The fight for decent education in Oakland for all the students, not just those who are from privileged backgrounds, stretches back for decades.
We need to look at a little history in order to put the current Oakland schools budget crisis in perspective, see who really bears the blame for this predicament and pose solutions that will not make public education worse.
First of all, there were no good old days when the schools worked for everybody.
The old boy network ran Oakland’s segregated, tracked, over-tested schools through the early 1970s.
As the Black community became larger and more organized, African-American leaders were elected to the school board and they began changing some of these policies.
They hired more Black and Latino teachers; organized parents; demanded less racist curriculum; and ended the most explicit tracking. Yet change was slow and incomplete, partly because the worst policies were generalized throughout the state and defended by state institutions.
Soon after Oakland elected a majority non-white Board of Education in the mid-1980s, various state and local politicians started trying to get the district taken over by the state.
They had many motivations; a major one was the desire to control Oakland’s multi-million dollar budget. They used racism to paint Oakland’s people and leaders as ignorant and corrupt, harking back to the stereotypes used in the South to undermine Reconstruction leaders.
Unlike any other district in the country, Oakland was able to fight off state control for 15 years. This is one of the least known but most significant victories for Oakland’s oppositional political culture.
The most important reason for this success was the leadership of then school board president Sylvester Hodges who insisted that the district maintain a well-balanced budget.
He believed that take-over by the state would be the worst thing that could happen to Oakland, a position which was born out by later events in Compton, Camden, Chicago, and a dozen other mostly-“minority” school districts that were taken.
The take-over of school districts is essentially a form of racial voter suppression.
Hodges retired from the school board, and the relentless pressure for take-over continued with State Senator Don Perata and former Mayor Jerry Brown playing a major role.
They pushed out the budget-conscious Superintendent Carole Quan and brought in Dennis Chaconas Though a good educator in some ways, he did not keep the budget balanced, giving Perata and Brown he excuse they needed for state take-over.
I attended the Sacramento hearings and watched Democratic legislators dismiss the pleas of Oakland’s diverse residents with absolute disdain.
Perata’s resolution, passed by the State Legislature, forced the district to take a $100 million dollar loan, more than double the district’s actual debt.
The only stated reason for the take-over was financial crisis, which meant that the State Administrator’s main job was to reduce the deficit. In fact, the State Administration did massive district reorganization, abolished the power of the elected school board, began opening charter schools, fired experienced local minority administrators, closed schools and ran up an even larger debt than the original deficit.
In 2006, newly elected Mayor Ron Dellums went to Sacramento and told the state school superintendent that Oakland wanted its schools back. Assemblyman Sandre Swanson introduced a bill to return local control.
These actions combined with the many protests by residents and board members against State Supt. O’Connell led to his announcement that local control would be returned.
But local control was returned with a number of stipulations:
- Oakland had to pay off the inflated loan with interest
- A state “trustee” was appointed with the power to veto any aspect of the superintendent’s budget that was deemed to be overspending. The district was required to pay for the trustee, but the state hired the person. The only job of this this official, who currently earns $117,600 a year, is to make certain that Oakland’s budget stayed balanced
- The school board was forced to undergo training about its duties, which should not, according to the training, involve asking questions or disagreeing with the Superintendent in public. Board decisions on all major questions were supposed to be unanimous.
Given these constraints, major responsibility lies with the State of California, which forced the original loan, only returned limited control; and forced Oakland to pay for a trustee appointed by the state who did not do the budget-watching job for which she was being paid.