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.