Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
Here is a new article by two Oakland educators that explores the recent local and national elections as it relates to public education. It touches on everything from Proposition 30, to Race to the Top, to GO Public Schools (an Oakland non-profit) which had an enormous impact on the recent Oakland School Board elections. We hope it sparks conversation and look forward to your comments.
Election 2012: The True Impact on Oakland Schools
By Margarita Monteverde and Felicia Vivanco
Over the weeks and months leading up to the November 6 elections, electoral politics dominated the conversation in the news, social media and discussion; a unique moment in a culture normally preoccupied with shopping and celebrity gossip. These conversations, focused mainly on the two party debate over the presidential race, have now all but ceased. With Obama’s re-election victory and the passing of California’s Prop 30 (which puts funds into public education through a sales tax increase and tax on the wealthy) many residents in Oakland and across California breathed a celebratory sigh of relief. However, the post-election rejoicing may be premature when we begin to take seriously the real implications that these policies and politicians have on our lives. While the Obama hypeovershadowed local elections, a traditionally less popular topic during election times, the Oakland school board race drew more attention than usual this year. This was due to the unusually large number of contested seats across districts and the historic amount of money poured into these races which often go ignored by the public. If we believe in fighting for quality public education for all, then it is important that we take a deeper look at the landscape that has led to our current situation and what has now been laid down by the 2012 election results as it affects public education locally and nationally.
Part 1: The National Landscape of Education Reform
To understand the potential situation we face in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) as a result of the elections we must investigate the place that the Bush and Obama Administration’s education policies have put us in and where they are leading public education nationwide. In his first term Obama upheld and promoted Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy, which was a major catalyst in pushing the rampant education reform policies we see today. These reform policies, backed by corporate foundations, like the Broad, Gates and Walton foundations, claim to have children’s best interests at heart. In reality, however, these reforms aim towards privatizing education by gaining corporate control over the education system. This is done through promoting the proliferation of charters rather than improving already existing public schools, limiting rights to collective bargaining for school workers, and using biased standardized testing to measure student, teacher and school success.1Arne Duncan’s, Obama’s Secretary of Education, program to “improve” upon NCLB is his Race to the Top (RTTT) Initiative, implemented in 2009, which simply includes an additional competitive element to the already malicious policy.2 Obama plans to expand this policy in his next term.3
Through Race to the Top, states must compete with each other for extra funding based on a certain criteria set by the Federal Government. States must plan and implement reforms that will supposedly increase standardized test scores and improve teacher evaluation systems.4Due to RTTT many states like Georgia, Illinois, and Hawaii have fallen behind in this contest for funds, having not met the reform standards or facing political resistance from teacher’s unions and some local politicians who see this policy as the federal government bullying local governments.5 Similarly to No Child Left Behind, local school boards are a step on the ladder to the implementation of these reforms. On the district level, Oakland has joined the group of school districts missing out on RTTT funding. Just this October, $15 million dollars for new math technologies in the classroom was lost due to the Oakland and San Francisco teacher’s unions’ refusal to adopt standardized test scores as a way to evaluate teachers. One might wonder: what do teacher evaluations have to do with money for new computers in math classrooms? For many this underhanded attack on teachers alluded to a hidden agenda behind these policies that is tied to the effort to privatize and thus dismantle public education in the US.6 NCLB and RTTT are the foundational forces that propel the pro-charter, anti-union, and pro-standardized testing stance of the school board in Oakland and across the country. These days the energy of local school boards is put towards finding a way to apply these federal policies across districts and on individual school campuses. This fact, in a sense, explains the victory of Oakland school board candidates, backed by pro-charter and corporate money, and gives a glimpse of how RTTT and NCLB may be applied in Oakland in the next four years. Knowing this we must keep our eyes wide open to what our government is implementing and planning at all times, not only during election season.
Part 2: Prop 30 – What it is, what it isn’t, and how it may affect Oakland.
