News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

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East Bay DSA

May 06, 2019

Everything you need to know about the proposed Oakland school closures (part 1 of 3)

They disproportionately affect black and brown students, they’re driven by privatization, and we have until August to get organized.

By Katie Ferrari

The 2019 Oakland teachers’ strike was a referendum on the future of public education in the city. The teachers and the community movement that united behind them fought for and won important concessions from the district, but everyone ended the strike knowing the battle against austerity in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) was far from over. This summer the school board will present more information about its plan to shutter 24 public schools, a blow that could lead to the entire district being privatized and charterized in the very near future.

In this three-part series, we’ll examine the long history of school closures in Oakland leading to the current crisis, the district’s faulty justifications for closing schools, and the real reason school closures are being pushed: to dismantle and defund traditional public schools, making space for charter schools that funnel public money and resources away from unionized workers and working families and into the pockets of billionaires. Or, to put it concisely, to turn a profit on children.

What Do Billionaires Have to Do with School Closures?

Billionaires control the Oakland school district in many ways, including directly funding local charter schools, as Bill Gates and the Walmart heirs have done; buying the school board through billionaire-funded pro-charter front groups like GO Public schools and its related PACs; and installing a revolving door of superintendents who hastened the district’s financial decline, many of whom were trained by billionaire Eli Broad’s pro-charter Broad Academy.

Why do the ultrarich care so much about closing Oakland public schools and replacing them with charters? The main reason is that teachers’ unions are one of the last strongholds of organized labor in America, and organized labor is one of the biggest threats to the power of the capitalist class. Charter schools are rarely unionized and are an effective tool to weaken unions. Charter schools, run by private corporations for private profit, also help weaken our collective sense that public necessities (like healthcare and education) should be provided outside of the market and that provision of these necessities should be democratically controlled.

A History of Displacing Black and Brown Students

Oakland has a long history of attempts to shutter public schools in accordance with the billionaires’ privatization agenda. In every instance, including this year’s proposal, the closures have targeted poor and working-class black and brown students. Between 2004 and 2019, OUSD closed 19 traditional public schools, all of which were in the flatlands of East and West Oakland and served majority black and Latinx populations. Sixteen of the schools were over 60% black and the other three were over 60% Latinx. Eleven of these schools reopened as charters within a few years, but the new charters served 62% fewer black students.

The 2011–12 school year was especially brutal. That year, the district wanted to close between 25 and 30 schools. Oakland’s working class community organized a tremendous fight to protect the first five schools on the chopping block: Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park, and Santa Fe, all of which were majority black and brown schools. The district shuttered those schools, but abandoned their plan for the other 25 because of community pushback.

Closures target working-class communities of color because billionaires see the intersection of racism and capitalism as fertile ground for pushing their anti-working class agenda. As Paul Heideman writes, “Because of both a racist culture in which the complaints of black citizens are taken less seriously than whites, and because black neighborhoods have fewer material resources with which to fight back, capitalists know that neighborhoods of color are softer targets.”

When the goal is the complete chartizerization of the district, what begins in the flatlands will eventually creep up into the hills, and by that point it may be too late to save the district.

The District Is at It Again

Building on the closure attempts of the past decade, in their November 2018 Community of Schools Citywide Plan, OUSD divided Oakland into five regions that they then analyzed according to enrollment. OUSD anticipated that, due to increased charter school enrollment and gentrification and displacement driving families out of the city, traditional public school enrollment would drop by 2023. (In the 2017–18 school year, 22.4% of Oakland’s students were in charters. The district reports that charter enrollment “grew by over 50 [percent] in the last 5 years” and expects it to continue to do so.) OUSD concluded that because of declining enrollment, they would have 24 “surplus” traditional public schools within five years.

The district has 87 public schools and 44 charters, but closing the charters has not been presented as an option. Instead, OUSD wants to close 24 traditional neighborhood public schools. Seventeen of the “surplus” schools the district plans to close are in East Oakland’s flatlands, where residents are largely black and brown. This is a textbook example of institutional racism.

After the community outrage over closure of Roots Academy earlier this year, the district has backpedaled, insisting that the plan is just a draft and that 24 is not a set number. Mike Hutchinson, who founded OPEN, Oakland’s Public Education Network, in response to the 2011–12 round of school closures, says, “Draft or not, it paints a clear picture of which neighborhoods will face closure and which won’t.”

