After more than six years of running Oakland schools, the state Department of Education will finally return local control to the district today. The long-awaited move by State Superintendent Jack O'Connell comes nearly seven months after state auditors recommended it. Oakland's locally elected school board will now have full authority over nearly all aspects of the district for the first time since the state took over in June 2003. The state, however, will maintain veto power over all financial decisions for years to come, because the district still owes about $80 million to the state from its original $100 million loan.
The state's legacy in Oakland is definitely mixed. Former state Administrator Randy Ward instituted several important reforms, including making sure that all Oakland schools are funded equally, ending a decades long tradition of giving wealthy, hills schools more money for teachers than poorer, flatlands schools. Ward also launched a lottery system that gives students in lower-income areas a better shot at attending high-performing schools. Previously, slots at those schools were reserved for neighborhood kids and the children of well-connected parents.
But the district also suffered under state control. State administrators often were more obsessed with education idas financed by wealthy businessman Eli Broad than returning the district to financial stability. In fact, state overseers put the district farther in debt. When the state took over the district, it was about $57 million in the hole, but over the past several years, the debt ballooned.