In its newsletter last week the National Education Policy Center shows how last month’s announcement of upcoming school closures in Oakland, California is merely the latest in a series of public school closures as a consequence of the wave of privatization and experiments with school reform across the states:
“It’s happening again. Another urban school district, this time Oakland Unified in California, has voted to close schools that serve a disproportionate number of students of color from low-income families. Two schools will close this year, and five more next year…. Black students comprise 23 percent of the Oakland school district, but 43 percent of the students in the schools slated for closure. Oakland is the latest in a growing collection of urban school districts that have decided in recent years to close schools that disproportionately enroll students of color and students from low-income families. Other examples include Chicago, which closed or radically reconstituted roughly 200 schools between 2002 and 2018, St. Paul Minnesota, which approved six school closures in December, and Baltimore City, where board members decided in January to shutter three schools. ‘Closures tend to differentially affect low-income communities and communities of color that are politically disempowered, and closures may work against the demand of local actors for more investment in their local institutions,’ according to a NEPC brief authored in 2017 by Gail Sunderman of the University of Maryland along with Erin Coughlan and Rick Mintrop of U.C. Berkeley.”
The Mercury News reported on the Oakland school board’s February 8 decision:; “The Oakland Unified school district will close seven schools, merge two others and cut grades from two more over the next two years, the district board of directors decided in a meeting that stretched for nearly nine hours Tuesday into early Wednesday morning. The vote came after district officials, under pressure from the state and county to create a long-term plan for financial success, presented to the board last week a plan to close, merge, or reduce 16 schools, starting at the end of this school year.”
How has the Oakland Unified School District found itself in such a financial mess that public school closures are being proposed as a solution? The district was part of an early experiment with small schools, part of a Gates Foundation project that broke up large high schools into small schools. It was an experiment so expensive and unworkable that the Gates Foundation eventually gave it up. Janelle Scott, a professor at the Graduate School of Education of the University of California at Berkeley identifies “the multiple determinants of the deficit, which include the intentional creation of small schools that are now slated for closure and the cost of charter schools.”
The California blogger Tom Ultican identifies state takeover as another factor: “Twenty years ago, the state took over OUSD claiming a financial crisis…. Then like now, the Bakersfield non-profit FCMAT was brought in to supervise. The state went on to appoint a series of administrators to run the district.”
California’s EdSource provides more details about the state takeover: “In 2003, the district went into state receivership after receiving a $100 million bailout in order to balance its budget amid a massive shortfall…. Though the district still has not fully paid off the loan, control was given back to the district about five years later. The state appointed a trustee with veto authority over the district’s financial decisions…. For years, Oakland city and state representatives have called on the state to forgive the remainder of the loan to no avail.”
What is always mentioned, but rarely detailed in the news reports about today’s school closures in Oakland is the role of the unregulated explosion of charter schools in the district. Before he became California’s governor and, when he was mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown himself founded two charter schools in the city.
No account of Oakland’s financial troubles so clearly exposes the fiscal damage wrought by the out-of-control expansion of charter schools in Oakland as Gordon Lafer’s Breaking Point report for In the Public Interest: “In a first-of-its kind analysis, this report reveals that neighborhood public school students in three California school districts are bearing the cost of the unchecked expansion of privately managed charter schools. In 2016-17, charter schools cost the Oakland Unified School district $57.3 million…. The California Charter School Act currently doesn’t allow school boards to consider how a proposed charter school may impact a district’s educational programs or fiscal health when weighing new charter applications. However, when a student leaves a neighborhood school for a charter school, all the funding for that student leaves with them, while the costs do not.”
In Oakland, charter school expansion and other factors have gone so far as to drain the enrollment in several public schools. By now, policymakers very likely imagine that it is easier to close the schools than to figure out a way to build back enrollment in the neighborhood schools in the poorest part of the city. As in Chicago in 2013, when the school district closed 50 schools in primarily African American neighborhoods, schools being closed are identified as under-enrolled, and school closures are seen the right solution for a mathematical problem.
But in Chicago, when the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research studied what happened after the school closures, here is what the researchers discovered: “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.” “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning.”
Oakland residents and educators are pushing back against the school district’s decision to close public schools in African American neighborhoods. The Schott Foundation compares what is happening right now in Oakland to what happened in Chicago: “The struggle against school closures in Oakland is part of a nationwide tapestry of community movements that have resisted privatization budget cuts, and built community schools in their place. Oakland’s most compelling analog would likely be the 2015 fight to save Dyett High School in Chicago. Dyett was the last open-enrollment public school in Chicago’s historically Black neighborhood of Bronzeville… In addition to an overwhelming response from the community, parents undertook what would become a 34-day hunger strike, which ended with the announcement of Dyett’s reopening.”
In the conclusion of Ghosts in the Schoolyard, her powerful 2018 book that explores the meaning of Chicago’s 2013 school closures for the neighborhoods those schools had served, University of Chicago sociologist, Eve Ewing suggests that policymakers consider deeper human questions when they set out to right-size a school district in the midst of a long financial crisis: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closures should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions… What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it? What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p.159)