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East Bay DSA

November 25, 2019

Billionaires’ agenda to own Oakland schools: the Blueprint Plan’s 24 proposed school closures

By Katie Ferrari

On Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, six parents and educators were arrested by the Oakland Unified School District police. Their crime? Protesting the latest round of school closures and consolidations, laid out in the billionaire-approved Blueprint Plan, at a public school board meeting.

This is the third article in our series about the school-closures crisis in Oakland. Part 1 explored the racist underpinnings of the closures, and the role of privitazation in the district; Part 2 dug into the district’s own inadequate explanations for closing primarily black and brown neighborhood schools.

When parents and community members entered La Escuelita’s Great Room for the school board meeting on Oct. 23, 2019, they were greeted by something new: a line of police barricades separating the public seating area from the stage the school board members sit on. In the center of the barricades was a podium for public comment. The barricades were draped with green cloth, as if to add a layer of institutional decorum over the menace of steel, to try to hide all that police barricades signify. 

Over a month earlier, on Sept. 11, the school board had voted to close Kaiser Elementary and the School of Language (SOL) dual immersion middle school. In another attempt to mask reality, the board referred to these closures as “mergers,” since whatever community was left after the schools were shattered by their closure would get to regroup at another school: Kaiser at Sankofa Elementary, Oakland SOL at Frick Academy Middle School. The board did not have any agenda items pertaining to closures that evening, but community members had other plans.

During the public comments section, Stracey Gordon, a Kaiser parent, walked up to the podium. She read aloud a list of demands from Oakland Not For Sale (ONFS), a grassroots group of parents and community members fighting the closures. The demands were comprehensive: Halt all school closures until after the November 2020 elections. End the school-to-prison-pipeline instead of funding the Alameda County child probation camp. Stop the charter school takeover of Oakland. Involve the public in the district’s financial decision-making. Scrap the Blueprint Plan.

As she read the statement, parents and teachers joined her at the barricades. Police quickly formed a line across from them on the other side of the barricades . A tense pause followed the end of her statement. Then ONFS organizers Saru Jayaraman and Zachary Norris jumped over the barricades. Norris stood still as the police handcuffed him. Four police officers tackled Jayaraman as she tried to unfurl a banner, tearing the ACL and MCL ligaments in her left leg. Police shoved and clubbed the public, pushing a 9-year-old Kaiser student backwards onto a chair. Amy Haruyama, a first-grade teacher, was beaten in the stomach and knocked to the floor with a baton. 

Board members walked off the stage as the commotion continued. They resumed the meeting upstairs, broadcasting onto the televisions in the Great Room. When speakers decried the police response during public comments, board members cut off the mic.

Barricading Against Public Comment

The events that evening raise the question: why were there barriers and thirty police at a school board meeting? There are two answers to this question. The first answer is the district’s: the barricades and police were there to “protect the safety of the Board and allow public comment” because ONFS and allies had shut down the two previous board meetings to convene what they called the “People’s Board.” 

What the district neglected to mention was that ONFS had done this peacefully: when protesters sang and played instruments, the board got up and left. No board members were touched or threatened at any point during the action. The two student board members remained on stage, participating in the People’s Board and applauding the activists’ work, until Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell returned to escort them offstage. Parents, children, and teachers sat in the board members’ seats and opened the floor to public comments with no time limits. Steve Young, a Kaiser parent and ONFS organizer who was arrested that evening, recalls: 

“All the people who had been patiently sitting and being ignored by the board for so many months and years…were given their opportunity to state what their solutions were and where we need to go. It was an incredibly joyous occasion.” 

The scene Young describes leads us to the second answer for the presence of police barricades at a public school board meeting. The People’s Board did what the school board has failed to do year after year: listen to the people of Oakland. For years, the board has buried issues critical to the community at the end of lengthy agendas, in a clear attempt to stifle democratic participation. When the board voted to close Kaiser Elementary, the vote happened at 12:30 in the morning, with young Kaiser students in tears on the floor. Earlier this year, the Alameda County Grand Jury condemned the board, saying their “meetings and meeting processes create extraordinary burdens for Board members, the district’s management and staff, and the public.” 

