Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
The Lakeview Sit-in lasted for 18 days from June 15th to July 3rd, ending in an arrest of a parent and a former student. The school board published a statement regarding the sit-in on June 22nd in an attempt to subdue the negative public attention they were receiving from the Oakland community in support of the Sit-In. Below is a letter released July 30th, 2012, by participants of the Lakeview Sit-in in response to the district’s statements. We also republished this in our most recent newsletter.
The parent-teacher-community sit-in and People’s School for Public Education at Lakeview Elementary, now entering its third week, continues to gather support. By the end of its first week, OUSD administration had already felt enough heat to post a Media Advisory on their web site trying to justify the closure of five neighborhood elementary schools, including Lakeview. OUSD admits that “School closure is a painful step,” but insists “By consolidating into fewer schools, we can invest in better, richer programs for children and families.”
But Tony Smith and the school board are doing the opposite. Rather than creating “better, richer programs,” OUSD is shutting down essential programs, programs that especially serve those most in need: the black and brown communities, students with special needs, single mothers, immigrants, and jobless adults. The school closures are only the latest step in downsizing of Oakland public education launched under the state takeover of OUSD (2003 – 2009) and continued under the Smith administration.
Since Tony Smith became Superintendent three years ago, OUSD has:
1. Dismantled the Adult Education program that two years ago served 25,000 students, a program that single mothers, high school dropouts, and immigrants especially relied on to try to escape from the clutches of poverty.
2. Removed class size limits and increased class size, despite the fact that small class size is strongly linked to student achievement.
3. Made harsh cuts to the early childhood program that working families desperately need and is closely linked to children’s future academic and lifetime success.
These program cuts, coming on top of the severe downsizing and privatizing under the state takeover (when many secondary school libraries were closed, counselor positions, electives, and vocational programs eliminated, and private contractors and charter schools ushered in), explain why, year after year, OUSD violates the state education code mandate that 55% of educational expenses go to classroom instruction. That’s the law, and OUSD administration repeatedly breaks it by diverting money to consultants and vendors that ought to be going to classrooms and kids. “Better, richer programs”?
The OUSD statement makes similarly hollow assertions about why they’re closing schools. According to OUSD, declining enrollment in the district has left them no alternative but to close public schools. This might be believable – if not for the fact that OUSD administration itself has been responsible for much of the decline in enrollment. Over the past decade, charter school enrollment in Oakland quadrupled (from 2,037 in 2002 to over 8,000 this year) and it’s going up again next year. Oakland has by far the highest proportion of students in charter schools of any urban school district in California, and the district has encouraged this trend. If those 8,000 students were going to public schools, there would be no under-enrollment problem at Lakeview or the other schools the district is trying to close.
OUSD says one of the main reasons for closing Lakeview is that too few students live within half a mile of the school. This might be believable — if OUSD were sending the displaced students to schools within half a mile of home. But they’re being sent more than five miles down the road — to Burkhalter Elementary. Or consider that the shutdown of Santa Fe Elementary means that there will be no public elementary schools north of Macarthur Boulevard and west of Shattuck Avenue. Students from this predominantly low-income black and brown area are being assigned to schools near the Oakland Coliseum, more than 10 miles away.
The OUSD Media Advisory also cites low test scores as a reason for closing Lakeview. This is disingenuous. The focus on high stakes test scores is used to punish schools in low income communities: it’s well establish that student test scores are primarily a function of parents’ poverty level. Nevertheless, Lakeview test scores actually increased, a remarkable achievement – as even Tony Smith admits – because the poverty level of Lakeview parents has increased.
The Smith administration has frequently repeated the claim that the school closings will save the district two million dollars. Two million dollars is not small change, but it is less than one half of one percent of the district’s overall expenditures. Smith and the board could have found the money to keep the schools open – had they been so motivated. Here’s proof: at last Wednesday’s meeting, the board overrode Smith’s recommendation and restored $1.75 million in program cuts to the Special Education program They were moved to do so by a powerful protest from Special Education parents and teachers. Smith recommended the cuts earlier this month after discovering a bookkeeping error that caused underestimation of expenses and therefore overestimation of available funds. But when the board voted to close the five elementary schools last October, they were unaware of that bookkeeping error. So they could have instructed Smith to allocate the $2 million needed to keep the schools open – just as they did for Special Education this past week. They could have kept the schools open. They chose not to do so.
Furthermore, the $2 million figure does not allow for the cost of installing portable classrooms to accommodate students displaced from the closed schools, which alone exceeds $2 million. Nor does it take into account the consequent loss of valuable outdoor space and the psychic and social costs of crowding students into large classes and overcrowded buildings. We all know – or rather, we all should know – that real schools and classrooms are incomparably preferable to portables, and that overcrowding schools hurts student learning and overall well being.
If they mean what they say about students coming first, and if they mean what they say about investing in “broader, richer” programs, there’s a simple way to prove it. Cut back on bloated administrative pay: make teachers’ maximum salary the maximum salary in the district. That would save around $10 to $20 million – enough to reopen all five elementary schools, restore allthe cuts to Special Education (the board approved Smith’s heartless recommendation to cut $2.1 million from the Special Education transportation budget), and get at least a running start at reopening libraries, restoring cuts to electives and to the early childhood program, reinstating custodians, counselors, and clericals, and starting to get the Adult Education program back on its feet. (But who would work for such a pittance, you might ask? Teachers. Clericals. Custodians. Instructional aides … All schoolworkers do. Why can’t administration?)
Tony Smith and the school board pass along the pain demanded by the Wall Street bankers, the Billionaire Boys Club, and the other powerful forces that are cutting public education to the bone as part of their deep cuts to so many of the essential programs that working families depend on in every area of life. It’s called “austerity”, and it’s the rich and powerful demanding that we pay for the crisis of their financial system – here, in Greece, Spain and the rest of Europe, and around the globe.
This society’s priorities are upside down, but Tony Smith and the school board never challenge them. Smith and the school board aren’t out there fighting for more money. They’re not prioritizing classrooms and kids over executive administrators and consultants. They don’t resist making the cuts. They just decide where to stick the knife.
We say, “Bail Out Schools and Essential Services, Not Banks”. No more multi-trillion dollar handouts for the bankers. Make them pay for what we need.
We say, “Repudiate the $100 million-plus state debt”. The state ran up 2/3 of that debt – $70 million worth – when it ran OUSD under the state takeover (2003 – 2009). They ran up that debt while closing schools and school libraries, while laying off support staff, cutting the number of nurses and counselors, eliminating electives and vocational programs. Where did the money go? To consultants and vendors; to highly paid central office “Executive Directors”. The working and poor people of Oakland are being told that their children must suffer for the state’s handouts to the private sector. We say, enough!
The sad truth is that the Tony Smith administration is taking public education apart and closing it down, piece by piece. Their statement is an exercise in public relations spin. Don’t buy it. Stand with, support, and join the fight to stop the school closures and fully fund quality public education in Oakland. Join with us at the Lakeview sit-in and People’s School for Public Education.
Jack Gerson is a retired Oakland teacher.