The Great Classroom Robbery of 2012: Oakland City Schools
Harold Berlak is a long time Oakland resident. He holds a masters in teaching and doctorate in educational research from Harvard He is a fellow at the Education Policy Center in Boulder CO, and author of numerous articles and books on curriculum, educational testing, and assessment policy.
[email protected] 6/23/12
In a recent press conference Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith expressed his sympathy for the children and parents protesting the closing of Lakeview and three other elementary schools.
School closings are a hard business; loyalty to local schools runs deep. But the deed needed doing, said Superintendent Smith. The decision to close Lakeview and three other schools has been ratified by a majority of the democratically elected OUSD Board. The closings, Superintendent Smith tells us, were needed because Oakland as many other urban districts is in dire financial straights. State support for public education is declining; the District is $100, 000 in the red to the State; and Oakland’s school population is shrinking. The financial benefits of closing Lakeview and the other schools, we were told, is two million dollars. Two million is not small change, but it is nevertheless a miniscule percentage of total OUSD expenditures.
To put it more directly, Smith’s frequently repeated claim that the school closings will save the district two million dollars is a misrepresentation. It fails to take into account the significant losses incurred by school closings — cost of land consumed by the newly installed mobile classrooms needed to accommodate students displaced from the closed schools; the loss of valuable outdoor school space, not to mention the psychic and social costs of crowding students into buildings intended for many fewer students.
I’ve spent many years in urban schools and I have yet to meet parent, teacher, or student who prefers a mobile classroom to a standard sized brick and mortar classroom. Why? Because real schools and classrooms, and banks of detached mobile classrooms are clearly not equivalent, even though they are treated as equivalent in the Superintendent’s budget calculations. Under Smith’s plan the proportion of students children displaced to mobile classrooms will continue as before and most likely increase at the same time the District leases an entire school (Santa Fe) to neighboring Emeryville and spends its scarce resources to convert perfectly adequate Lakeview classrooms into the new central office for OUSD administrators. Coincidentally, the site of the former OUSD headquarters adjacent to downtown is or likely soon will be available for redevelopment.
In a recent Media Advisory from the Superintendent, Smith adds a litany of other reasons for closing Lakeview, including low attendance rates and low-test scores in English and math. This is disingenuous. First, because standardized test scores are a specious measure of school quality. Lakeview test scores have in fact increased slightly, as the Superintendent admits, a remarkable achievement because student test scores are highly related to the poverty level of parents that has increased at Lakeview. And why does Smith single out Lakeview school? Numerous Oakland schools not slated for closure have comparable test scores and attendance rates .
There is time for the Board and the Superintendent to act responsibly to protect the interest of Oakland’s children and parents rather than the interest of the school privatizers. Two thirds of the District’s debt to the State was incurred by the state- appointed ‘trustee’. The Superintendent should be leading the charge for the State to pay for its profligacy. If Superintendent Smith cannot work in good faith with community organizations, the OEA, and others to find a more agreeable resolution to the district’s immediate financial difficulties, then he should resign.