Who’s Schools? Not Ours.

How Oakland public schools and schools across the country are losing the battle against the free market

I’ve taught in Oakland Public Schools for several years, and in that time, I’ve seen the school district endorse and pursue policies designed to gut public education of any real value or liberatory use to students. It’s not just a question of the District caving to the national bipartisan pressures for education deform embodied in the most recent version of No Child Left Behind. The Oakland Unified School District, under its various Superintendents and abetted by its variously elected and appointed and — now — merely advisory school boards, has been pillaging the public schools for years.

In some senses, it has had little choice, because the funding system for American education is utterly fucked up, based as it mostly is on local property taxes. If you reduce property taxes, you starve public education. California chose, as a state, to do that in 1978 when it passed Proposition 13. Before that, California often ranked among the top of states in per pupil spending. Now, it is 47th or 48th.

If you listen to the endless shite every standard US political talking head spouts — from Bush, to Schwarzenegger, to the editorial page of any given corporate newspaper — you’d think that the USA was united behind the strongest initiative to promote public education since John Dewey. Everyone bellows that children are the future and education must improve — that students are being shortchanged by the way schools have been left to rot and starve. But when you pull aside the curtain of Babel, the reality heads in the opposite direction — the funds needed to maintain — much less improve — education have been systematically withdrawn. What explains this bait and switch?

Teachers in public schools — especially, although not only, urban schools — look at what is happening around us and conclude that public education as an institution may soon cease to exist. Some kids will still be educated well — if they can pay for a private school. Those who can’t will attend a hollowed out shell of a school, with exhausted and severely depleted missionary teachers. Public schools will be nothing more than holding pens for the unemployed of the future — in Oakland, for example, the African-American kids, the Latino/as, the Cambodians and Laotians and Ethiopians and Yemenis and Vietnamese and Hmong and on, and on.

How can this be? How has the government — in a wholly bipartisan way — succeeded in covering its intentions with plausible sounding language? School districts from Philadelphia, to Milwaukee, to Chicago, to Compton have come under the microscope of the politicians, have been declared “failures”, and have had “reform” imposed from without and from above. The reforms forced on districts all have in common the driving goal of saving money, most often by a twin strategy of weakening and ultimately trying to bust teachers’ unions, and closing public schools and replacing them with private ones.

Politicians use free market ideology to justify starving schools of money. This ideology holds that private enterprise trumps ANY public service. Everything should be privatized, because the private realm, motivated by the profit motive, functions more efficiently and promotes competition, which will bring about the best possible form of public education. “Failing” public schools will be outcompeted by semi-public charter schools which have been freed from the dead hand of bureaucracy (and also, coincidentally, allowed to select the students they admit by an interview process, which undoes the entire NOTION of a free, universal, public education). If public schools want to woo pupils, they’ll have to clean up their acts and whittle down their budgets.

Free market ideologues seek to degrade public services (in this case education) so that people will prefer the private option, along class lines — school choice and/or vouchers. As the school system crumbles, both in infrastructure and in content, people who have been materially “successful” can afford the private option, while people who cannot afford the private option are assumed to deserve the public schools which exist — and which are being continually run into the ground.

Politicians can’t SAY that, because it runs too clearly into problems of not only class divisions — which most Americans fail to recognize and deny the existence of — but into the realities of race and the resegregation of American public schools. So politicians call for BETTER schools, higher standards, more well-trained teachers, more uniform curricula, and more efficiency. They assert that money spent on public education should be tracked carefully and its effects measured quantitatively, as in any business. The slide between a rhetoric of praise for education and the reality of starving public education of funds is accomplished by the shift to a language — and to policies — which equates public schools to private enterprise. In many ways, this process is simply the logical end of the Free Market

Free, quality public education not only undermines the notion that the market is better for EVERY purpose, but it might actually produce critically thinking citizen activists who could come to QUESTION that ultimate “truth”.

My life as an Oakland Teacher

When I started, thrown into the deep end of the pool with nothing but an emergency credential, Oakland schools were in what seemed to be their perennial chaos. Classes had no teachers and were taught for the whole year by a parade of substitutes; teachers quit after a week on the job; schedules were made for the school year, and then “the button was pushed” at a particular site and the entire schedule was changed, so every student’s classes changed and often what the teacher was expected to teach changed, as well. Students were reading far below their own grade level, their math skills were poor, and absence rates were high. All those problems existed then, seven years ago. They exist now, too. Every District administration has tried to address those problems, but the way they have chosen to address them is essentially by lowering costs and “streamlining.”

