A day after Occupy Oakland demonstrators were evicted with tear gas from Frank Ogawa Plaza at one end of Broadway last week, at the other end hundreds of parents and students crowded into the Oakland Technical High School auditorium to protest the pending closure of five city schools.
The one event drew national headlines, representing one of the most dramatic confrontations between police and the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators anywhere in the country.
The other played out as a familiar local story of a troubled urban school district being forced to close schools to balance its budget.
But there was a relationship between the two events — one more teachers are publicly pointing out.
The financial crisis which Wall Street helped trigger beginning in September 2008 has had a devastating impact on the state’s schools. Already lagging behind almost every state in how much it spends per child on its schools, California has trimmed billions of dollars from its K-12 budget since then.
The results in many districts across the state have been disastrous: larger class sizes, shorter school years, fewer counselors, music and art programs, and librarians. The net effect has been that children get less individual time with teachers and other support staff.
This is happening at precisely the time when federal “accountability” standards are being ratcheted up, resulting in more than half of so-called Title 1 schools serving low-income students in the state essentially being labeled as “failing” under the No Child Left Behind Act.
The Oakland school district, which has been battling budget demons for years, including paying back a state bailout loan after facing insolvency nearly a decade ago, has had to make additional deep cuts in programs to reduce its expenditures.
In addition, Oakland has been deeply affected by the housing bubble fueled by the flood of sub-prime loans, “collateralized debt obligations,” and other exotic instruments emanating from Wall Street.
Earlier in the decade, housing prices in the San Francisco Bay Area reached such stratospheric levels that working class and middle class blacks could no longer afford to live there. In a complex process of dislocation, many bought houses in distant communities like Antioch, Brentwood, and Pittsburgh, many miles from Oakland.
At least in part as a result of black out-migration, well-documented in a series of reports by the Urban Strategies Council, the black population in Oakland has plummeted by 25 percent, and declined even more in the Oakland schools. African American students now comprise about 32 percent of the Oakland school population—compared to 55 percent a decade earlier. In 2010-11.
The impact on the Oakland’s total student population has been dramatic, dropping from nearly 55,000 in 2000-01 to just over 46,000 a decade later.
Because California schools get paid based on how many children are in attendance, declining enrollment has meant that the district gets less money from the state, on top of other budget reductions they have experienced as a result of the state’s fiscal crisis.
Gentrification of some of its neighborhoods has not been able to offset these trends, in part because more affluent white families have not enrolled their children in the city’s public schools in sufficient numbers to make a difference. White enrollments have stayed fairly static—in the single digits—over many years.
The Oakland schools are having to deal with another relatively unexamined reality: the impact of high levels of unemployment and housing foreclosures on a child’s ability to succeed in school. According to city estimates, the unemployment rate in Oakland is 17 percent, nearly twice the national average. Among youth, the rates are far higher.
Schools are expected to achieve even better results, even as millions of children in California experience historically high levels of geographic dislocation, stress, and domestic strife.
But a number of studies show that unemployment alone can affect how well students do at school. For example, a 2011 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that job losses and business closings in a state are associated with declines in student achievement, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They’re also less likely to make “adequate yearly progress” as expected under the No Child Left Behind law.
In these and other ways, the fallout from the financial crisis is being felt inside classrooms in Oakland, and other communities afflicted by high levels of unemployment and housing dislocation.
Some teachers are making that connection, and many have been active in Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere. In one of the most notable actions so far, the Oakland Education Association encouraged teachers to take a “personal leave” day to join the “general strike” called for on November 2.
And some did, like a Melrose Elementary kindergarten teacher who complained about budget cuts that have increased the number of students in her classroom, while holding a sign reading “Bail Out Schools Not Banks” at the demonstration on Wednesday.
“All this money has been used for bailouts and wars that could have been used for education,” said the teacher, who only wanted to be identified as “Emily B.”
This may just be the beginning. As the Occupy Wall Street movement tries to define its agenda, it is likely that shrinking school budgets will figure more and more prominently on it.
What is far less clear is how the still-fuzzy politics and tactics of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its emerging relationship with teachers will play itself out in the coming months. Shutting down the Port of Oakland would seem to have little to do with getting funds restored to public schools, for example.
In Los Angeles last month there was a different tension. Teachers under the banner of Occupy LAUSD marched on district headquarters to protest school cutbacks. That led Superintendent John Deasy to declare that the protesters were “misinformed,” and their actions “contrary to the spirit and intent of Occupy Wall Street.”
Sounding more like one of the protestors than a defender of the status quo, he said:
LAUSD is also the victim of deliberate and pernicious government actions aimed at the least powerful in our society, What we need is a state that invests in our youth more than it invests in our prisons.
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