Shortly after being sworn in as mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown sounded off on the school district's attempt to sugarcoat, among other things, the fact that 75 percent of the city's students were reading at below grade level. "It's shocking beyond words," he fumed. "There is a pervasive denial of what is happening."
Brown's anger was genuine. And his proposed solutions were bold. First, he said, the city needed more charter schools, lots more of them, both to provide students with choices and to compete with district schools and shame them into getting better results. Second, he insisted, the district bureaucracy had to be overhauled, starting with Superintendent Carole Quan, whose "pathetically low expectations" for Oakland schools, he said, were an obstacle to improvement.
On both these scores, Brown got his wish. Quan was gone in a matter of months, and Oakland, home to six approved charter schools when Brown became mayor, today has thirty. But as Jerry Brown rides into the sunset, it is hard to make the case that Oakland's students, aside from the lucky few who attend the two charter schools he founded personally, are better served than when he took office.
According to test scores, Oakland public schools remain as a whole squarely in the bottom third of the state's schools. Charter schools perform on balance little better than their district counterparts. And Brown's attempts to reform the district from within were abandoned long ago, as he focused his energies on his own two charter schools, the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School for the Arts.
Kerry Hamill, vice president of Oakland's school board, laments Brown's record on education. "I think Jerry Brown got what he wanted for Oakland public schools," she said, referring to the proliferation of charter schools. "I don't think that it has done much to improve public education in Oakland."
Hamill's assertion notwithstanding, it is safe to say that Brown who could not be reached for comment did not get everything he wanted. As Brown took office, he set his sights on seizing control of the school district bureaucracy. He teamed with state Senator Don Perata, threatening a state takeover of the schools if Superintendent Quan, a thirty-year veteran, refused to step aside. After she tearfully offered her resignation, Brown pressured the board to replace her with then-Assistant City Manager George Musgrove.
When the board replaced Musgrove with Dennis Chaconas, an experienced administrator with local bona fides, Brown was livid but powerless to intervene. He shifted focus to his ultimately successful campaign to add three mayoral appointees to the school board's elected seven-member body.
But despite expectations that this power grab would help Brown take a lead in setting the district's agenda, his choice of appointees put such an outcome out of reach. Paul Cobb and Wilda White, selected more out of political expediency than for their experience overseeing schools, distinguished themselves mostly by distracting the board from its work with ill-informed diatribes against other board members and with frequent public jabs at Chaconas and his staff, respectively. Ignoring criticism of his appointees, Brown left them to languish on the board, telling the Express in 2001 to "try to see the humor in all this." In 2004, in a sign of how much his interest in board politics had waned, Brown didn't even bother trying to get his appointees' terms renewed by the voters.
Liane Zimny, who served as staff director for the mayor's commission on education in 1999, and who is now the district's charter schools coordinator, said this disengagement was strategic. "He felt his efforts could be more productively spent with his two schools," she said, referring to the charter schools Brown founded. "You could call it a criticism for losing interest, or you could say that his judgment was informed after trying to be directly involved through the appointees."
Dan Siegel, a former board member and a longtime Brown critic, is less forgiving. "Jerry Brown was mayor for eight years, but his interest in the schools lasted about eighteen months," he said. "Early on it was clear that the only thing he cared about was charter schools."
Indeed, while the school reform movement began in Oakland well before Brown's arrival, the mayor's enthusiastic backing of autonomous, publicly funded charter schools played an important role in their rapid proliferation. He gave full-throated support to charter school proposals going before the school board for district approval. He also directed the city's building department to help such schools find suitable space.
But while Brown was a charter booster, and while charter schools reduce bureaucracy, give parents and students choices in their education, and allow principals to weed out bad teachers without union intervention, their test scores in Oakland have been disappointingly similar to those of district schools.
Two exceptions are Brown's own schools, the Oakland Academy for the Arts and the Oakland Military Institute. The former, according to the state's education department, ranks in the top 20 percent of California high schools, although its ability to choose its students based on artistic talent leaves it open to charges of elitism. The military institute, while it has attracted frequent and persistent criticism from those opposed to its existence as a public school, ranks fifth out of 21 Oakland high schools in test scores.
But as Hamill points out, Brown's schools have had an unfair advantage. "He showered this handful of students from these two schools with so many extra resources, from the city, from the port, from the state, and from developers," she said. "It would have been nice if he had used some of his cachet for the rest of the kids in Oakland."
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