Opinion: Closing Oakland Schools Hurts Students, No Matter How You Sell It

Oakland Teachers Go On One-Day Strike To Protest New ContractThe Oakland school district is likely to propose the closing of more schools using a term borrowed from corporate America called “rightsizing.” The Business Dictionary calls rightsizing: “The process of a corporation reorganizing or restructuring their business. The term rightsizing is often used by companies instead of downsizing because it sounds less drastic.”

Adopting corporate vocabulary for public institutions is a problem, but the bigger problem is that closing schools has no educational justification. The most definitive national study of school closings indicates that they do not save money or improve student education.
University of Maryland researcher Gail Sunderman and UC Berkeley professors Erin Coghlan and Rick Mintrop produced a report “School Closure as a Strategy to Remedy Low Performance” for the National Education Policy Center.

They document that closing schools is not good for either student performance or non-cognitive well-being, and they begin their recommendations with this statement: “The relatively limited evidence base suggests that school closures are not a promising strategy for remedying low student performance.”

Four important points emerge from the study that was published in May of this year:

  1. Some have argued that closing schools where students do not have high test scores will help those students to do better.  The evidence indicates that the opposite is true.
    Student performance declines in the year after the closing is announced, even before the school is actually closed.   There is also an increase in dropout rates.
    Performance declines further at the new school to which the student is assigned.  Even if the new school is a better-performing school than the one from which the student was transferred (which is often not the case), performance improves in the second and third year but not more than it would have improved if the student had stayed at the original school. The studies also found modest negative spillover effects on the students attending the schools receiving the new students.
  2. Closings have a differential negative impact on Black students. In urban school closures 61 percent of the impacted students are African-American although African-American students makes up only about 31 percent of urban school populations.  And in some districts such as Chicago, Black teachers are also more likely to be affected.
  3. Students do not feel that they are being “saved” from a “failing” school. They experience the closings as oppressive.
  4. Closing schools does not save money.

In the case of Detroit, for example, the study concluded that the district achieved little or no savings, because of the extra costs associated with moving the additional students lost to the district and the renovation costs for upgrading schools, some of which were themselves later closed. The notion that schools should have a minimum size is not born out by a look at the average private school, which is smaller than the average public school.

Wealthier people do not, by and large, choose large anonymous institutions for their kids. Why should we?

So why would the Oakland district do something which is not helpful to its students?

The following are speculations:  First, the school board may not have this information.  (I plan to encourage them to read the study.) Second, it seems that the school board is being pressured in policy by the same entities that have led Oakland astray persistently.  The Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT), for example, is a quasi private body of consultants, operating out of Bakersfield, which was involved in the take-over of the school district years ago.


Further, a number of Sacramento politicians are heavily funded by corporatized charter schools and may be willing to see public schools close because districts are required to offer closed schools sites to charters.

The recommendation of the NEPC study on school closings is simple – Instead of taking the costly step of closing needy schools, invest in them.

Kitty Kelly Epstein, PhD, hosts Education Today on KPFA and tweets from @educate2day941


Opinion: The State Is Responsible for Oakland’s Budget Crisis

The fight for decent education in Oakland for all the students, not just those who are from privileged backgrounds, stretches back for decades.


We need to look at a little history in order to put the current Oakland schools budget crisis in perspective, see who really bears the blame for this predicament and pose solutions that will not make public education worse.


First of all, there were no good old days when the schools worked for everybody.


The old boy network ran Oakland’s segregated, tracked, over-tested schools through the early 1970s.


As the Black community became larger and more organized, African-American leaders were elected to the school board and they began changing some of these policies.


They hired more Black and Latino teachers; organized parents; demanded less racist curriculum; and ended the most explicit tracking.  Yet change was slow and incomplete, partly because the worst policies were generalized throughout the state and defended by state institutions.


Soon after Oakland elected a majority non-white Board of Education in the mid-1980s, various state and local politicians started trying to get the district taken over by the state.


They had many motivations; a major one was the desire to control Oakland’s multi-million dollar budget.  They used racism to paint Oakland’s people and leaders as ignorant and corrupt, harking back to the stereotypes used in the South to undermine Reconstruction leaders.


Unlike any other district in the country, Oakland was able to fight off state control for 15 years.  This is one of the least known but most significant victories for Oakland’s oppositional political culture.


The most important reason for this success was the leadership of then school board president Sylvester Hodges who insisted that the district maintain a well-balanced budget.


Kitty Kelly Epstein


He believed that take-over by the state would be the worst thing that could happen to Oakland, a position which was born out by later events in Compton, Camden, Chicago, and a dozen other mostly-“minority” school districts that were taken.


The take-over of school districts is essentially a form of racial voter suppression.


Hodges retired from the school board, and the relentless pressure for take-over continued with State Senator Don Perata and former Mayor Jerry Brown playing a major role.

They pushed out the budget-conscious Superintendent Carole Quan and brought in Dennis Chaconas Though a good educator in some ways, he did not keep the budget balanced, giving Perata and Brown he excuse they needed for state take-over.