After losing out on Race to the Top funding for the last three years and continuous cuts to public education, one way California attempted to deal with its $15 billion dollar debt in part was through the passing of proposition 30.7 Many, including administrators, teachers and parents, were hugely relieved by the proposition’s passing. Prop 30 prevents a $6 billion cut from the California education budget (mainly K-12) that would have drastically affected schools throughout California. This money is paid for by a combination of a .25% sales tax increase and additional taxation to people who earn over $250,000 for the next 7 years, starting retroactively from January 1st, 2012. It is estimated that these taxes will raise between $6.8 and $9 billion, of which 89% will go to K-12 and 11% to community colleges.8
Beyond that breakdown, where will the money be going and how will it be used in schools? In searching article after article, this information is hard to find, mainly because the money is already spent. Proposition 30 prevented cuts but it does not pour new funding into schools. The language of the proposition states that school boards and community college boards must hold open meetings to determine the use of funds. This language is ambiguous about exactly how much public participation will be involved.It is important that students, parents and teachers have a significant voice at these meetings. Are the current and newly elected members of the Oakland School Board really planning to get community input? The school board’s track record speaks poorly to the possibility of the school board seriously listening to the criticisms and suggestions of parents and teachers. We have seen their true disregard for community voices after a long year of marches, pickets, petitions and sit-ins against the school closures last year. We do know that K-12 schools are guaranteed $200 per student and community colleges will be given $100 and once again the question is: how will this be spent and who decides?9
One place that is clear this funding will go towards, although not explicitly stated, is charter schools. Proposition 30 funding is shared with charter schools as well as public schools. The newly elected school board will be a major decision maker in how Prop 30 funds are distributed. This could be a possible explanation for why the California Charter Schools Association donated $49,000 to pro-charter candidates in the Oakland School Board election. The candidates that are backed by the California Charter Schools Association are much more likely to distribute more funds to charters in Oakland. What does this mean for the next 4 years to have these candidates in office? School Boards do not govern or make decisions about the budget or daily operations of charter schools although they do make decisions about what new charter schools get approved. If charter schools already receive extra funding from sources outside of the district, should Prop 30 money go to them? Oakland already has 40 charters and 30% of all students attending them. When we look at the national trend towards charters in other cities like New Orleans, where they have taken over almost the entire district, what can we infer about the direction of Oakland? What impact will this have on the remaining public schools of OUSD?
Part 3: Oakland School Board Elections: Candidates, Money, and GO Public Schools
The Oakland School Board election this year brought to light the contrasting interests of the major players within the district. The unusually massive amount of money funneled into the Oakland school board elections this year, in part by the CCSA, begs the question, what are the political intentions of these generous donors especially now that all of their candidates have won? Great Oakland Public Schools (GO), a non-profit community advocacy organization founded in part by the ex-CEO of Dreyer’s Ice Cream, Gary Rogers, raised the largest amount of money, $185,000 for a slate of three candidates- Jumoke Hodge, James Harris, and Rosie Torres.10 All three candidates are avid supporters of Superintendent Tony Smith and his pro-charter and school closure policies.11 Most of the GO Pac funding was donated by only three sources, each giving around $50,000 – San Francisco venture capitalist Arthur Rock, founder and corporate entrepreneur Gary Rogers, and The California Charter School Association. The Managing Director of GO, Jessica Stewart, recently described the logic behind their pricey investment in the race: “The school board is really important in Oakland. They control a $600 million budget. They choose the superintendent. They just make really important policy decisions for our kids…. We’re just doing whatever it takes because this really matters. This is a one in four years opportunity to have four seats up on the school board. And we’re in this to win it,” she states.12
Now that they have succeeded, GO’s influence, be it negative or positive, in Oakland schools is ensured. This uneven amount of large campaign donations also brings up the question of equity, reminiscent to the controversy over presidential campaign contributions from corporate donors and super-pacs (public action committees where corporations can spend unlimited amounts of funds). OEA Vice President Steve Neat finds GO’s victory troubling. “It’s just not healthy for democracy when two people can come in and just flood an election with huge amounts of money. I’m sure they’re expecting to get something for that kind of investment. Nobody puts $50,000 into a campaign unless they expect something back in my opinion,” says Neat.13
In comparison to GO, the Oakland Teacher’s Association (OEA) raised around $20,000 to run an opposing slate made up of candidates very ingrained in Oakland’s working class communities of color and with real onsite experience in Oakland schools.14 The candidates were Thearse Pecot, a grandmother of students at the now closed Santa Fe Elementary, Mike Hutchinson an ex-after school teacher who taught at Santa Fe and other schools in the district, and Richard Fuentes the former president of the Hoover Elementary Site Council. Both Pecot and Hutchinson wereactive in last year’s struggle to keep Santa Fe and four other elementary schools open last year. The school closure fight had intensified community anger and criticism of the school board and increased public attention ofresistance to austerity measures, privatization, and attacks on teachers nationally and locally.15 The controversy over school closures has deeply influenced the school board race in a district where only 8 of the last 12 races were contested.16 This struggle put the district on the defensive, encouraged voters to pay attention to the race by illuminating the important role of school board members and the impacts of their decisions, and inspired more candidates like Pecot and Hutchinson to run. In the endOEA lost out. They were at a disadvantage not only monetarily but also because they havealready been weakened (like so many unions over the last decade) by austerity measures and strategic attacks by those in power on public sector unions.
