Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
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.