The Oakland Unified School District board plans to close, merge, or downsize eleven schools in the next two years in order to accommodate the issue of declining enrollment and the effects this has on the city’s budget. This is an amendment from the original proposal, which would have affected 15 Oakland schools. “Oakland is a declining enrollment district that is within a declining enrollment county that is within a declining enrollment state,” said Jessica Stewart, a co-founder of GO Public Schools. GO Public Schools is a public education advocacy organization that started in Oakland and works to make the public school system more equitable.
The proposal faced immediate backlash, especially from families and employees of the schools that were planned to close. In response, the board amended the proposal and decreased the number of schools to be affected. The public was not satisfied – on February 19, one day after the highly controversial board meeting, the house of Gary Yee (the chair of the OUSD board) was vandalized.
School closures are a highly sensitive issue; they can displace students and disrupt communities. “At Epic I was part of a community, and when I went to a new school, I didn’t feel like I belonged,” said Alex Marcial, a tenth-grader at Latitude who attended Epic Middle School. Epic closed in 2019. However, many believe that closures are entirely necessary to support remaining schools and students. OUSD has around 80 schools for 34,000 students, as compared to other districts of similar size, which have around 40-60 schools. The district says it cannot afford to support this many schools.
What is causing this decline in enrollment? A common argument from opponents of the proposal is that charter schools are the reason behind this problem. When a student leaves an OUSD school to attend a charter school or a private school, the state funding for that student follows them. For this reason, anti-charter advocates often say that charter schools are “stealing” money from OUSD schools.
“I never hear that being talked about when we talk about Orinda schools, or Bishop O’Dowd,” said Stewart. “I’m not hearing people saying that Bishop O’Dowd is stealing kids from OUSD – or that Orinda, Walnut Creek, and Castro Valley are stealing kids from OUSD. Those kids are seen as their parents are doing what’s best for them.”
Her children attend an OUSD school, but the organization GO Public Schools is vocal in its support of charter schools, and funded campaigns for school board candidates that were akso pro-charter in the 2020 elections.
For students at an Oakland public school, this might seem a little bit worrisome. The idea of a school closing is a daunting one. “I just try to remember that on all sides of this issue, nobody is waking up and saying ‘how can I mess up schools today?'” said Stewart. The board is simply trying to maintain equitable school systems while balancing the financial reality of having too many schools.