Opinion: Why Fund Empty Prisons Instead of Full Schools?

Teachers, parents, students shut down a Sept. 25 school board meeting at La Escuelita Elementary School in Oakland. Photo by Ken Epstein.
Zach Norris was one of the protesters arrested at the Oakland Unified School District board meeting on Oct 23.

While attending an Oakland school board meeting on Oct. 23, I was placed in handcuffs. This is only the latest attempt by the school board to silence the protests of parents and teachers regarding highly controversial school closures.

Things have clearly escalated. But I am committed to continue to speak out to ensure that OUSD hears from parents about ways to free up resources for all of our schools and keep public education in public control.

Thanks to chronic budget shortfalls, OUSD has closed 18 schools in the past 15 years — 16 of which served predominantly Black students. The students impacted by these school closures are the same ones at disproportionate risk of ending up in the juvenile justice system.

As the district closes school sites, state law mandates that charter schools have the first chance to use that site for a charter as opposed to, for example, leaving the site vacant or selling the property. So, when OUSD votes to shut down schools, it effectively votes to permit the further privatization of public education in Oakland at the expense of Black students.

Today, 30 percent of Oakland students are in charter schools, compared to 10 percent in neighboring districts like Berkeley and Hayward. As OUSD plans to close more schools, it pits parents from charters, small schools, and larger schools against each other as everyone tries to assure their children get a decent education at a school where classrooms have supplies and the teachers know their names.

Why should parents who want the same things for their kids be at odds? The answer to this question lies in California’s tax code and how our state budget is allocated.

From 1980 to 2000 after voters passed Proposition 13, California built 23 new prisons and just one new university, —prioritizing locking young people up rather than lifting them up.

Alameda County is now replicating this statewide failure with plans to spend $75 million to build a new probation camp for young people. The existing facility, Camp Sweeney, is virtually empty, holding only 15 young people. The new camp would house between 90 and 120 children.

By building a new probation camp while doing nothing to prevent the closure of Oakland schools, Alameda County officials are sending a clear message about how they value education in Oakland and how they value our children. Ultimately, they are setting children up for prison.

No matter how you feel about the current school closures, we can all agree that all students deserve equitable, adequately-resourced and expertly-staffed schools.

OUSD should put a moratorium on school closures and Alameda County should shelve its plans for prison expansion while we work together to get more resources for all of our schools.

One way to do this is by supporting the California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act, which will be on the state ballot in November 2020.

Certain OUSD decision makers may not value our children’s education, but my fellow parents and I do. We can come together to fight this prison expansion, and demand those resources be spent where they are needed: on educating our young people.

Zachary Norris is the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a native Oaklander, father, activist and organizer. He is the author of the upcoming “We Keep Us Safe,” a book that aims to replace the “us versus them” approach to criminal justice with a community driven, comprehensive way to reduce harm and increase safety for all.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here