The Caustic Reformer 

Randolph Ward has proposed the boldest school reforms in America. But can Oakland's most hated man sell his vision?

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When Ward first came to Oakland, the Oakland Education Association appeared to be one of his few allies. The teachers' union had been angry with Chaconas about his overspending, and refused to support his efforts to avoid the state takeover, arguing that teachers should not have to pay for his mistakes. Yet within months of Ward's arrival, they gave some ground. Although the union had adamantly turned down Chaconas' plan to cut pay by 6 percent to balance the 2003-04 budget, the union acquiesced to Ward's proposed 4 percent salary cut.

Nearly two years later, however, the union's goodwill toward Ward has evaporated. It's safe to say that union leaders now dislike Ward as much as or more than they did Chaconas. The beginning of the end of the relationship occurred when Ward started closing schools, and worsened last year when the union voted in a new president, Ben Visnick, who had opposed the 4 percent pay cut and immediately struck a militant stance against Ward and his plans. Ward further added to the growing discord when he threatened to shut down adult education earlier this year.

Still, Visnick and his fellow union leaders seem to prefer arguing about larger education issues, such as the lack of funding in California schools and the unfairness of President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, to focusing on realistic plans for fixing Oakland schools. As a result, the union and Ward at times appear to be talking past each other. While Ward wants to discuss his school-district overhaul, the union leaders have been pushing an idea unlikely to ever see the light of day -- raising taxes on corporations to generate additional education funding. "We want to go after the fat cats," Visnick says.

Some union leaders now routinely shower Ward with boos and hisses at public meetings and chant "Ward must go." They also have grown almost conspiratorial about his ties to Broad, who is a major charter school supporter. The union views charter schools as a threat to its existence, because charter schools typically do not employ union teachers. The leadership's repulsion to charter schools runs so deep that, earlier this year, the union chose to make life harder for its members and Oakland students at several schools instead of working toward a compromise.

The schools in question were being penalized under No Child Left Behind, the federal law that requires schools receiving federal antipoverty funds to make "adequate yearly progress" on test scores. Those that fail to show enough improvement for six consecutive years must become charter schools; contract with outside managers; replace the principal and most or all teachers; or engage in similar restructuring. Not surprisingly, given its Bush Administration heritage, the law is set up to favor the options that resemble privatization. Whenever a school embraces one of those options, it gets six more years to show adequate progress. By contrast, merely reorganizing or restructuring only buys a school a single extra year to prove itself. If it fails again, it's in the same spot.

Thirteen Oakland elementary schools failed to show adequate progress for six years in a row. Three were already scheduled to become new small schools, and two of the others were making enough progress that restructuring was an option. Ward and his staff decided to transform the other eight into charter schools, having rejected the strategy of shuffling teachers and principals as too disruptive for students and teachers. But as a concession to the union, they proposed to create a charter school entity that would attempt to honor the teachers' contract and continue to use standard Oakland curricula. The one major hitch was that the district demanded that the union give up tenure rights for teachers at those schools. Kevin Wooldridge, the former Oakland Unified executive director in charge of the effort, said administrators felt they needed to ensure that the failing schools would not be bogged down by burned-out veteran instructors.

Union leaders rejected the proposal. "They made it clear they weren't interested in sitting down with us," said Wooldridge, a Chaconas hire. Instead the union urged teachers not to approve the proposal. In essence, the union argued that the district should disregard the edicts of No Child Left Behind. The campaign worked. In the end, teachers at only two of the eight schools voted to approve the charter schools.

Visnick said he is proud of the outcome, characterizing it as a victory over charter schools. But for the six remaining schools -- Highland, Jefferson, Lockwood, Horace Mann, Webster, and Whittier -- the outcome will be anything but pretty. Since each of those schools failed to show substantial improvement, Ward and Scott-George believe restructuring offers them little chance of success. Instead, those schools will now be "reconstituted"; all 200 teachers will be transferred to other schools, and replaced with teachers from elsewhere. "Unfortunately, people have very strong feelings about charters," Scott-George said of the union's campaign. "But charters are part of the law and our approach was to stop burying our heads in the sand and be proactive. We thought we had a great idea."


Ward said he plans to remain in Oakland from one to three more years. He intends to be the only state administrator of the district, meaning that local control would return when he leaves Oakland. But that's assuming he can complete his overhaul before then. At this point, that looks like a tall order, considering his inability to win over principals, coupled with the combative opposition of teachers' union leaders who view him as some sort of villain.

The administrator sidestepped questions about what he plans to do with principals who reject or are unable to adapt to his reforms. But based on his track record, it's safe to assume he will simply replace them or they will retire, move on to another district, or return to teaching. He has already partnered with a Baltimore-based nonprofit group that is funded by Gates and Broad and is helping train principals for the district. Nonetheless, major turnover among principals could seriously hamper Ward's ability to institute his reforms and raise student achievement.

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