Op-Ed: Power in Oakland Schools – Who Has It?

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By Tony Daquipa

 

One of the biggest problems in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is the lack of power and influence that OUSD parents, students and community members have in the decision-making of the school district. 

 

Even more disturbing is the disproportionate power and influence wielded by lobbyists and wealthy philanthropists, most of whom have no background or experience in education and do not even live in Oakland.

 

Democracy means shared decision-making: the opportunity for those being governed to participate in the making of the decisions that affect their lives.

 

Our public schools and our public school district, both of which are funded by our tax dollars, should absolutely be places where those who are most affected by the decisions made (students and parents) have meaningful avenues to participate in and have influence over the decision-making process.

 

Unfortunately, that is not the current situation in Oakland.

 

Today in Oakland, outside interests with no accountability to this community have more influence than the families who rely on our schools, and the district has become unresponsive to the needs of those it is supposed to serve.

 

Although OUSD families are best positioned to know what their students need to be successful, much of the work of the district is shaped not by OUSD families.

 

But by lobbying groups such as the California Charter School Association and Great Oakland (GO) Public Schools, and funders of charter schools such as Educate 78, the New Schools Venture Fund and the Rogers Family Foundation.

 

As an example, the current work underway to create an “Equity Pledge” between charter schools and OUSD was initiated by charter school leaders and funded by Educate78 without any opportunities for members of the public to participate, even though the “Equity Pledge” would be a public policy that would affect thousands of Oakland public school students.

 

It is not surprising that groups such as Educate78 have so much influence, since most of the members of the current School Board received campaign contributions in dollars as well as in kind (paid canvassers, mailers and phone bankers) from the groups named above, either directly or through their staff members.

 

We believe that there is an inherent conflict between the goal of these powerful outside groups, largely the expansion of privately run charter schools, and the role of OUSD, which is ensuring the success and sustainability of the public school system that is responsible for serving all students.

 

In theory, the idea of charter schools is not an inherently evil one. However, every new privately-run charter school that is opened means a diversion of public funds from OUSD students without also lowering the costs incurred by the district for maintaining buildings, paying staff, funding pension contributions for OUSD retirees, and providing for the full range of student needs including health, mental health, nutrition, afterschool programs and more.

 

Additionally, privately run charter schools in Oakland on average tend to underserve special education students, African American students and English Language Learners.

 

These students are more expensive to serve and are perceived as being less likely to score well on standardized tests. Unlike public schools that have to serve all children, many privately run charter schools prefer students who will boost test scores while requiring minimal support.

 

So not only are public funds diverted from OUSD, but over time the proportion of students that are more expensive to serve has gone up in OUSD.

 

These more expensive, higher need student groups are being increasingly concentrated in our underfunded publicly-run schools that are being set up to fail.

 

While many charter school advocates may mean well, their quest to get access to more and more public school funding and facilities, is, in effect, fast-tracking our community’s most vulnerable children down the school-to-prison pipeline.

 

This is the reality of market model education reform: Those students who aren’t profitable to enroll simply don’t matter.

 

It would be easy for someone whose child is not being set up to fail to look the other way and think, “that doesn’t affect me.”

 

Well, the truth is, it does. If you live in Oakland, then you are surrounded by these children.

 

If you are an Oakland parent, regardless of what kind of school your child goes to, you are still raising your child in a community where other children are being set up to fail. You can live high up on a hill or behind walls, but that doesn’t change the reality of what is going on around you.

 

There can be no security in a society where some children’s lives don’t matter.

 

Additionally, with seemingly daily news headlines screaming warning signals about the fiscal mismanagement and outright fraud that is apparently rampant in the charter school industrial complex, Oakland families absolutely need district leaders who are willing to focus on improving publicly-run schools for all children in every neighborhood.

 

The unchecked increase in the number of charter schools in Oakland has been one result of the imbalance of decision-making power in the district.

 

OUSD also spends way too much on central administration compared to the school sites, according to a recent report the district commissioned from Education Resource Strategies.

 

The doling out of lucrative, no-bid contracts and the willingness to share private student data with third party organizations are yet more symptoms of this festering problem.

 

Today in Oakland, there is a strong need for the school board to more fully embrace and actualize their core belief regarding sharing decision-making with the Oakland community.

 

In order to make shared decision-making real, the district needs to take steps to limit the influence of people and organizations that don’t live in Oakland and have a divergent agenda for education, one that in fact undermines public education in Oakland.

 

OUSD also needs to listen to those who are relying on them to improve and sustain our publicly run schools.

 

We have an opportunity to begin rectifying this imbalance of power through the upcoming school board elections.

 

Four of the seven school board seats (a majority of the board) are at stake. If your district seat is at stake, please vote, and when you do, please vote for candidates who have not had their campaigns funded by deep-pocketed charter advocacy groups who do not have the interests of all of our children in mind.

 

Learn more at https://ousdparentsunited.wordpress.com/

 

Anthony Daquipa is a parent at Sequoia Elementary School and a member of the steering committee of Parents United for Public Schools.

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