ED Corner: OUSD’s Budget Status—It’s Complicated

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Jessica Stewart. I’m a former OUSD teacher, organizer, mom of two young kids (one of whom is headed to kindergarten next year!), and one of the founding members of GO Public Schools. I’ve been working with GO for a decade since we started organizing in the Fall of 2008. This past June, I took on the role of Executive Director of the Oakland team.

Through my experiences as an educator, nonprofit leader, and community organizer, I’ve had the privilege to talk with thousands of my fellow Oaklanders to hear their perspective on what works and doesn’t work for Oakland students.

Last week, we shared a video from our Director of Educator Leadership Nima Tahai previewing this fall’s OUSD budget and what to look out for. I posted it on Facebook, and a friend who is an educator and parent asked me a great question in the comments: How would OUSD’s financial picture change if charter schools weren’t in the picture, or if charters folded into the district but kept their models?

These were the thoughts I shared, edited slightly for clarity:

There would be some economies of scale in that environment, but also 15,000 kids coming back who would need to be served and have teachers and materials—so it wouldn’t be an infusion of new resources. Many analyses of that area seem to miss that point.

It’s also mostly an intellectual exercise. It’s hard to imagine those educators and families who have chosen to create public charters for lots of complex reasons to decide to come back into a system that many view as having failed their families for generations. It’s hard to imagine that group, who is mostly low-income and over 90% families raising kids of color, being fine with being told that we’re going back to a system where almost all of the people who get to choose their schools in this city are the wealthy who can choose to live in certain neighborhoods where your mortgage payment buys you a “good” school. This feels politically impractical and also very complicated. Certainly, the whole situation is complex.

You mention keeping the [charter] models.  If that was a reality, so many of them would have already existed or been started in the district. Many have tried and failed to make that work, and the reasons are all over the map. For example, you can’t run a public Montessori school if you can’t get a waiver to be able to specifically hire staff with Montessori training vs. following the teacher contract language around [prioritizing] seniority that doesn’t take that kind of training into account. Others could probably share stories of how folks have tried but have not been able to get the necessary waivers from district policy or union contract to make those happen.

One of the key things to understand the district budget problems is to know that it’s not one thing. It’s so many. It’s not just public charters. OUSD has struggled with this issue way before charters got here. It’s not just a big central office (that’s part of it). It’s not just the looming pension crisis (that’s part of it). It’s not just mismanagement and mistakes (that’s part of it). It’s not just lack of priorities (that’s part of it). It’s not just too many schools, many of which are too small to reasonably run (that’s part of it).

The biggest factor is how California is so awful at school funding. Prop 13 in the late 70s devastated our ability to fund education at reasonable levels. We have a chance to change that on the 2020 ballot, but even that proposition will not completely fix our problem—or even come close, really.

Ultimately, it’s an issue that needs lots of nuanced solutions, lots of courage, and will be painful to fix. We’re in for a tough ride. And the neighborhoods that have been most historically looted are in for the roughest ride if we’re not incredibly thoughtful about how we take care of those kids first.

Please share your thoughts on this perspective, or shoot me an email and let me know what other topics you think I should cover in this blog.

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