Wherever there’s a battle over public education lately, a billionaire is somehow involved. Los Angeles, Newark, the “education reform” project as a whole — the ultrarich always have their hands in efforts to antagonize teachers.
One city they’ve now set their sights on: Oakland, where teachers are in the middle of union contract negotiations and just authorized a strike. Some teachers stayed out of school in one-day wildcat strikes in December and January, joined by many of their students. According to posts circulating on Facebook and Instagram, Oakland students have planned to call out sick in solidarity with teachers today.
Just like other teachers’ union battles these days, the contract fight pits students and working people against billionaire pro-corporate school reformers and the politicians backing them.
The superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), Kyla Johnson-Trammell, wants to cut teachers’ already low pay and expand class sizes. Independent of the contract fight, she also intends to replace public schools with more unaccountable charter schools.
Johnson-Trammell claims a budget crisis is forcing these moves. But the district’s “crisis,” like so many other claimed budgetary crises around the country, comes after school privatization advocates helped drain the district’s funds through previous charter expansions; their allies in the superintendent’s seat and on the school board have overspent wildly on administrative salaries and corporate consultants.
Charter schools are the thin wedge of the privatization movement. They open opportunities for profiteering, weaken teachers’ unions, and expand the control of the wealthy over the public school system. The superintendent’s plan to further expand charter enrollment would drain more resources from Oakland public schools, which would be used to justify more privatization. But the Oakland Education Association (OEA), the teachers’ union, is demanding that the district adequately fund its schools. They are asking for higher teacher pay, smaller class sizes, and lower workloads for staff.
Who caused OUSD’s budget woes? What political circumstances have enabled the school privatization movement to flourish in Oakland? And why do billionaires care so much about charter schools?
The OEA Contract Fight and the OUSD Budget
Oakland schools are currently experiencing a series of crises. OUSD has a severe problem keeping teachers in classrooms: about one in five teachers leave the district each year. High teacher turnover results in disruptions to student learning and a reliance on untrained teachers with emergency credentials. (In 2017–18, at least 15 percent of new OUSD teachers had emergency credentials, and at least 30 percent of teacher applicants did.)
The cause of the teacher retention crisis isn’t a mystery. As the cost of living in Oakland skyrockets, OUSD teachers remain some of the lowest paid in Alameda County. The starting salary for an OUSD teacher is roughly $46,000/year, far below the $61,000/year and $65,000/year paid to new teachers in nearby Hayward Unified and Fremont Unified, respectively. OUSD’s maximum teacher salary is the second lowest in the county. Unsurprisingly, a recent survey by the district found thatlow pay and a high cost of living were the primary reasons teachers left the district.
Schools are also facing shortages of other critical staff like nurses, a shortage that is so bad that teachers and other staff often have to take on the role of medical caregivers.
After over a year and a half without a contract, negotiations between OEA and OUSD have gone nowhere. The Oakland Post reports that OEA is asking for a 12 percent pay raise over three years. They are also asking for smaller class sizes and smaller caseloads for staff who provide critical services to students, like nurses.
OUSD’s most recent offer is a raise of just 5 percent over three years (including a retroactive raise for 2017–18). That’s in effect a pay cut, since it doesn’t even keep up with inflation. The district also plans to increase class sizes for special ed, making it harder for high-needs students to get adequate individual attention.
OUSD is using a budget shortfall to argue against increasing teacher pay. The district estimates that, if current revenue and expense trends continue, it will face a shortfall of almost $60 million by the 2020–21 school year. It aims to cut $30 million from the 2019–20 budget, with over $11 million in cuts to already overburdened school staff. At the same time as the district points to deficits to argue against meeting teachers’ contract demands, Johnson-Trammell, the district superintendent, is also using the shortfall as a rationale for shutting down public schools and replacing them with charters.
School Mismanagement and School Privatization
One can’t understand what’s happening in OUSD without understanding how its current financial situation came about. The budget problems were created, in large part, by privatization.
