Oakland’s Experience with “School Reform”

Oconnell_Gallo_Local Control
State Supt. hands Oakland "local control" and $80 million debt.

While Real School Reform will take a broad, national view, it will do so with a distinctly local perspective. “Local” means Oakland, California, where I’ve taught high school social studies since 1990 and have been a union activist for most of that time.

So shortly I’ll begin posting as a delegate from the National Education Association’s annual Representative Assembly in San Diego, but first the latest big news from Oakland: our district allegedly regained local control June 28 after six years of state administration. I say “allegedly,” because the state administrator, Vincent Matthews, will remain as a trustee with veto power over budgetary matters, the same state administration that has run the district’s debt up to $80 million.  And before Matthews formally reqlinquished the reins, he declared impasse in contract negotiations with the teachers union, the Oakland Education Association. Then, with unusual rapidity and only two hours before the official return of local control, the state Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) announced its acceptance of the impasse declaration and told OEA that it will send a state mediator. That may not sound like such a bad thing, but it moves the district one big step closer to being able to legally impose its contract proposals over our union’s objections. Those proposals currently include a 3% pay cut, a cap on the district’s contribution toward our ever-more costly health benefits, increasing allowable class size, cutting elementary school preparation time, and reducing counselors. More information is at http://oaklandea.com/

One may view this as the parting shot of the state administration or the opening gambit of the newly empowered board and newly hired superintendent, Tony Smith. OEA President Betty Olson-Jones has called on the board and Smith to back away from impasse, since several major proposals have not even been discussed in bargaining yet. At the press conference just after the official documents signing for local control, I put this question to School Board President Noel Gallo: “Now that you have local control will you step back from impasse? You say that you can work with your teachers better than the state. Why not step back from impasse now?”

Gallo responded: “That’s a decision of the Board. Let me just say that I’ve always advocated for our teachers.” He then spent the next 45 seconds supporting that claim, concluding with, “I truly believe that the one who truly deserves the gold medal is the instructor that’s in front of my children and yours to make a difference.” I repeated the question. Gallo ignored it and went on to another question.

If you’re reading this from outside of the SF Bay Area, here’s why you might care about what’s happening here: Oakland is one of the “laboratories” picked by billionaires like Bill Gates and Eli Broad for their experiments in privatizing public education. Gates brought his experiment in closing down large schools to create small ones here in 2002. Read carefully—that’s small schools, not small classes; I find that people often assume these two are the same thing. But there is a world of difference between the two. I’ll come back to that in future posts. For now here’s a link to an article I wrote on that process in 2005. http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/19_04/jour194.shtml

Eli Broad, #48 on the Forbes list of richest Americans, swooped in when a fiscal crisis forced the district to ask the state for a line of credit, just as he preyed on New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (Those familiar with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine will readily recognize this method of capitalizing—literally—on disasters.) In return for the bailout, the state required the local board to hand over all authority to a state administration. All three state administrators sent to Oakland since 2003 were trained by Eli Broad’s Center for the Management of School Systems and have imposed a private business model on the district and its schools. By the way, Broad was and is a major investor in now-disgraced AIG. For more on the Oakland “experiment,” see “The Corporate Surge Against Public Schools” (pp. 4 by Steven Miller and Jack Gerson http://www.scribd.com/doc/2304695/The-Corporate-Surge-Against-Public-Schools?page=7 (the Oakland part of the story begins on page 4 of the article).

NEXT: The National Education Association Representative Assembly begins. Will we fight for real educational equality? Or will NEA collaborate with Obama/Duncan’s continuation of the attack on public schools?