The first blow (during the period since I started work in Oakland) was to streamline WHAT children would be taught. Their reading scores are low, their math skills are poor. Solution? Get rid of any EXTRANEOUS curriculum. They started with the middle schools, as their test, and when that succeeded (at saving money, not at raising test scores or reading levels) they began to extend it to the elementary schools, and they are eyeing the high schools for the next stage.

What’s extraneous? Anything that isn’t state mandated or Readin’, Writin’, or ‘Rithmatic. So where Oakland middle school students once had classes in art, music, foreign languages, and maybe real esoterica like drama or band, they now had one fewer class a day, and their schedule is: Math, Science, Gym, English, History, Reading. The periods were made longer — they still had the same minutes in school, and hey, that’s all that counts, is minutes in the seats, which translate into the OTHER major part of school funding in the US, “ADA” — Average Daily Attendance.

Federal dollars are apportioned to all schools in two ways. First, they’re given as “Title I” funding to schools assessed as having a high rate of students living in poverty, which itself is related to the proportion of students eligible for a means-tested free lunch program. Second, federal funding is based on how many students are at school on a daily basis. In urban school districts, many things cause children to miss school: frequent moves, becoming homeless, being sick for environmental causes (e.g. asthma, etc), being pulled out of school by their parents because of a lack of affordable childcare for younger children, and so on. This means that a district where there is a lot of instability is penalized and receives LESS funding than a school in a district which is say, suburban, where kids don’t move as much, aren’t sick as often, aren’t needed at home, etc.

Eliminating art, music, foreign languages, and that extra class period had one other bonus benefit, as well: it lowered salary costs because it meant teachers (of art, music, French, Spanish, etc.) were laid off — or had the seniority to bump someone ELSE into being laid off. It also meant that middle school teachers lost one of their two contractually mandated conference periods — non-teaching time when teachers could meet with parents, plan lessons, and take care of administrative tasks. Again, this meant fewer teachers would be needed and salaries could be eliminated.

This first assault was before No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Oakland led the way. Also before NCLB, the state of California passed the Immediate Intervention for Underperforming Schools Program (IIUSP). Schools with low standardized test scores were identified as IIUSP schools, and shown both a carrot and a stick. The carrot was money for the schools to get themselves back on track. That doesn’t sound bad, but in my experience, it translated into about $45,000 for a consultant firm to be brought in to tell us how to improve ourselves — the managerial model — and endless meetings creating school plans that were then tossed out the next year by a new principal. This happened at least twice at the school I was at, where we had four principals in six years.

The stick was that if test scores didn’t show improvement over a three year period — by some special formula that was calculated for each school — then the school would face forced restructuring. This is pretty much exactly what NCLB also offers, although No Child Left Behind adds many, many other benefits, like permission for high school senior males’ names to be automatically forwarded to the armed services for ease of recruiting, limiting guidelines on curricula, and “school choice” — actually is a scam to undercut public education.

Oakland, unsurprisingly, had dozens of IIUSP schools. Most of them tried hard to fulfill impossible criteria. The instability of site administrations and the continual cuts in funding made improvement next to unachievable, and in any case, the whole point of judging any poor or inner city school by its standardized test score results is to ENSURE that it fails. By definition, any norm-referenced standardized test MUST have half of the people taking it “fail” — if too many students get a response right, it’s thrown out.

Union Busting

In order to have the business flexibility to implement much of “No Child Left Behind” — as well as all the other cost-saving measures — Oakland Unified needs to weaken, and would ultimately prefer to destroy, the teachers’ union. Recent contracts have featured not only the same kind of concessions that most unionized American workers are facing — health caps, salary cuts, and speed-up — but have begun chiseling away at the very right to work according to a collectively bargained contract. If a school is transformed to a charter school, for instance, the teachers at that site have to reapply for their jobs individually, and waive their contract rights. That’s union busting, plain and very simple.

How did we get to this point?

Oakland Unified “lost” a hell of a lot of money a few years ago. It appears that previous district administrators were cooking the books— not necessarily to line their own pockets — but to fund hard won salary increases for unionized Oakland teachers. Oakland teachers got a pay hike — up to 17% over three years. The district, has been looking for ways to knock it back ever since.

Estimates of the missing money varied. $60 million? $40 million? $80 million? A fucking LOT, that’s all. The school board decided to ask for a state bail-out loan. It came with strings attached — a district takeover and an imposed State Administrator, Randolph Ward, who’d cut his teeth down south, imposing austerity and misery on Compton.

Ward has total control over the district, except perhaps for Jack O’Connell, the State Superintendent of Education. But within Oakland, he reigns supreme. At his whim, policies are in, or out. Schools are opened, or closed. Administrators are fired or transferred. And the general PHILOSOPHY of what public education should be changes.