The fact that GO and OEA challenged each other in this election has further fueled the rhetoric that parents and teachers have conflicting interests. Especially because GO has been somewhat successful in recruiting an economically diverse base of Oakland parents while OEA faces the same criticisms as other teachers unions nationally of putting teachers’ self-interests above student’s needs. This critique of OEA is rooted, however, in a false divide that mainly serves the interests of politicians and policy makers who would like to fracture any potential collective community power in order to push their education reform platform without opposition. Although they relate to children from different standpoints, both parents and teachers are deeply invested in the learning, development and lives of children. We have seen examples of parents and teachers effectively uniting to push back against school closures, standardized testing and the proliferation of charters like with the Chicago teachers’ strike this summer.
The polarization between OEA and GO is a cause for concern. What has made this polarization possible and what are the impacts of it?Shouldn’t an organization that claims to represent Oakland parents and teachers who trying toimprove public schools, be in support of the union’s slate, a slate that has teacher and student interests at heart? GO has had such an enormous and rapid influence in the district because they filled a void where there were no large fighting forces of parent and teacher organizations outside from the union who were doing citywide political work. The organizations that did exist prior to their entrance on the scene were various district led bodies such as the CAC, SSC and thePTA that have often been unable to challenge the district due to their ties with them.
The unsettling and bleak reality is that GO claims to be the voice of school communities that will push the district to provide quality education for all students while at the same time they are funded by the charter association andwealthy private donorswho do not represent the interests of the majority of Oakland’s teachers and parents. The politics of their candidates and on their website are vague. Jonathan Klein, CEO of GO Public Schools, speaking about the elections, said that the GO slate candidates would be involved in “generating resources, fiscal responsibility, and expanding opportunity across the city.”17 The language is so unclear that it does not communicate what kind of policies they really support. Where are the resources coming from? What will be cut to “ensure fiscal responsibility?” What kind of opportunities are being expanded and for whom? He also stated of the candidates that “with their support, we will advance policies and programs that give every child in Oakland an opportunity to attend a great school and help every teacher access the support they need in their classroom.” This statement, along with the image across their homepage stating “We <3 Oakland teachers” is hugely hypocritical and in direct contradiction to their overwhelming support of Tony Smith and board members that have kept Oakland teachers without a contract for 2 years. Groups that are truly invested in teachers have a responsibility to support and collaborate with the union in order to ensure working conditions that allow teachers to effectively do their job.
This election has shown us the power of GO to influence school board elections and has given us a more clear idea of their true interests and who is supporting them. These school board elections were a loss for those who want to fight for equal quality public education for all students no matter their race or economic status. We must take seriously the lessons we have learned. GO showed their true colors, strength, and influence. We must challenge their monopoly over the board and the way they have claimed a monopoly over parent voice in Oakland and expose their real intentions. Many teachers and parents outside of GO have their own visions for defending and transforming the education system that does not rely on charters and big money. We as parents, teachers, students and school workers, must consolidate these visions, give them form, visibility and connect them to action. We need to create our own fighting force, not dependent on institutional support, that is capable of matching GO.
The fact that one of the biggest monetary influences on the elections of the Oakland Unified School Board wasthe California Charter School Association (CCSA), while charters are somewhat autonomous from the district, helps us to understand exactly who is gaining power—charters—and who is losing power—the OEA—in this district. Part of the reason charters have this power is because we have not been able to form a clear alternative. A group that is able to represent and fight for the united interests of students, parents and teachers who want to defend a public school system (not give in to wholesale privatization) and also want a deep transformation that enables our students to receive the education they deserve.
There is something sobering about the truths laid out in this article that should temper the initial excitement and relief of many in the wake of these elections. We cannot afford to be complacent and satisfied simply because Obama has won and the Democrats have a majority. We need to understand the reality behind the policies and people in office so we can decide how to act in our own interest. We need to know and understand the implications around the fact that one of the biggest monetary influence in the Oakland school board elections was the California Charter School Association. This helps us to understand exactly who is gaining power—charters—and who is losing power—the OEA—in this district. We need to see that the reason charters have this power is because we have not been able to form a clear alternative or strong resistance to privatization. We need to believe we can build a group able to represent and fight for the united interests of students, parents and teachers to defend public education rather than wholesale privatization. A group that desires a deep transformation in the education system that enables our students to receive the education they deserve. This election paints a very clear picture of what is missing and how strongly we need to fight for Oakland schools in coming years. The stakes are high. One Oakland parent put it very frankly on a recent blog post when she said, “I expect that this new group will probably get quite close to finishing off the Oakland Unified School District.”18 What can we do to stop this? The first step is to educate ourselves and get organized to fight for the education system we deserve.