It Takes “The Town” to Fight for a Quality Education: Oakland and The Challenges Ahead for Public Schools

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Improving the quality of education in Oakland public schools has been an ongoing and uphill battle. In recent months, there have been significant wins, such as the passage of the George Floyd Resolution, which calls for: police-free schools, the development of an ethnic studies curriculum for middle school students and a huge pool of school board candidates with a progressive agenda. Many hope that this will radically transform the education system, especially for impacted youth and families. However, due to budget cuts and the current global pandemic, there are several looming threats to Oakland’s schools. Potential school closures, the elimination of student support services, the high teacher turnover rate and the high cost of living coupled with underfunded schools, to name a few, leaves Oakland's fight for high-quality education with many challenges ahead.

Currently, the Oakland Unified School District provides public education to almost 36,000 students in 83 schools with a little over 2,284 teachers, according to the OUSD Fast Fact 2019-2020. With 88% of students being non-white, 71% of students receive free or reduced lunch districtwide. Almost 33% of OUSD students are English Language Learners (ELL),  welcoming 3,000 newcomers who arrived last year. During the 2018-19 school year, OUSD suspended a total of 618 Black students, compared to 36 white students. Approximately 65% of Oakland’s white students met A through G college requirements for graduation, with only 31.6% of Black students achieving the same. The achievement gap amongst Black, Latinx, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islanders, Newcomers (new immigrants) and Native Americans is widening compared to their white peers. And after the Oakland teacher strike in February 2019, many stakeholders are pushing for this to change in their education system.

Historically, underlying systemic issues concerning communities of color have often impacted Oakland. Affluent and impacted communities can easily be divided and identified by a single freeway, which is used to divide the city into two categories: “the flatlands” and “the hills.” According to the Oakland Community Stressors Index,  “The index captures 21 stressor indicators across a range of domains, including, but not limited to: Housing, Education, Poverty and Criminal Justice System Involvement.” The majority of high-stressed neighborhoods are below the Interstate 580  freeway, which includes a high chronic absenteeism rate, students below the 3rd-grade reading level, high suspensions rates, in addition to previously mentioned conditions. Many students who live in high-stress neighborhoods carry the daily impacts of these issues to school with them, adding to the stress of trying to excel academically.

City of Oakland Community Stressor Index Graph as of June 23rd, 2020 illustrates the impacted communities below the 580 Interstate freeway that divides the affluent from socioeconomic neighborhoods. | City of Oakland
City of Oakland Community Stressor Index Graph as of June 23rd, 2020 illustrates the impacted communities below the 580 Interstate freeway that divides the affluent from socioeconomic neighborhoods. | City of Oakland

In the last decade, the cost of living in Oakland has skyrocketed, impacting generations of families and teachers. “Rents rose in Oakland for all apartment types in 2019. Studios were 3.3% more in 2019 at about $2,839, one-bedroom units were 0.7% more, at about $3,308 and two-bedroom units were 6% more at roughly $4,338,” according to a publication from Mercury News on January 23rd, 2020. During the Oakland Teacher strike of February 2019, many teachers shared their horrific stories of having to room with other teachers in studio apartments, with personal spaces sectioned off only by bedsheets and window curtains. Oakland teachers are questionably some of the lowest-paid teachers in the Alameda County district, resulting in the need for them to frequently relocate to receive higher wages, contributing to the higher faculty turnover rate and inconsistency concerning teacher retention. This creates an environment where students and families are unable to develop trusting, long-term relationships.

The inequity in Oakland’s public school system is deeply rooted in the lack of per-pupil funding, accompanied by the fact that Oakland has too many schools to support with a diminishing student population. For instance, OUSD has a total of 116 schools, 33 of which are charter, providing services to 13,300 students out of the total 49,000. Although charter schools are privately managed, they are still public. And with public dollars following each student, this creates a fiscal hardship for the traditional public school system, leaving them with less students and less funding with the same amount of schools to financially sustain.