A year ago, the Oakland Education Association, the teachers’ union, got copies of some documents from the weekly Principals’ Meeting — one was a primer on “Results Based Budgeting”, and the other was produced by the district’s legal department for the benefit of principals — sort of a toolkit to use to carry out the demands of the first document.

Results Based Budgeting, or RBB, is a metaphor. It is the supreme metaphor of our nation in these times, which is to say, the metaphor of the market. Schools, in this metaphor, are businesses. Instead of students, they have clients. Instead of education, they have product. Instead of learning, or skills, they have a “profit”, translated as standardized test scores (and attendance rates) that consistently RISE. Just like capitalism, schools that don’t make a profit with the inputs they’re given (with ADA money, with central funding), that is, schools whose test scores don’t rise and whose attendance doesn’t get up to 96% or above and stay there, should be closed. They have failed to compete.

To “allow” schools to participate in this grand new narrative metaphor, funding changes needed to be made. In the name of site-based power, funding should not happen from Downtown, but from the school itself. All funding. Including salaries. Instead of some faceless bureaucrat downtown cutting your funds for enrichment activities and field trips and library budgets, you can cut these funds yourSELF! And instead of some faceless bureaucrat downtown deciding between custodial services and campus supervisors, YOU (well, your principal) can decide.

But most importantly, instead of every teacher at every school representing a 6.0 hour full time employment “position”, whose salary is provided, calculated, and paid from downtown — now each teacher is paid out of the school’s own separate budget, which is calculated based on federal Title I funds, on property tax allocations (which are uniform) and on ADA funds (which are not). Teachers’ salaries are not identical, though. They range from cheap first year newbies through expensive veterans. If you’re the principal who has the power (and the only final power) to set the school site budget, what decisions about staffing do you want to make? Two teachers for $38 K each, or one for $55 K? Supposedly the contract prevents this kind of ruthless layoff for financial savings, because tenured teachers have safeguards to their jobs.

Ah… but that was the point of the SECOND document circulated at that principals’ meeting, which was a three page bulletin (with tasteful clip art illustrations) prepared by the OUSD legal department on How to Fire a Tenured Teacher. Three sheets, front and back, filled with tips on what you can fire them for, how to document it, what the timelines are, and what exact vague language in the contract works best (how about “failure to maintain an appropriate learning environment”?).

The race was on. How much could the district undermine teachers’ contractual rights so that this beautiful new machine of efficiency and cost-effectiveness would ease seamlessly into operation?

The answer has been revealed over the course of this past year’s negotiations for the new union contract. Ward, seizing the initiatives offered by the No Child Left Behind school choice options, has increased the tempo and is implementing the “penalty stages” in underperforming schools (remember, underperforming in the numbers game, not underperforming educationally, or socially, as part of the community these schools serve) before it’s legally required. He has proposed closing thirteen Oakland schools and transforming them into a sort of internal/external hybrid charter school, and although the district swore up and down that teachers in these schools would retain their union rights, the truth has now come out.

Teachers who want to stay at the schools they’ve been at, often for years, must reapply for their jobs, have no guarantee that they will get their job back, and must sign individual contracts. There is no union, if those are the conditions. Even the few schools which fought back and organized their own “small autonomous school plans” are being scrutinized and forced to participate in the involuntary transfer of key teachers. Ward is playing psychological warfare games with demoralized and angry teachers just when the contract negotiations have reached the point where what is likely to be a horribly concessionary contract offer will be made — with concessions designed to facilitate the destruction of the union and the further gutting of public education.

So what is there in Oakland schools? There are no electives for middle school students. There is a threat to the once-weekly electives for elementary students. There is a campaign to demoralize and force the departure of experienced, veteran teachers. There are cuts in funding to EXACTLY the stressed schools which most need more resources, rather than less, based on their failure to reach unrealistic Average Daily Attendance numbers — schools who didn’t reach the 96% target last year had this year’s budget cut by the percentage less than 100 that they reached, often up to 12% or more. There are “school choice” transfer policies that say that students have the right to change from their neighborhood school — if it’s “failing” — to a better school, which in Oakland often means a school in the middle-class hills areas, but there are nowhere NEAR enough spaces in those schools for the students who COULD qualify by virtue of being at a “failing” school. And there is a campaign to bust the union of some of the people who care the very most about the meaning of public education and the right of every child to an honest, liberatory, rich learning experience.

What’s happening in Oakland is being replicated across the nation. If we don’t want a school system which is segregated into public day care with some rudimentary instruction for the poor and private schools for the middle and upper classes, we need to begin fighting NOW. The Oakland teachers’ union has been organizing demonstrations in downtown Oakland and at the School District Administration Offices — go to them. Call the union — (510) 763-4020 — for information about a local coalition to fight Ward.