxes. Two principle forms of taxes are income taxes and corporate taxes. If you begin to consider the fact that corporations across the board have received tax cuts and bailouts, while unemployment has continued to rise, then it’s clear that the problem of government debt cannot be fixed under the present conditions. So what does the government do? It sells bonds, which are pieces of paper that promise that the state will pay back the price of the bond plus interest.

The federal government has sold over $1 trillion dollars in bonds to China, $979 billion to Japan, and $408 billion to the United Kingdom. The main way that the government has attempted to deal with its massive debt has been to cut billions of dollars ($38 billion in 2011) to the public sector – including education, health care, and public infrastructure, as well as to continue selling Treasury bonds which lead to increased amounts of debt. Without serious taxation to the richest 1% of the US, these bonds will never be paid back, and the government will only increase its debt.

In 2004, Schwarzenegger sold $15 billion worth of state bonds in order to cover $9.2 billion of state debt, creating the conditions for cutbacks to social services within the state. Then, when the housing bubble burst in 2007 and the financial markets nearly collapsed in 2008, the state’s tax base contracted, shrinking revenues and increasing deficits. But instead of bailing out state and local budgets, the federal government bailed out the “too big to fail banks” with trillions of dollars of loans. It’s within this context that the increase of the OUSD debt under the state takeover must be seen as a preview of the situation that the whole world faces: an economy that borrows money in order to pay back debt, and implements austerity programs based on cuts to services such as education and health care, as well as attacks on labor unions and workers in general. The priorities of politicians are serving the 1% of capitalist business owners at every level – federal, state, and city governments.

What can be done about this? Parents are issuing a recall of the school board members who chose to approve the closing of 5 elementary schools. The OEA has carried out a campaign targeting Wells Fargo, one of the largest recipients of the hundreds of billions in bailout money and demanded that they bailout education. Occupy Oakland has shut down the port to highlight the fact that massive profits are made circulating commodities, while zero percent of those profits have gone towards helping public schools in Oakland. Parents, custodians, teachers and students share a common interest in fighting these cuts and demanding that the school board refuse to keep us enslaved to the state debt. School board members should stand on the right side of history and refuse to pay the debt; they should choose to target the 1% as the means to provide for Oakland’s children. If they don’t, then it should be clear that they are direct participants in the strategy of austerity and we should be organized to connect the dots ourselves as working people. It’s become increasingly clear that debt-driven capitalism is the problem we’re facing, and we need to understand our power as working people in order to figure out a solution.


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