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Posted on May 2, 2011
By James Harris
After a state takeover of the OUSD in 2003, which produced some good results and helped make Oakland the most improved district in California in the last six years, Oakland is left wondering what it will be forced to cut next. Now the state is asking the OUSD to cut its per-pupil expense by $850, and the district is trying to figure out ways to make those cuts less severe.
Superintendent Smith explained to me that there has been an erosion of school finance and education finance in California since 1975. “Before 1975, California was the most well-funded and high-quality public school system in the United States,” says Smith.
California’s Proposition 13, he says, changed everything, severely altering the fundamentals of school finance and school funding across the state. According to the California Budget Project, “immediately prior to the passage of Proposition 13, local revenues provided nearly half (47.1 percent) of the funding for California’s public schools. Today, with Prop 13 in place, our schools are forced to rely on Sacramento for most of their funding and our revenue-starved state has not kept up with its obligations.”
“We’ve seen a steady degradation of core systems,” says Smith. “I also think we’ve seen an expansion and broadening of the needs. So you have two things happening simultaneously, less and less funding and an increase of need.”
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The result of this failed negotiation is that California public school students get screwed again and the state Legislature gets more time to decide just how it wants state money to be spent. Shortfalls are happening in cities all over the country. Camden, N.J., Detroit, St. Louis and New York all face challenges similar to Oakland’s as state budget cuts mean larger classes, fewer schools and less money to pay deserving teachers. When is enough going to be enough?
Oakland is used to budget cuts. The city itself is currently working to close a $46 million deficit, trying everything to increase tax revenue, from legalizing industrial marijuana growth to generating new partnerships with green builders and developers. But it’s not happening fast enough. Despite the recent re-hiring of 10 of the 80 police officers it had to fire in 2010, Oakland continues to struggle with rampant crime problems and still sits atop the list of the most deadly cities in the United States.
Governors and other leaders around the country are singing the same tune: We have no choice but to make these cuts. If there was another way, we would take that route. No one wants to shortchange the students. Oh, how familiar the sound. Our leaders say these things as though they have no ramifications—as though a student isn’t getting a raw deal. Today is the day we must stand up and say enough is enough.
“It’s not just what’s happening to our young people, but what’s going to happen to our country as a consequence of what’s happening to our young people,” says Dr. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley.
“Young black kids typically pave the road that other members of the youth culture eventually travel. Whether it’s drugs, illegitimacy, crime, whether it’s their disposition and perspective on education and school, young black kids typically pave the road. This isn’t just a black problem, this is an American problem,” he adds.
As I drive up the hill to pay tuition so that my son and daughter don’t have to suffer the public education crisis, I know that I have left under-resourced children and families with one less advocate, one fewer resource to fight for public school students’ rights, one less person to stop the spread of death in our community.
“They are dealing with the world that we have created for them. And one of the reasons that you cannot get an honest discussion about it is that no one wants to step up to the plate and say that the money was more important than the child. And now we are reaping the harvest of what we’ve sown,” says Edwards.
Today, 80 percent of the children in the Alameda County juvenile justice system are from Oakland, and 80 percent of those children are black. It seems black children are learning how to go to jail and die. When will Oakland stand up and teach them how to live?
And whom do you tell about this problem? What do you say to fix it? The truth is that we must undo the damage done by Prop. 13. In slashing property taxes, we’ve slashed our commitment to our children. We are saving and they are dying. It’s not right. And if we are not willing to stand up right now—yes, in this recession in which so many have lost so much—and say “we will lose money, and we will be a little bit more in debt, but our children will have a better future,” then we deserve what we’ve got.
Superintendent Smith and his staff are not discouraged. Through their five-year plan dubbed “Community Schools, Thriving Students” (which must be approved by the school board this summer), the school district is working to lift expectations of Oakland youths. District officials want to turn the OUSD and its schools into “hubs” of activity, which will help them address (among other things) the health, medical and housing needs that are all too common for students and families in under-resourced neighborhoods. Much of the problem in these areas isn’t actual teaching and learning, but rather lack of necessities like healthy food options, sufficient medical care and acceptable living conditions.
Oakland is not alone in this. There must be a national conversation on the state of black and Latino children in the United States’ most prominent urban centers. In case you didn’t know, more people—most of them black and Latino youths—were killed in Oakland than in Afghanistan between 2000 and 2010. What are our children learning?
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