I attended the Sacramento hearings and watched Democratic legislators dismiss the pleas of Oakland’s diverse residents with absolute disdain.


Perata’s resolution, passed by the State Legislature, forced the district to take a $100 million dollar loan, more than double the district’s actual debt.


The only stated reason for the take-over was financial crisis, which meant that the State Administrator’s main job was to reduce the deficit.  In fact, the State Administration did massive district reorganization, abolished the power of the elected school board, began opening charter schools, fired experienced local minority administrators, closed schools and ran up an even larger debt than the original deficit.


In 2006, newly elected Mayor Ron Dellums went to Sacramento and told the state school superintendent that Oakland wanted its schools back. Assemblyman Sandre Swanson introduced a bill to return local control.


These actions combined with the many protests by residents and board members against State Supt. O’Connell led to his announcement that local control would be returned.


But local control was returned with a number of stipulations:


  • -Oakland had to pay off the inflated loan with interest                                                           
  • A state “trustee” was appointed with the power to veto any aspect of the superintendent’s budget that was deemed to be overspending.  The district was required to pay for the trustee, but the state hired the person.  The only job of this this official, who currently earns $117,600 a year, is to make certain that Oakland’s budget stayed balanced.                                                                                                                                       
  • The school board was forced to undergo training about its duties, which should not, according to the training, involve asking questions or disagreeing with the Superintendent in public. Board decisions on all major questions were supposed to be unanimous.

Given these constraints, major responsibility lies with the State of California, which forced the original loan, only returned limited control; and forced Oakland to pay for a trustee appointed by the state who did not do the budget-watching job for which she was being paid.

Four New Studies Show We Must Rethink Our Children’s Education


By Kitty Kelly Epstein


There are a number of new educational research findings that are important for teachers and parents to consider.

Especially significant are four new studies: the importance of ethnic studies in student performance, the negative impact of retaining students, how Teach for America displaces Black teachers and the harmful effects of teaching reading to children in kindergarten.

In an interesting study on the impact of ethnic studies on the school performance of students in a San Francisco high school, Stanford Professor Thomas Dee found that students who took ethnic studies classes had better attendance and better grades than their peers at the same level of school performance who did not take these classes.

His study bears out the argument made by many Black and Latino educators that students do better in school when they learn about history and issues related to people of their ethnicity and culture. http://news.stanford.edu/news/2016/january/ethnic-studies-benefits-011216.html

Many parents wonder whether holding children back in the same grade is a good idea.

The most recent research, conducted with a large cohort and a sophisticated research model, concluded that children who were retained in the same grade were “scarred” and were more likely to drop out of high school, even when the grade retention happened in the early grades.

This is particularly important research in the Bay Area, since a large portion of those retained in the same grade are African-American or Latino males.

(The abstract is available free at this site; the full article has a cost charged by the journal)


The Impact of Teach for America on Black Teacher Displacement in Urban Schools: Associate Professor Terrenda White finds that policies promoted by Teach for America contribute to the displacement of veteran African-American teachers, even though TFA has recently begun to recruit more diverse individuals for its own teaching corps.

The author concludes that, “TFA’s diversity initiative, while potentially praiseworthy, neither negates nor redresses the harms of its policy commitments that have disrupted the professional lives of Black teachers broadly and undermined their pedagogical contributions to children.”

The article is long and is available free through an open access journal. Reading the introduction will give you the gist.


The parents of young children will want to pay particular attention to the report by Dr. Nancy Carllson-Paige, and co-authors, “Kindergarten Reading: Little to Gain and Much to Lose”

They summarize the many studies indicating harmful results from the formal teaching of reading in kindergarten. She lists many appropriate and helpful reading-related activities.

But actual direct reading instruction in kindergarten does not lead to better reading ability in the later grades, and, according to some studies, is correlated with negative outcomes.

In considering this evidence, it is worth asking whether sometimes children may be referred to special education because they cannot do things that schools should not be forcing them to do in the first place.


Kitty Kelly Epstein, PhD is the host of Education Today on KPFA 94.1 and the author of “A Different View of Urban Schools: Civil Rights, Critical Race Theory and Unexplored Realities” (2012) Peter Lang Publishers.

Tell Oakland City Council: This is an Emergency; Stop Evictions and Rent Increases Building a few affordable housing projects is “too little, too late”


By Kitty Kelly Epstein


There is an emergency in Oakland. The policies that prevail in Oakland City Hall are going to drive most of us out of Oakland, unless we stand up.

The land, the resources, the tax money and the city staff time that belong to Oakland residents are being spent almost entirely on developments to house wealthy non-Oaklanders in buildings that none of our current residents can afford to live in.

The emergency is clear from a city report: “Oakland’s market rate rents are well above what is affordable to the typical Oakland renter.”

A majority, 60 percent, of Oakland residents are renters.

The city’s document goes further. The rental rate for a typical 2-bedroom apartment increased 40 percent in one year to $2,950.

A resident earning the Oakland minimum wage would have to work 185 hours a week to afford that apartment.

