By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Betty Olson-Jones, Oakland Education Association.
A line on the playground divides two Oakland schools - Reach Academy and Education for Change. Both schools share the site of what used to be Cox Elementary School.
Oakland Education Association (OEA) member Katherine Clarke-Hines, a teacher at Reach Academy, says the line is a really a division between haves and have-nots. It's difficult, she says, for those at her school to witness every day the advantages of those across the line at the charter school.
"At the charter school they have coaches for subject matter," says Clarke-Hines. "They have sports, they have manipulatives in their classrooms, their teachers have personal computers - and they also pick and choose their students."
Charters in Oakland created by corporate foundations have drained money from the district, says Betty Olson-Jones, OEA president, because they decrease attendance and per-pupil funding from mainstream schools while operating costs stay the same.
In Oakland, foundation money has also been used to divide large schools into smaller schools. The combination of the small schools movement and charter school proliferation has had a negative impact on the urban district overall and should serve as a warning to others about accepting money with strings attached, says Olson-Jones.
Oakland has 32 charter schools that enroll 18 percent of the K-12 population. Most were funded by corporate foundations within the past decade and are non-union. The Eli Broad Foundation gave $4.7 million to Aspire Public Schools, a Northern California charter company that has three schools in Oakland. The Walton Family Foundation also donated large sums to charter schools there. And New Schools Venture Fund - a nonprofit "venture philanthropy" funded by corporate foundations - has also made hefty contributions to Oakland charters. "The agenda of those creating charters is to further erode public education," asserts Manny Lopez, an OEA member who left Cox after the conversion to a non-union charter. "They talk about giving parents so-called options, but parents just want good neighborhood schools. And dividing schools into really small schools is not cost-effective either."
Twenty to 30 Oakland schools may be closed. Some are small schools created by the breakup of large schools from Gates Foundation funding. But the five-year Gates grants have dried up, and the schools are too expensive to continue operation, especially given the current state budget crisis.
Small schools translate into big costs, since each has its own administrators and support staff, even if it shares a campus with other small schools. So now Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is liable for "excessive administrative costs" to the state for 78 excess administrators and must pay fines.
Fremont High School was a large comprehensive high school in Oakland that was divided into four small schools in 2003. Paul Robeson School of Visual and Performing Arts, which hasn't been able to afford arts in quite some time, closed in June.
Craig Gordon, a social studies teacher at Robeson, said he was very unhappy at the top-down decision to see Fremont divided into smaller schools, but thought that if done right, it could benefit students. He added that many people confuse small schools with small class size, but some classes actually got larger, with fewer teachers at each school to teach each subject. Electives were reduced or eliminated due to the small teaching staff. Three of the small schools at Fremont still have AP classes, but Robeson lost them as funding and staffs were cut. Some schools attracted high achievers and had better scores than others.
"It is a phony reform to distract people and make them think that change is right around the corner - and now it's on to the next game," says Gordon.
The district spent a staggering $82 million on consultants last year, says Olson-Jones. Money from the Gates and Broad foundations, the Dell Foundation, and the Rogers Family Foundation sponsored "Expect Success," a project costing more than $20 million, which mostly funded the reorganization of the District Office. The union was not involved in the plan.
OUSD, just freed from state takeover, had had three graduates from the Eli Broad Academy serving as state administrators. Vince Matthews, the most recent state administrator and Broad alum, still has veto power over the elected school board. Since 2003, nine other Broad associates have also held high-level district positions - and Broad has donated $6 million to the district. Broad helped finance an expensive lobbying campaign to prevent the return of local control to Oakland schools.
"There is such a big push from Eli Broad and other billionaire philanthropists for testing, accountability, getting rid of 'bad' teachers and measuring teachers by student test scores," says Olson-Jones. "They want schools to be run like businesses, even though businesses are failing left and right. If schools were banks, they would have been bailed out a long time ago."
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