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

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

January 24, 2019

Fighting for its life and flexing its power, the Roots school community shuts down a school board meeting

By Seth Byrd

A united, militant community is fighting back against racist privatizers and their school board cronies.

On Wednesday night, hundreds of students, parents, teachers, and community members packed the gym of La Escuelita elementary school, near Lake Merritt. They were there to send the school board a clear message: keep Roots open. Circling the gym, they held signs and chanted “We are Oakland, keep Roots open!” and “Don’t close Roots!”

The direct action shut down the meeting for hours, forcing the captive school board members to listen to public outrage against the closure. Roots Elementary is just one of 24 schools slated for closure in Oakland. Despite vocal opposition from students and parents, the school board is pushing ahead in an effort to close the schools. The decision to close Roots was made entirely behind closed doors, without the input of parents, students, or the teachers who will lose their jobs if the school closes.

But why would the board want to close 24 of Oakland’s 87 public schools? Closing schools is just one part of a larger effort to tear apart public education in Oakland and sell it for parts. The majority of school board members are funded by billionaires and their foundations and non-profits, and the school board’s commitment to closing public schools follows the school-privatization agenda of these ultrawealthy donors. When a public school is closed, the building can be sold to a charter school, and charters can pick off displaced students (and the state funding that goes with them). Charters are less likely to admit students with disabilities, who then attend underfunded public schools in greater numbers, leading to these schools being labeled “failures” so that they can be closed, continuing a deliberate cycle that is destroying public education in Oakland. Quinn, a math teacher at Roots, called charters “a means of privatization,” noting that they often exclude children with disciplinary issues. “We take everyone,” she said, “that’s the essence of public schools.”

“This school closure is just one piece of the school board’s push to destroy our public education system,” said Kate, a second-grade teacher who was at the school board meeting.

In Oakland, this model is pushed by GO Public Schools, a pro-charter front group funded by the family foundation of billionaire T. Gary Rogers. Billionaires like the Rogers family and the Walton family push charters for a few reasons, all of them having to do with their bottom line: teachers in charter schools are rarely unionized, meaning they have lower wages and benefits, which saves the wealthy a lot in taxes. Charters don’t educate students any better than traditional public schools, and they are not publicly accountable, making it easier to deny children the critical thinking skills they need to challenge the world as they grow up.

“In 2012 I saw the same thing happen,” one community member at the meeting said, “The parents cried, the kids cried, but they closed the school anyway.” What they couldn’t have expected this time was the almost four hundred working class students, parents, teachers and supporters who shut down their meeting.

After shutting down the meeting, students formed a circle of chairs in the center of the room where they spoke about their love for Roots and the Roots community. When Board of Education members entered the circle, the students spoke directly to them, calling out their agenda and their motivations. “I thought that OUSD was supposed to be for our education,” one Roots student said, “but now our education is being taken away.”

The board claims the move will save the district money, but the community – and the school board’s own budget – disputes that claim. “The school closures are only going to save $81,000 dollars,” said Yota Omosowho, a high school senior and student representative to the board. “[The community] is telling us ‘We need this school!’ If you’re choosing to close it, you’re saying ‘I don’t care about what you need, I care about this money.’” Board of Education President Aimee Eng, who is endorsed by GO Public Schools, later confirmed the figure, but claimed more savings would become apparent in future years. Small comfort for the kids and parents.

While the school closure may or may not have any impact on the district’s’ finances, closing Roots – and every other public school in Oakland – is good for the billionaires funding the school board and is a brutal assault on the students, parents, and teachers, of Oakland.

Teachers in Oakland are already organizing to fight the privatization movement in the district – in early February they will be voting on whether to strike for more services for students and pay that will keep teachers in the district, both of which would help stabilize public schools and build power for a larger fight to refund public education in California in the years to come.