Those pushing that privatization are using financial problems as a pretext for further charterization of the district. Understanding the scope of the assault on Oakland’s public schools requires mapping the administrators, nonprofits, and ultrarich “philanthropists” who have played key roles in Oakland public education in recent years.
The current budget shortfall can be traced back to 2003, when the state of California took control of Oakland schools with little justification and at the behest of people with ties to billionaire Eli Broad, one of the biggest funders of school privatization efforts. The state claimed that a takeover was necessary to fix the district’s budget problems at the time. However, the district already had a plan to fix its shortfall by borrowing from its construction fund, a plan that had been approved by a well-respected bond counsel.
Broad’s allies in this episode included then-mayor Jerry Brown and then-state superintendent of public education Jack O’Connell, who placed OUSD under the control of state administrator Randolph Ward, a graduate of Broad Academy. The aim of the academy — funded, as the name suggests, by Broad — is to train an army of corporate-minded administrators like Ward and place them at the head of the nation’s largest school districts. Broad has seen significant success on this front.
The academy’s website currently boasts that “hundreds of the nation’s top education leaders” are alumni; in 2011, Broad Academy alumni filled 48 percent of new urban superintendent openings. Broad’s ultimate goal is imposing school privatization across the country.
Ward pursued Broad’s agenda, shutting down fourteen traditional public schools and opening thirteen charter schools. Two of the state administrators that followed Ward were also Broad Academy grads. By the time the state relinquished control of OUSD in 2009, the number of charters in the district had more than doubled.
The expansion of charters has had a crippling impact on district budgets, since each new charter enrollment drains the resources allocated to traditional public schools. This resource loss ruins the economies of scale that public schools rely on to educate students affordably. Each public school is allocated a certain number of taxpayer dollars per student. When a public school loses students to charters, they lose the corresponding amount of taxpayer money. But school costs don’t decrease proportionately, since the school still has to pay for the overhead and staff required to educate the pre-charter-sized student population.
OUSD’s last superintendent, Antwan Wilson, also bears a large share of responsibility for the district’s financial woes. According to the Washington Post, Wilson ran up the deficit by blowing money on administrators and consultants before abruptly resigning in late 2016. Wilson is a charter school proponent who advocates for corporate management practices in public schools. Wilson, like Ward, is a graduate of the Broad Academy.
Broad and his ilk want to dismantle public education in the United States. In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported on a plan released by Broad’s foundation to have 50 percent of LA students in charter schools by 2023. The plan cited, as potential donors to this project, Michael Bloomberg, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and the foundation of fellow billionaire school privatizer Bill Gates.
A similar covert plan to charterize Oakland has long been an “open secret,” according to UC Berkeley education policy professor Bruce Fuller. Over a quarter of Oakland students are now in charter schools. That’s the highest rate of charter enrollment in California.
GO Public Schools is a key player in the effort to tip Oakland toward complete privatization. GO is a nonprofit that has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into electing pro-charter candidates to the Oakland school board. The organization is another project of billionaires, including Michael Bloomberg (again), T. Gary Rogers — the late CEO of Dreyer’s Ice Cream — as well as Silicon Valley tycoon Arthur Rock.
Independently of GO, Bill Gates and Walmart heirs Carrie Walton-Penner and her husband Greg Penner have spent big on pro-charter candidates and groups in Oakland. The Waltons even funded a charter school in East Oakland — a school that failed within a year, disrupting education for hundreds of students and costing OUSD several hundred thousand dollars, according to the East Bay Express.
GO-funded candidates dominate the Oakland school board. Given that fact, it’s tempting to speculate about why, exactly, the school board let then-superintendent Wilson wreck the district’s budget through profligate spending on administrators and consultants. Were they deceived? Negligent? Or did they know their corporate-trained superintendent was purposely setting the district up for an aggressive privatization push?
The Charter School Effect
The current superintendent’s proposal to shutter public schools and shift to charters would be a disaster for the city. School closures are most likely to happen in low-income communities and communities of color; these closures are disruptive to students and their communities.