It’s no coincidence the Board creates these barriers to participation and comment: they are at odds with the will of the public. For years, the board has presented plan after plan to close public schools, and the community has rejected and fought these plans. In 2011, the board wanted to restructure the district by closing between 25 and 30 schools. The district had 101 schools at the time. That October, the board voted to close five elementary schools, all of which were majority black and brown. When the school year ended, nearly forty people began a sit-in at Lakeview Elementary, one of the closed schools. For seventeen days, organizers ran a People’s School, offering free classes in social justice, art, and gardening to nearly thirty children. Support for the sit-in extended throughout the city. The Grand Lake Theater’s marquee read, “Why is Oakland closing schools while squandering millions on consultants. Support the sit in at Lakeview school.” 

In the early morning of Tuesday, July 3, 2012, police cleared the encampment. The sit-in was over, but community pushback and direct action accomplished what public comments during school board meetings could not: no more schools were closed.

Another Green Curtain: The Blueprint Plan  

In June 2018, another sweeping plan to close public schools emerged when the Board passed the Community of Schools Policy. The policy’s implementation plan, the Blueprint for Quality Schools, emerged a few months later. According to the board, the policy and plan were meant to coordinate public and charter schools and reach “a fiscally sound number” of schools in the district. The board identified 24 “excess” public schools, 17 of which were in East Oakland. The board did not consider cutting any of its 45 charter schools. 

Roots International Academy, a middle school in East Oakland whose student body was 29% Black and 60% Latino, was the first school to close under the Blueprint Plan. The board voted to close Roots in January 2019 despite a public outcry that included nearly 400 students, teachers, and community members shutting down a school board meeting. Oakland teachers took up the fight to save Roots during the strike, demanding a moratorium on school closures.

The Blueprint Plan, which ONFS and others are demanding be scrapped, serves the same function as the green cloth draped over the police barricades. Under the guise of creating “quality” schools lies a harsh reality that threatens Oakland kids: the Blueprint lays the groundwork for a “portfolio model” in Oakland. James Harris, current board member and author of the Community of Schools Policy, outed himself and the Board when he told Chalkbeat what he had learned at a conference hosted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education: his “biggest takeaway [was] don’t use the word ‘portfolio’ because it’s such a hot button.”

The New Orleans, Newark, and Detroit school districts have all been subject to the portfolio model, and have seen their public schools massively privatized and removed from democratic control. In a portfolio model, the public good of education is given over to “free-market” principles. Each school, whether public or charter, is viewed as a “stock” in the school district’s “portfolio.” Just as investors sell stocks that are performing poorly, a district closes schools that are deemed “under-performing” because of low test scores and poor attendance. This free-market approach ignores that test scores are more heavily correlated with income than with any other factor. 

The portfolio model is also antithetical to how teachers respond to struggling students: a good teacher seeks to provide more resources to help students succeed — not reduce or cut off their support. However, if the teacher and struggling student are in an allegedly failing school in a portfolio district, the teacher will find fewer and fewer resources at their disposal to help students. Eventually, the school will close. Students will be displaced, with no guarantee that their new school will be better than their last. When a district adopts a portfolio model, it begins to systematically starve its most underserved students. 

This systematic starvation is accelerated by the competition between charters and public schools. It’s a “loaded game,” Young explains, because “charters are given various structural advantages.” Charters siphon resources from public schools, public schools crumble and close, charters proliferate. As Diane Ravitch explains in her classic primer on privatization, The Reign of Error, portfolio districts and charters “promot[e] competition and choice as answers to the very inequality that was created by competition and choice.” 