The actual rent that the typical Oakland resident can afford is $700 a month. There are no rentals in that price range.

The answers proposed by elected officials are ridiculously inadequate.

The city is now talking about maybe, possibly, building a small amount of affordable housing. It’s too little, too late.

Even if the city carried out any of the tiny number of affordable projects they have mentioned, by the time they are built, most of those individuals who need such housing would be gone from the city or joining the homeless on the street.

Meanwhile, the city is continuing to give public land that belongs to all of us to private developers to build even more units that none of us can afford to live in.

We are the city of the Black Panthers, of labor organizing and the longshore union (ILWU) that strikes against apartheid. We are the city of Barbara Lee and her historic stand against war.

We are the city whose residents said we valued diversity more than anything else as the Continued from page 1 reason we live here.

And some of our residents, led by Alliance of California for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and Causa Justa: Just Cause, have bravely stopped people from being evicted from their homes.

Most recently, East Lake United for Justice stopped the City Council from giving away another prime piece of public land to wealthy, for-profit developers.

Time Magazine said we “stole Wall Street’s mojo” during the Occupy movement. Those of us who are not yet involved in the housing movement need to get our mojo back or we’ll all be driving in from Antioch for a nostalgic glimpse of our lake.

We need drastic action from the City Council to declare a state of emergency and a moratorium on evictions and rent increases, until city officials can work out exactly how they will correct the situation so that we are to be able to stay in our homes in our beautiful city.

For a copy of the City of Oakland report, “Citywide Rental Survey,” go to http:// www2.oaklandnet.com/oakca1/groups/ceda/documents/ report/oak056016.pdf

If you want to get involved, email housingmojo@gmail. com

Kitty Kelly Epstein is a professor and Oakland resident. She hosts Education Today on KPFA 94.1 and authored the book, “Organizing to Change a City” (2012), Peter Lang.

What Mayors Can do to Make a Difference in Schools:  The Example of Ron Dellums in Oakland

Many U.S. mayors and governors approach public schools with intense criticism.     L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa critiqued the L.A. schools and tried to take them over.  Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed fifty schools, mostly in the Black community.   And New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie says the teachers union should be “punched in the face” and recently refused to sign a bill mandating recess for elementary school students.

(Really – He can’t get behind recess?)

Former Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums took a different approach.   He acted on a number of recommendations from his seven community-led education task forces, which had generally advocated for greater democracy and new programmatic approaches, rather than mayoral take-over or headline-grabbing teacher bashing.

He and his task forces thought the school board should get to run the school district.  So his first act after being elected Mayor was a drive to Sacramento to tell the State Superintendent that Oakland wanted its schools back.     The community had been pressuring for a return to local control ever since state take-over began in 2003.and local control was returned within a few months of Dellums’ actions.

When asked to endorse California’s bid for Race to the Top money in 2009, he said “No.  I don’t think there should be a competition for which children get money. They are all our children” Pressured by an assortment of press and other elected officials, he kept on saying “No.”  And he turned out to be right.  The competition and testing endorsed by the Business Roundtable and other corporate leaders have produced a national education system that is declining in the very test scores these schemes were designed to increase.

These two examples exhibited his commitment to democratic governance, but, at the same time, he thought mayors could be programmatically helpful.

Everyone now admits that there is a teacher shortage, and teacher diversity is shockingly low.  Dellums was the first Mayor to do anything about it. He held a big gathering of soon-to-be college graduates and career changers at City Hall and told his life story of growing up in Oakland.  He rallied them with the image of what it would mean to young people if they became teachers.   Hundreds signed up to check out the opportunity and many eventually became teachers.  Then he worked directly with the school district to create the most successful program in the country for recruiting, preparing, credentialing and supporting diverse teachers from the local community.  The Teach Tomorrow in Oakland program and its director, Rachelle Rogers-Ard (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6wP-oBGXZs) are nationally regarded for the unique approach, and other programs such as the Teacher Apprenticeship Program (https://www.hnu.edu/academics/graduate-programs/teacher-apprenticeship-program) have since been developed in the region.

A former Congressman, Dellums had been a national leader on health issues, opposition to apartheid, proposals to reduce the military budget and pressure to end the war in Vietnam. He was the first legislator to propose national health insurance through a single-payer system.

Given the opportunity to make a difference in the health of Oakland youngsters, he worked with a national foundation to fund and build five new school based health centers on middle-school campuses in flatlands, low-income neighborhoods where children did not have even a school nurse, before the health centers were built.

This project became a model for the nation.

Mayors should be involved in schools, not as dictators, but as allies. Dellums left his imprint on Oakland and these policies and programs for the benefit of youth will now be expanded at the Dellums Social Justice institute he has just started.

Kimberly Mayfield Lynch is chair of the Education Department at Holy Names University and chair of the local chair of Black Women Organized for Political Action.

Kitty Kelly Epstein is a professor who worked with former Mayor Dellums from 2007 to 2011. Her book, Organizing to Change a City (2012) Peter Lang Publishers expands on the themes in this article.