Even worse is the proposal to rely more heavily on charters. Advocates of charter schools present them as more efficient, innovative alternatives to traditional public schools. Pro-charter groups claim that traditional public schools have failed poor and working-class communities, and that unaccountable charter schools are the solution.
All of this is fantasy. Research on charter school academic outcomes has shown that charters perform no better on average than public schools, and often fare worse. What does predict school performance is how wealthy a school district is.
Schools in districts with high average incomes generally perform better, and those in districts with low incomes perform worse. Since public schools receive a large portion of their funding from local property taxes, addressing inequities in school funding by redistributing wealth is the way to address failing schools.
Although charter schools don’t improve student outcomes, they have all sorts of destructive impacts. As noted above, they massively drain resources from public schools. In the 2016–17 school year alone, OUSD lost over $57 million in revenue to charter schools, according to a report by In the Public Interest.
Charters are a particularly severe drain on resources for special needs students. In the Public Interest reports that, in the 2015–16 school year Oakland charters received 28 percent of special education funding but enrolled only 19 percent of special education students.
The imbalance is even more extreme when it comes to the highest-need students: charters enrolled only 15 percent of emotionally disturbed students, 8 percent of autistic students, and 2 percent of students with multiple disabilities. Indeed, charter schools are notorious for refusing to accept special needs students. The result is that special ed students disproportionately attend public schools, which are left increasingly ill-equipped to serve them.
Introducing a substantial number of charters into a district creates a kind of funding downward spiral. Public schools struggle financially because they lose resources to charter schools; charter advocates then argue that the solution is further privatization. This is exactly the dynamic we see playing out now in Oakland.
Billionaires aren’t building more charter schools because they want to help students. They are expanding charters because charters further corporate interests in a number of ways. Charters open up opportunities for companies to take advantage of noncompetitive bidding for contracts, because they are not democratically accountable to the public and exempt from many of the regulations that public schools face. The lack of accountability and transparency has also allowed many charter networks to engage in fraud and abuse, including self-dealing.
A 2015 report by the Center for Popular Democracy estimated that federal, state, and local governments could lose more than $1.4 billion to charter school fraud and waste. There are also plenty of legal opportunities for profit: thirty-three states allow for-profit companies to manage charter schools, and four states allow charters themselves to be for-profit.
The charter school movement is also an assault on teachers’ unions, one of the last bastions of organized labor in the US. Charters are usually nonunion, allowing them to impose more work for lower pay. The wealthy have a strong material interest in paying teachers less, since that means lower taxes; they also have an interest in a weaker labor movement generally.
It’s no coincidence, then, that attacks on unions are central to pro-charter advocacy.
The ultrarich also have an interest in controlling curricula, so as to shape children into the kinds of workers and citizens they want. As Arlene Inouye of United Teachers of Los Angeles recently told Jacobin, “Corporate interests … don’t want young people these days to have critical thinking skills and to challenge authority.”
Many charters institute extreme disciplinary regimes on students. A CityLab analysis of New York City charter schools, for instance, found that almost all of the top fifty schools in terms of suspensions and expulsions from 2013 to 2015 were charter schools. Charters have even been known to kick out students who don’t get high enough test scores. Ironically, this was true of the Harlem Children’s Zone, the centerpiece of the pro-charter propaganda film Waiting for Superman.
More broadly, charter schools represent the tip of the spear of complete privatization and corporatization of schools. As the experience of Oakland shows, once a district has a large enough percentage of students enrolled in charter schools, it inevitably faces a push for replacing remaining public schools with charters. If the charter school movement goes unchecked, the likely result is the destruction of education as a public good, and complete control of schools by private interests.
If and when OEA goes on strike for a better contract, they won’t just be fighting OUSD. They will be fighting the ultrarich elites who bought out the school board, pushed the district to the financial brink, and now want to use the crisis they created to attack teachers’ unions and privatize Oakland schools. Like the demands of the recently victorious Los Angeles teachers, Oakland teachers’ demands for better pay and adequate staffing are demands to preserve and improve public education. They represent resistance to the school privatization movement.