Oakland school district closures highlight worrisome future of public education

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On Feb. 18, I attended an Oakland Unified School District, or OUSD, board meeting, in which Oakland teachers, parents and students spoke for hour after hour, all saying the same thing: don’t close the Oakland schools. 

Students spoke about the friends and community they would lose if they moved; parents spoke about the hardship of sending their children much farther away to get an education; and teachers spoke about the difficulty of teaching in already overcrowded classrooms. It was clear, these closures would be a disaster for a vast community. 

After multiple hours of public comment, the board shut down the public debate with 77 people still waiting to speak. The board then voted against postponing the closure of 11 OUSD schools that serve mostly working-class communities of color. 

The Feb. 18 meeting was just the latest in the OUSD school board’s saga to shut down public schools. On Jan. 31, the board considered a proposal to close or merge 16 OUSD schools. More than 1,800 parents, students and community members attended the Jan. 31 meeting, staying until 3 a.m. to protest the school closures. But the board voted to move forward with the school closures regardless, scheduling a final vote for Feb. 8 — just a week later. Community members were given a single week to organize a response to these closures and have their voices heard. 

By early February, OUSD’s school board wasn’t just fighting its own constituents but fellow elected officials as well. The Oakland City Council passed a resolution urging the board to not close any schools, also calling on California Gov. Gavin Newsom to repay OUSD for a $100 million loan the state forced the district to take out in 2003 — which it is still repaying. The Alameda County Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution admonishing the board to stop the school closures until it performed an equity impact analysis on closing the schools. 

On Feb. 8, the OUSD school board’s disrespect for its constituents was matched by the Oakland community’s indignation of being ignored. Thousands of people attended an eight-hour board meeting, hundreds making public comments condemning the board for its alleged destruction of school communities. 

The Alameda County Board of Education, the Oakland City Council, the Oakland Education Association and every single community member whom I’ve heard speak in these board meetings oppose the closures. So, who exactly is for the OUSD school board’s closure plan? A quick glance at the history of OUSD provides some answers. 

Between 2004 and 2016, the OUSD school board closed 18 schools across the district, 14 of which were reopened as charter schools. Enrollment in Oakland charter schools has increased 18 times since the early 2000s, with most of the students being drawn from OUSD public schools. And because of OUSD’s funding formula, fewer enrolled students often means less money for the district. Here’s a neat trick: What do you do when enrollment declines and you get less money for schools? You close schools. What do you do with the closed schools? You turn them into charters. What happens when students go to charters? District enrollment declines!

The biggest supporters of increasing chartering of OUSD schools have been a handful of billionaires, including Michael Bloomberg and Arthur Rock. These billionaires have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to local school board races and pro-charter organizations across the country. Billionaires have stealthily started privatizing public education. The Oakland school closures are simply the latest wave of privatizations to benefit the rich.  

But amid all of this injustice has been one point of inspiration: the response of the people. Oakland community members have organized dozens of protests and meetings against the closures. There have been rallies in front of Oakland City Hall, speak-outs demanding Newsom forgive the loan, sick-outs by students and parents and canvassing of the Oakland community. Most dramatically, two Westlake Middle School teachers, Maurice André San-Chez and Moses Omolade, went on hunger strike for nearly three weeks. This fiery outpouring of discontent has actually shown results: The OUSD school board was originally slated to merge or close 16 schools at its Jan. 31 meeting but decided to close only 11 schools.

Stopping five school closures is a good start, but it’s nowhere near enough. These attacks on public education aren’t limited to OUSD they’re happening across the state and country. Just look at our own public UC system: The university is being run more and more like private businesses every year. Labor costs are cut by hiring nontenured track lecturers for poverty wages and benefits; consultants and business professionals are brought in to “administer” the system (so that now there are as many UC Berkeley faculty as there are senior administrators); and tuition is raised to bring in more revenue to the university. A capitalist thirst for profit is at the core of this wave of privatization. Each year, the United States spends more than $750 billion on public K-12 education alone. That’s an enormous amount of public money that could flow into private hands even if that means breaking up school communities, increasing class sizes and worsening the quality of education as a whole. 

The disregard for the community I saw Feb. 18 is just the tip of the iceberg for the privatization of education. We are diving deeper and deeper into an education system that prioritizes profit above human livelihoods, but it’s not inevitable that we submit ourselves to it. 

Oakland’s community has shown us the path: We must organize to fight against attacks on public education, not just in Oakland, but across the state and the country. Free, quality public education is possible — but only if we fight for it. 

Aidan Byrne-Sarno is a junior member of Speak Out Now at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.