What do you get when you take a city that has 58 public schools, add 37 charter schools, divide the whole system by race and class, and then multiply all this by millions of dollars from an ice cream mogul's fortune and Silicon Valley billionaires? You've got the complicated politics of the Oakland Unified School District.
OUSD has been plagued with problems for decades, but few would argue things haven't improved in recent years. In 2003, the state took over the district because it was so poorly managed. Six years later, Sacramento handed power back to the local board. Since, the district's budget has stabilized and some of the more dysfunctional aspects of OUSD's administration have faded into memory. Half of the current board members are running for re-election on this record of incremental improvement.
"I get frustrated with this constant drumbeat of 'everything is lousy.' It's not true," said Jody London, the District One school-board director who's running for re-election in November.
OUSD regained a credit rating of AAA in July, she noted, an achievement that will save taxpayers millions and allow the district to reinvest more in its facilities.
"We're at a level of organization and structural togetherness I've never seen in the district before," she said of Oakland's finances and educational programs.
James Harris, who represents district seven on the board and who is also running for re-election, is similarly optimistic. According to Harris, the district's administrators, teachers, and parents have begun to adopt a "culture of college and career readiness" for students. He hopes it will be reflected in higher graduation rates.
Another previous limiting factor to OUSD's success was money. But now more of that is starting to flow, too.
In 2014, Harris helped convince voters to pass Measure N, a $120-per-parcel tax passed that raised millions for education programs. He has also been cheering the delivery of philanthropic money, such as the recent $2.5 million gift from Salesforce to Oakland schools. A new charter school is being proposed in his district as well, providing what Harris says are more choices for students and families.
But he says this is just the first steps of recovery. "We've got to figure out a way to get more money into the system," Harris said.
Ultimately, though, the main goal now should be ensuring equity for all students. And not everyone thinks Oakland's schools are on the right path.
Some worry the term "equity" has been co-opted to support continued privatization under charter schools, and that a few wealthy philanthropists are steering district policies, often in controversial directions with little say from the community.
"We got involved because there hasn't been input from parents and teachers and other groups in a lot of big decisions," said Kim Davis, a steering-committee member of the group Parents United for Public Schools.
According to Davis, several controversial plans have been hatched recently by administrators and outside groups linked to the charter-school industry. The blessing of the school board has been sought as an afterthought, and the community was taken by surprise.
One example was common enrollment, a controversial proposal to create a single application for students to simultaneously apply to all OUSD public schools and charters in the district. Currently, OUSD allows families to apply at all its public schools at once, ranking their top choices. But if a family wants to send their kid to a competing charter school, they have to fill out a separate application.
Implementing common enrollment would cost $1.4 million extra, and it would likely increase the number of students leaving district public schools while boosting enrollments at the charters.
It was developed quietly by Educate 78, a spinoff of the New Schools Venture Fund that helps establish and grow charter schools.
"It felt like a process where they were just checking off boxes, you know, 'community engagement — done,'" Davis said about how the proposal was unveiled to parents.
In response to the mounting influence of the charter-school industry, Davis' group wants to unseat most of the current board members who are up for re-election.
And there are other community groups, many newly formed, getting more involved in the district's politics.
Mona Treviño, a mother and organizer who lives in East Oakland, said there are small networks sprouting up around different campuses and neighborhoods across the city, and they could become a force in district elections. Many of these groups are upset with the charter-school industry's sway with OUSD's administrators and the current board.
Chris Jackson, one of the insurgent candidates endorsed by Davis' group who is running for the district seven seat, criticized Harris for supporting charter schools and his role in eliminating committees of the school board.
"We're in danger of creating a two-tiered system where resources are sucked away from district schools," Jackson said. "Charters aren't serving our African-American students, and they don't serve special-needs students, while they suspend students at two-and-a-half times more than district schools."
Jackson says Harris has been unwilling to slow the expansion of charters despite criticism, such as the recent Alameda County Grand Jury report showing that charters are poorly regulated. He also pointed to a recent report by the ACLU of Southern California showing that many of Oakland's charters have exclusionary and illegal enrollment policies.
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