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May 13, 2003


A Cold Day for Oakland Schools

By David Friedlander (davidfreedlander@hotmail.com)

It was the strangest day in Oakland last Monday -- one moment cold and blustery, the next, slots of warmth coming out from behind twin office buildings; one moment the rain falling in giant sheets on the magnificent green hills and the hard scrabble sidewalks of the flatlands, and the next moment the sun angling from behind the clouds, smattering its reflection into puddles gathered on uneven pavement as if the whole city were made of glass.

It was on this day as well that hundreds of students from across East and West Oakland came out of their classrooms at the end of the day to march and chant in order to save their schools from the massive state hostile takeover that threatens to set the progress of educational reform in Oakland back at least thirty years.

At Urban Promise Academy, the school where I have had the privilege to serve as a tutor since its inception two years ago, students canceled their after-school classes -- basketball, capoeira, graffiti art, breakdance -- to join their parents, teachers, and community organizers walking through the streets of the Fruitvale district to hand out fliers to day-laborers, shopkeepers, and pedestrians to rally the State of California to, as they shouted in unison “Give us our money back!”

A reasonable enough demand. In late April, state officials froze $11 million in routine district expenditures without prior consultation or warning, which translates into no more books, no more dictionaries, no more necessary school supplies, and no more field trips for Oakland students, regardless of their importance to an even moderately successful end to the school year. At our school of 150 students alone, $80,000 of the student’s allocated money has been denied to them. This immediate demonstration of the primacy of the bottom-line in fixing our schools portends a dangerous precedent for this city in the years and decades to come.

School districts’ primary focus is on educating children, and in this respect the success of Oakland over the last several years has been remarkable. Eight new, small, autonomous schools have opened in the last three years, and eleven more have been approved for the future. Not only have they created a caring and academically rigorous learning environment for flatland children unable to afford parochial or private education and another option for parents reluctant to leave the city or the district, but they have also lessened overcrowding at large schools throughout Oakland, where for decades students had been warehoused in overcrowded, multitrack, year-round schools.

Concurrent with this movement, decision-making power has transferred from downtown to the communities and the schools, which are becoming the sole arbiters of their budget, staffing, and curriculum. As a result of this change, the number of teachers with emergency credentials has dropped by nearly 80%. The number of high school dropouts had been cut by 1/3, the incidences of suspension by almost half. Plus, the number of high school graduates that meet University of California or California State University requirements has jumped by 8%, and that figure is certain to rise.

Clearly, the finances of the Oakland School District are in disarray, as evidenced by our hat-in-hand $100 million bailout by the state legislature. Much of this deficit was inherited by the current administration headed by Superintendent Dennis Chaconas and caused by an antiquated accounting system, an overall economic slump felt statewide, and an anti-education governor who proposed cutting $14 million from the Oakland Unified School District at the guillotine of public opinion. It is feared that replacing Chaconas and stalling the hugely successful reform movement will clear up the district’s finances but muddy the district’s overall successes in educating children.

The improvements seen in Oakland are the kind that district administrators across the country would envy. Yet the man responsible for them locally is in danger of being removed from his post by a state-appointed administrator who will come to office wielding only a machete, taking aim at the bottom line, and ignoring the interests of children.

The reforms of Oakland have been incredible. Families have been returning their children to Oakland’s schools -- not to private schools, not to parochial schools, not to charter schools, all of which drain away money from the city and the school district -- but to locally owned and operated public schools, with teachers and administrators who are committed to their communities and want to change the system from within.

These improvements must not stop as they have elsewhere, most notably in the cities of Richmond and Compton, where state takeover meant improved finances but disaster for children. The very heart of this city -- its youths -- will be on the line in the next few weeks. Let us hope that the assembly has the wisdom to choose continued reform over simple budget calculations.