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, 2023

Oakland School Closure Plan Overturned In An Early Victory for New School Board Majority

By Michael Sebastian

Parker students marched with teachers and DSA members to Markham Elementary School last year to protest the closure of their school. (Photo: Stephanie Hung)

On January 11, Oakland’s educators and the community scored a signal victory in their years-long fight to end the closure and privatization of public schools. Within days of being seated on the school board, two new members endorsed by the Oakland Education Association, Valarie Bachelor and Jennifer Brouhard, joined a 4-3 majority to overturn last year’s school closure plan.

The closures faced mass opposition from parents, teachers and students, prompting protests and packed town halls. More than 2,000 attended last year’s virtual school board meeting on February 9, when the board voted to approve the closures. Public comments were unanimously opposed, arguing that the closures fell disproportionately on low-income, majority-black districts in Oakland, and were not needed in the face of a record budget surplus in California and a district superintendent with a base salary of $294,000. “OUSD has had a pattern of targeting schools with black and brown students populations for closures, effectively balancing the budget on the backs of our most marginalized students,” said Kampala Taiz-Rancifer, an Oakland teacher and OEA vice-president. “It has caused generations of harm.” The vote by the previous school board further eroded trust in a board seen as dominated by charter-school interests, setting the stage for the replacement of several board members in the 2022 elections.

This month’s vote reversing the closure plan saves five elementary schools that were slated to close this year: Brookfield, Carl B. Munck, Grass Valley, Horace Mann, and Korematsu Discovery Academy. In addition, the middle school grades at Hillcrest K8 will be preserved. The vote does not undo last year’s closure of Parker and Community Day elementary, and La Escuelita’s middle school. 

Manufactured Crises Pave the Way for Charters

Despite California’s chronic underfunding of public education, the debt piled onto OUSD when the state put it in receivership in 2003, and chronic deficits since then, the closure of public schools is not the only solution to fiscal woes. The crux of the problem is that the district is spending the money it does have on the wrong things: too many administrators and consultants who are not supporting teachers and students. As Majority observed in 2019, “OUSD spends $30 million more on its central office than other comparable school districts in California. In the 2014-15 school year, if OUSD had reduced its central office spending to the comparison group average, it could have freed up $14 million.”

In fact, closing schools is a false solution. Districts receive per-pupil state funding for the number of students attending, so the more students that the district cedes to private and charter schools, the less money it receives for public schools. By closing public schools, the district only encourages parents to seek alternatives since their child’s own school could be next on the chopping block. Oakland has become a “charter boomtown” according to one KQED report, and in the decade after 2000 the number of charters “more than tripled”. But charters have the option of picking children that do better in school and have less need for support. This leaves public schools in a self-perpetuating cycle, with more high-needs students and fewer resources to support them. Schools then have to cut back on materials and extracurricular activities, which further incentivizes families to leave.

OEA Fights Back

The Oakland Education Association, the union representing Oakland’s public school teachers, made its opposition to school closures a centerpiece of its seven-day strike in 2019. “For decades a grassroots movement in Oakland has fought against the forces of privatization for equity, local control, and well resourced neighborhood public schools,” said OEA president Keith Brown. “The power of this collective effort grew when community and labor joined OEA in our 2019 strike.” 

Brown noted that the strike “brought many improvements for students and re-energized our fight for education justice in Oakland.”  Among those improvements was a brief moratorium on school closures and charter school expansion, and a contract provision that required the district to give OEA and the community a year’s advance notice of its plans to shutter more schools to allow for full community engagement before a decision is made.

Last February, when the district violated that provision, the struggle continued to grow. Teachers and the community organized a week of action against school closures in February, including a mass rally and march, as two teachers at Westlake middle school held a hunger strike

Rally against school closures at Oakland city hall, February 2022. (Photo: R. Marcantonio)

These actions culminated in a one-day unfair labor practice strike on April 29 by OEA teachers protesting the district’s breach of the notice provision in their contract. 

Then, as Election Day approached, the California Department of Justice opened up a probe into Oakland’s school closures for potential violation of student’s civil rights, driven in part by a complaint filed by OEA. 

Winning Change at the Ballot Box and in the Bargaining Campaign

But the union’s efforts to protect Oakland’s public schools didn’t stop there. After a disappointing meeting in June in which the school board failed to reverse its decision, organizing efforts shifted to the school board election in November. 

OEA endorsed three candidates, Jennifer Brouhard, Valarie Bachelor, and Pecolia Manigo, who ran on a platform that included reversing the closures. Brouhard and Bachelor won their elections, shifting the balance of power on the board and culminating in this month’s 4-3 vote to reverse the closures. At the emergency board meeting, Bachelor called on “every single board member sitting here today to approve this resolution to make sure that we stop the harm that we’ve already caused our families and make sure that we support these school sites moving forward.” She noted that, “as a Parker Elementary School community member, I saw the devastating impact of the school closures on our community and I don’t want that to happen across the city, especially in East Oakland.”

OEA president Brown credits the reversal of the school-closure decision to “the people power of Oakland,” and he sees the fight of students, families, workers and community for “for equity, local control, and increased resources prioritizing students and families” continuing to grow. “The fight continues this spring as Oakland educators organize to win a contract that addresses the crisis in educator salaries and supports schools that are safe, stable, and racially just.”

As it begins bargaining over a new contract, OEA has put forward a “Common Good” proposal to diversify the curriculum, address racial disparities, and protect our public schools from closure. This plan calls for reinvestment in the Community School model, which has been shown to be a successful alternative to school closures, and received over $4 billion in new state funding over the past two years. The OEA bargaining proposal also outlines a set of guidelines to reallocate resources, consult with the community, and do a thorough analysis before any school closure takes place. Charter schools that do not meet AB1505 regulations would also be returned to OUSD. 

“This victory has been a long journey!,” reflected OEA second vice president Taiz-Rancifer. “Today we need to remember there is not one sole hero in this story. We need to acknowledge all the work done by so many advocates, organizers, parents, educators, and students who have put their hearts on the line and helped us get to this point. Today, we must remember harm caused to many families, school staff, and educators that have been affected by closures. Now and in the future we must stay vigilant because this is a victory in a larger fight against privatization in Oakland.”

Michael Sebastian is a member of the steering committee of East Bay DSA.