What We Do When There is No Education There There

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

During Andy’s and my last podcast, we discussed societal amnesia about education matters.

This week, as we see the teachers of Oakland go on strike …

… I think again of amnesia.

Is it that we simply forget, or that we try to forget, or that we have forces at work that consciously lead us to forget?

Or could it be that these things just don’t matter to us any more as a society, so we don’t care enough to remember?

My sense is that part of the work of CharterFolk is to care much more than other people about the mission of public education, and that caring forces us to remember. And it forces us to insist that others remember too so that somehow we can start making better decisions than our past ones which have kept public education from achieving the excellence and fairness we need it to.

The history of teacher strikes in Oakland is a long and tragic one.

Oakland’s first public school opened in about 1850. For the first century and a quarter of public education in Oakland, there were no teacher strikes. Then in 1975, the legislature sent a bill carried by Senator Rodda to Governor Jerry Brown granting teachers the right to collectively bargain. Fittingly, in one local paper an article about the new legislation appeared beside another depicting a different form of menace being dragged up from the deep.

Brown signed the bill into law on September 22nd, and within days, editorials began appearing across the state. Some marked the significance of growing teacher power.

Others wondered whether the Rodda Act would end up driving school districts into bankruptcy.

The new law took effect on July 1, 1976, three days before the country’s bicentennial. Within a few months, a revolutionary war was playing out among competing unions in Oakland, with each attempting to out-militant the other.

By November of the following year, the first strike had begun.

When it ended eight days later …

… most accounts focused on how little the strike had generated in terms of increased compensation for teachers. In fact, when the teachers ratified the agreement, they simultaneously stated their discontent with the outcome, expressing no confidence in the district’s leadership. Governor-candidate-in-wait Pete Wilson said the small concessions agreed to by the OUSD Board made the deal a win for taxpayers.

But it was just the first skirmish.

Because a little focused on provision in the Rodda Act also granted teacher unions the right to negotiate “agency fee” powers from school districts, which allowed the unions to gather fees from non members, greatly increasing the resources that the unions would have at their disposal. By December of 1981, courts had ruled on a case allowing all teacher unions in Alameda County, including the Oakland Education Association, to enforce agency fee collection.

Almost immediately, the political power of the union grew to behemoth status which translated into new levels of influence over Oakland Unified School Board elections, whether that was helping protect incumbent candidates in 1981 …

… or going three-for-three later in the decade behind a slate of newcomers billed as “reformers.”

The union’s increased influence postured it to come out swinging …

… and this time when they settled, teachers “cheered wildly” at the outcome: 20% raises that sent tremors across California and the entire nation.

Three years later, the State approved a $10M bailout of the district when OUSD proved unable to afford the agreement it had negotiated.

But when the state’s requirements for fiduciary responsibility became known, the district rejected the bailout and got a loan from private sources to stay solvent.

Seven years later the next strike happened.

For five long weeks, the community pled for common sense.

In the end, the agreement that was struck offered 26% raises to teachers. Once again, a deal negotiated in Oakland reverberated across the nation.

And when the district again couldn’t afford what it had negotiated, the state approved a $100M bailout, ten times the size of the 1989 offer, which this time the district had no choice but to accept.

That $100M loan is still not paid off. In his last year in office during his second stint as governor, Jerry Brown got a deal done to try to help OUSD clean the slate.

All told, the state committed to chipping in another $34.7 million to the district over several years in exchange for the district embracing common sense belt-tightening. The district took the early tranches of funding until the belt-tightening part kicked in, at which point OUSD did what it did in 1989, which was to reject the terms of the bailout.

It made that decision a few months after having learned it was receiving a $300 million dollar infusion from the feds for Covid relief.

But that’s not the only de facto bailout the district has benefitted from of late. In 2021-22, OUSD was by far the largest recipient of Community Schools grant funding …

… receiving 50% more money than LA Unified, though OUSD serves only a tenth as many kids. All told, OUSD was given over 11% of the total statewide Community Schools funding that year, though the district serves about one half of one percent of all students in the state. Those funds, of course, were allocated by the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, who shows special interest in Oakland.

De facto bailout funding has flowed on top of the unprecedented additional resources that have been provided to California public schools over the past decade.

Through it all, we’ve seen two more teacher strikes in Oakland. One in 2019 that by most accounts only secured modest additional concessions from the OUSD Board, leaving 42% of teachers opposed to the deal …

… and a one-day strike during Covid where the union protested the district’s plans to consolidate campuses.

That strike in combination with a hunger strike …

… increased pressure on the school board to limit the number of campus closures …

… leaving the district in a circumstance where it has more than twice as many schools as other districts in the area serving the same number of students …

… with some of the remaining tiny schools demonstrating the most dysfunctional economics found anywhere in public education in the United States. Prescott Elementary, for example, a school serving just over 100 students …

… sees per pupil expenditures that are higher than the most expensive private school tuitions in the Bay Area, while generating academic results that are among the very lowest in California.

All this happens against a backdrop of civic crisis in Oakland.

Last month the A’s announced that they are leaving the city …

… following both the Warriors and the Raiders out the door. Major corporations headquartered in Oakland have joined the exodus.

And now the city confronts the largest budget shortfall in its history.

The only difference between the city and the school district is that the city’s Covid relief money has already run out. And though OUSD has been among the least transparent school districts in California about how it is spending its Covid relief funding, literally refusing to respond to open record requests on the topic …

…ultimately what happened to the city is going to happen to the district too. The money is running out …

…meaning that Oakland Unified is only a couple of years away from budget shortfalls that will be every bit as historic as the ones the city faces now.

Can you imagine what happens to Oakland Unified when that level of budget crisis emerges? On top of all the other chaos the district is already contending with?

Gertrude Stein famously wrote that there was “no there there” in Oakland.

Some people, I recognize, believe that state bailouts for places like Oakland Unified are likely to continue in perpetuity, with the pattern of 10X increases in the size of rescue packages going on and on into exponential infinity.

But I don’t.

The problems are just too big.

The rough beast that is slouching toward Oakland is also slouching toward Los Angeles and Sacramento and San Francisco and Chicago and Philadelphia and … and … and.

There is, in many more ways than one …

… no end in sight other than a scope of dysfunction that will surpass our collective bailout capacity.

And so, we approach a moment of reckoning when, literally, there may soon be “no there there” for thousands of kids and families whose future well-being depends upon accessing a quality education.

With that being the case, CharterFolk, it becomes incumbent upon us to help our world overcome amnesia about education matters.

And in resetting our shared historical bearings, we will posture ourselves to make fundamentally better decisions.

Brought together into a coherent new whole, those decisions will become a new vision for creating the next “there” in public education …

… like the one that the charter school community in Oakland is beginning to advance today and that will ultimately ground our work as CharterFolk for many decades to come.