What It’s Like to Have Your School Closed

School closures are incredibly disruptive and traumatic both to individual students and to the communities they serve. OUSD was originally designed as a system of neighborhood public schools, but the onslaught of charters and closures has warped that vision and harmed students both emotionally and academically. The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education found that closures present “social, emotional, and other non-academic challenges for 1–2 years for transferred students.”

The rate at which OUSD is attempting to close schools compounds these effects: students may be displaced from one school only to find themselves in another school that will close the following year. Ady Ríos, the mother of a seventh grader at Roots, recounts a phone call she received from Mark Triplett, the superintendent who oversees Roots:  

“He called me to offer me a school. He said he wanted to offer me Frick, and I said, ‘No, my son is not going to go to Frick because that’s not in his neighborhood, that is 18 blocks away from Roots.’ Then he said, ‘What about Oakland SOL?’ and I said, ‘My understanding is that Oakland SOL is closing too.’ And he said, ‘But not next year.’”

In a 2017 report, the National Education Policy Center described school closures as a “high-risk/low-gain strategy…that incurs hidden costs for both districts and local communities, especially low-income communities of color that are differentially affected by school closings.” Ríos works at the school-based health center at the Roots-CCPA campus and has witnessed the impact the closure is having on students:

“Right after the school closure [was announced], a lot of kids started getting into fights and getting suspended. Kids felt like, ‘They’re closing our school, so who cares? They’re going to send us to another school and we’re going to be the kids that are not good.’”

In the district’s eyes, Roots was an “underperforming” or “failing” school that needed to be closed because of low enrollment and poor test scores. Closing schools like Roots that never got the funding or support they needed to succeed misses the larger picture and sends kids the wrong message about themselves. Ranahan recalls that “when it was all happening, a lot of kids were saying, ‘We’re stupid, they don’t think we’re smart enough, we’re those kids, they don’t want us.’” Eve Ewing, sociologist and author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, succinctly challenges the notion of “failing schools”:

“So many schools have been deemed failures in ways that don’t account for the lived reality of the challenges they face. Some of these schools are the only places where kids are getting fed every day or where someone makes sure they have a warm coat or tells them they love them and they’re special, even as those schools ‘fail’ to raise that child’s test score.”

Despite promises to accommodate displaced Roots students, “70-80 percent of Roots kids were not placed in their first-choice schools,” Ríos says. Parents are very concerned that their children attend a school in their neighborhood. As of mid-April, around twenty Roots students still had not been placed in a school at all. Ríos’ son is one of those kids. “Everything that was promised that day that they came to tell us that the school was going to be closed, it was all a lie,” Ríos says.

Closures also hurt students by hurting teachers: Ranahan and the other Roots teachers have had to look for teaching positions at other schools in the fall. We fought for our students because they were being harmed and they were undergoing trauma and being displaced,” she says, “but the teachers are also being displaced and harmed.”

Tim Marshall, who has taught in OUSD for 22 years, recalls that after the school reconstitutions and involuntary teacher transfers that occurred in the late 1990s, “a lot of people who had been committed Oakland teachers decided to get out of Dodge because you could make more money in Hayward or San Leandro and you didn’t have to put up with being under the threat of privatization.” Oakland already has a teacher retention problem; continued closures could worsen it. Students need experienced teachers who stick around, not a constant turnover every school year.

In the end, Ríos says,

“The district did not help these kids. If anything, they put their hopes and dreams down. These kids already go through so much in their daily life, they already have so much going on at home, and then you’re going to come and close the only part of their life that makes them come here: the teachers love them and work with them, and you’re taking that away from them.”

All of Oakland’s children have the right to a free high-quality public education, regardless of their race or class, but the continued growth of charters and privatization in our district chips away at that right by pushing school closures and draining $57 million a year from OUSD’s budget.

In the next installment of this series, Majority will dissect the unsatisfactory reasons OUSD gives for the school closures that disproportionately affect poor and working-class black and brown students and drive public education out democratic control and into the market.
In the meantime, there are two opportunities to stand up for public education this month: on May 8th, there will be a family-friendly “Un-Welcoming Rally” in downtown Oakland for the first night of the New Schools Venture Fund’s (NSVF) conference. NSVF is a venture capital fund dedicated to expanding charters. On May 22nd, educators across the state will rally in Sacramento to demand full funding for public schools, accountability for charter schools, and social and racial justice in education.