In 1978, the voters in California passed Proposition 13 in hopes that it would help the elderly keep them in their homes by halting property tax hikes. In reality, the proposition slashed the funding for social service programs and public education by 50% due to a loophole that benefitted commercial property taxes. California went from one of the top public education systems in the nation to being listed as one of the bottom ten. According to an Ed Week that was published in June 2019, the national average spending per pupil was $12,756 with California spending $10,281,  although the Golden State is the 5th wealthiest economy in the world according to Forbes.  “If it were a country, California's $3.1 trillion economy would be the fifth biggest in the world, ranked between Germany and the United Kingdom."

Currently, teachers and families are fighting for Prop.15, as it will solely provide an additional $25 million for public education in Oakland, and an additional $12 billion for all of California, if passed by voters this November. Aurora Castellanos, who attended and graduated from Oakland public schools, is now joining the effort to close the corporate loophole. “Proposition 15 is important because it will generate the necessary funding for our schools and communities to thrive. As an OUSD alumna, I experienced firsthand the intense lack of resources for Oakland students. My classes were crowded with 50+ students; books were outdated, buildings needed updates and teacher retention was low. My hope is that the funding from Prop. 15 will help address these issues and give my community schools the proper funding to be well equipped to prepare the next generation of leaders,” said Castellanos.

Decades of mismanagement with limited transparency has led teachers and parents to question how decisions are being made with public dollars. “For over 70 years, the education system has neither engaged nor listened to the youth and families. And, youth and families have advocated, sued and won every right they have," said Pecolia Manigo, Bay Area PLAN Executive Director and parent of three OUSD students herself. “Instead of listening to and learning from youth and families, all systems are making mistake after mistake that is resulting in youth and families dying.”

Youth and parents are working tirelessly to regain control over the direction that public education is moving in. Jermesha Hall, an OUSD 12th grader, is working with other youth to make it legal for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections: "Majority of us decided that Oakland Youth Vote or Measure QQ is something that we wanted to pursue. It piqued our interest because it seemed like a game-changing idea. And while most of our campaigns were to fight budget cuts, to fight to keep schools open or to save programs this was something that had the potential to build power for young people for generations." Since its inception in August of 2019, the campaign has gained so much support that all the Oakland City Council members voted to place it on the November 2020 ballot.

Pecolia Manigo is the Executive Director at Bay Area PLAN (Parent Leadership Action Network) that develops parent leaders to advocate for quality education. | Courtesy of Bay Area PLAN
Pecolia Manigo is the Executive Director at Bay Area PLAN (Parent Leadership Action Network) that develops parent leaders to advocate for quality education. | Courtesy of Bay Area PLAN

Student and family engagement varies from district to district. The Bay Area Family Engagement Work Group (TFE) is working to rebuild and improve relationships at district and school sites by creating and implementing community engagement standards.  "For many decades, the decision making power within schools has laid outside of Black, Latino and immigrant communities by nature of voting power, relational power and corporate power. Most district leaders are lobbied by voters, friends and corporations to implement strategies that are not broadly supported throughout the community,” says Manigo, who helped shape the group’s mission, “communities' rights and voices must be heard and respected. That is power. Transformative Family Engagement (TFE) presents ways to invest in the structures necessary for shifting focus onto hearing, incorporating and respecting community voices in each district. TFE creates an opportunity for this power shift to become sustainable, and result in shared decision making, which ultimately is the ideal of real democracy.”

Change is hard. Improving the quality of education is even more challenging, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Throughout the state of California, many urban districts with high demographics of Black, Latinx and immigrant communities are underfunded, creating a wave of barriers around access to quality education. In Oakland, the fight for high-quality education has focused on money rather than on student success. However, youth, parents, teachers and community members are working to shift this not only in Oakland but throughout California. Many hope that the changes happen sooner than later, so that their children can benefit from these efforts instead of being forced to move due to the high cost of living, in order to continue calling Oakland home.

Top Image: Over 400 high school students walked in unity to the OUSD school board meeting the morning of Monday, March 4th, 2019 following the contract agreement between the teachers union and school district. | Courtesy of Youth Together

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