Oakland public schools are struggling

A 1–pager outlining evidence of the problem, diverse perspectives, and existing initiatives that attempt to address the problems.

Buster Benson
Why Are We Yelling?


Evidence of the problem

  • Oakland Unified School District plans to close 24 out of 86 public schools over the next couple years.
  • The OUSD will have an estimated $57 million shortfall in 2020–21.
  • Oakland schools now have 1 nurse for 1,350 students; 1 guidance counselor for 600. Both ratios are far below national standards.
  • Oakland teachers are now the lowest paid in Alameda County, and don’t cover medical insurance. Teachers start at about $46,000 and max out at about $85,000. (source)
  • A one-bedroom apartment in Oakland costs more than $2,330 a month, or about 60 percent of a starting teacher’s salary.)
  • According to the OUSD’s Certificated Season Hiring Report, this year we’ve had as many as 565 vacant positions — 24 percent of our total teaching staff.
  • State aid for our local schools is increasing in a way that is sufficient to meet the needs of students, parents and teachers, but it seems to be going to charter schools instead of public schools (they cost $57 million a year, and have been given good leases on formerly public buildings).
  • “Community of Schools CityWide Plan” speculates that existing Oakland schools will have 11,000 vacant seats by 2023.
  • The school district is spending $X/year on administrative budgets and consultants.
  • Wealthy donors have helped fund Oakland’s school board races, including Michael Bloomberg, tech venture capitalist Arthur Rock, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. These business leaders have all poured money into groups backing successful campaigns for Oakland school district board members who support a “portfolio model” that uses private-sector-style governance to run public education, including divesting funds from underperforming schools.
  • Currently more than a quarter of Oakland’s students are in charter schools, up from around 17 percent in 2009.

Diverse perspectives about the problem

  • Keith Brown, an Oakland native and president of the Oakland Education Association shares, “A generation ago, we had a nurse in every school. We had an adequate number of speech pathologists and guidance counselors to serve all of our students. Our teachers earned enough money to live here and established deep roots in their school communities. Not anymore. Years of chronic underfunding, the unregulated growth of an unaccountable charter industry, and misguided school district priorities have starved Oakland schools of the resources from which I benefited as a child. Retaining qualified teachers is closely linked to improved student achievement. Outside special interests have too much sway over Oakland schools”
  • After 40 years, prop 13’s failings are evident: “Proposition 13 was a multi-pronged attack designed by businessman-activist Howard Jarvis and his supporters to do two things: ease the overall tax burden and protect a stable culture of homeownership. To that end, it set tax rates at 1% of a property’s sale price and capped annual increases at no more than 2%. Then it required future tax hikes of any form to pass the state Legislature by a two-thirds vote. Today, Californians remain among the most highly taxed people in the nation; low property taxes have been more than offset by increased income, sales and gas taxes. That might not be so bad if Proposition 13 was thereby rendered a wash. But it’s not. Its effects are deeply regressive taxation and distorted local economies and housing markets. The pernicious incentives that led to these outcomes are obvious in hindsight. With property taxes near frozen, local governments began to see residential development as a liability and commercial development as an income stream. For 40 years, that perspective shaped which new projects cities approved. Homeowners, meanwhile, had a disincentive to move if they had a low property tax bill locked in. Finally, these relatively low property taxes made California an attractive place to undertake speculative real estate investments and leave valuable parcels of land undeveloped.”
  • Nick French, a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of California–Berkeley and a member of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, writes Oakland Teachers are on the Verge of a Strike, “The current superintendent’s proposal to shutter public schools and shift to charters would be a disaster for the city. School closures are most likely to happen in low-income communities and communities of color; these closures are disruptive to students and their communities. Research on charter school academic outcomes has shown that charters perform no better on average than public schools, and often fare worse. What does predict school performance is how wealthy a school district is. Charters are a particularly severe drain on resources for special needs students. In the Public Interest reports that, in the 2015–16 school year Oakland charters received 28 percent of special education funding but enrolled only 19 percent of special education students (source).”
  • Suggest more by leaving a comment or reply.

Initiatives proposed to address the problem

2 years of bargaining between teachers and the district

  • Hasn’t led anywhere.

A teacher’s strike starting February 20th, 2019

  • 3,000 teachers will go on strike from 100 schools, affecting the district’s 37,000 students and their families.
  • Forgiveness of a $36 million dollar loan to OUSD in 2003
  • Smaller class sizes.
  • More support for students (like nurses and guidance counselors).
  • A living wage for public school educators (a 12% raise over 3 years would cost $24 million this year).
  • Keep our neighborhood schools open — especially in the predominately black and brown communities, where schools have been targeted for closure.
  • Revise of the state’s charter law, which principals argue is a major drain on funding for public schools in Oakland.

Proposal from the OUSD in response to the strike

  • 2/20: 8.5% raise over four years (rejected)

California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act

  • Aiming for the November 2020 ballot. This will be the first commercial property tax reform initiative to qualify for the ballot in 40 years since Proposition 13 passed in 1978.
  • Would require commercial property owners to pay present-day tax rates.
  • Closing California’s commercial property tax loophole restores $11 billion for schools, community colleges and other vital community services, including emergency responder services, parks, libraries, health clinics, trauma centers, affordable housing, homeless services, and roads.

Next steps

Is anything out-dated or incorrect above? Leave a reply or comment related to one of the questions below:

  1. Give feedback about evidence of the problem, or suggest new evidence to include
  2. Share a new perspective of the problem.
  3. Give feedback about the proposed initiatives and their goals, or share a new one.
  4. Do something else.
  5. Do nothing.



Buster Benson
Why Are We Yelling?

Product at @Medium. Author of “Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement”. Also: busterbenson.com, new.750words.com, and threads.net/@bustrbensn