The Billionaires Behind the Curtain

Every assumption upon which the Blueprint Plan is based is false. Closures don’t save money. Charters don’t improve the quality of education. Standardized testing is a deeply flawed metric for assessing a school’s success. The people of Oakland have rejected and fought every school closure plan. So why does the district keep pushing closures? 

Jayaraman, who has two children at Kaiser and is a labor organizer for restaurant workers, pulls back the curtain:

“There is a clear attempt by billionaires outside of Oakland to come in and drive this charter school agenda. They funded the current board’s campaign, so the current board members are beholden to the charter school agenda.” 

GO Public Schools, a charter advocacy organization, is the primary artery of this effort in Oakland. GO was founded by Jonathan Klein in 2008. Klein is a graduate of billionaire Eli Broad’s Broad Foundation, which trains superintendents with no background in education to run schools as for-profit businesses. GO is funded by education privatizers like the Walton Family Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Rogers Family Foundation, Michael Bloomberg, and the New Schools Venture Fund. 

This money gets pumped into Oakland school board elections. In 2018, Gary Yee received $149,368 in campaign donations from GO Public Schools. Jumoke Hinton-Hodge — infamous for choking a teacher during the strike — received $90,423 in 2016. James Harris raked in $122,967 from GO. The board members’ behavior –– consistently ignoring, and now assaulting, the public when it demands schools stay open –– illustrates public-education defender presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ point: “You can’t take on a corrupt system if you take its money.”

The Privatizer’s Playbook: From New Orleans to Oakland 

GO has been operating in Oakland for a decade, following the privatizer’s playbook typical of charter advocacy organizations. Jayaraman explains: 

“They choose districts that have high proportions of black and brown students, that are racially divided, where they can use race as a wedge to divide parents and communities and essentially make the argument that public schools are failing black and brown kids. Then they come in and take over those schools.” 

For decades, OUSD has traumatized and under-served children of color. The district has systematically disinvested in their neighborhood schools and then closed them. In this decimated educational landscape, charters appear to be a beacon of hope. 

They certainly seemed like that in New Orleans. Before Hurricane Katrina, standardized testing ranked the city’s highly segregated public schools as the second-to-worst in the state. In the wake of Katrina, the city’s 7,000 teachers (72% of whom were black) were fired, and the city’s public schools reopened as charters.

Today, the district is entirely charter. Neighborhood schools have been replaced with a maze of choice and questionable school rankings that parents find difficult to navigate. The number of black teachers in the district has dropped to 49.7% in 2019, and teacher turnover has nearly doubled. The result is a school system rife with segregation and inequity where the highest-performing charters are predominantly white. Black students make up the majority of the student body in “failing” charter schools. Charters are supposed to accept all students, but one-third of principals admitted to selecting students that would raise their school’s test scores. 

Amtrice Cowart, a New Orleans resident and graduate of the city’s pre-Katrina public schools, explained to Next City that better funding for the city’s public schools would have been a more effective solution than converting the district to charters: 

“It wasn’t as horrible as [charter school proponents] try to make it seem. We had great teachers. We had great things happening in our schools. What we didn’t have, honestly, was the resources and the money that these charter schools and charter boards were getting after Katrina.”

Cowart’s observation resonates in Oakland, where charters drain $57M from the district’s public schools each year. Fully-funded public schools could lower class sizes, increase class offerings, and ensure every school has a full-time nurse and librarian. California has the fifth largest economy in the world––there is enough wealth to give every single child in the state a superior education. If passed, next November’s Schools and Communities First ballot measure would increase state funding for education by $12 billion. 

Once funding is expanded, the primary obstacles in Oakland will be the city’s corrupt district and billionaire-bought board, which continues to push false solutions like the Blueprint Plan. In November 2020, the community has a chance to vote in four new board members. In the meantime, the fight to save Oakland schools will continue to be waged outside of the ballot box. Like so many working-class battles around the world right now, this fight continues to grow in no small part because of the electrifying joy that comes when people wake up to their shared power.