Oakland’s school parcel tax measure, a year in the making (and counting)

Tribune file photo

I can’t imagine spending a year of my life trying to come up with a school parcel tax measure that is palatable to Oakland’s edu-political extremes, but some brave souls have done just that. And, believe it or not, the democratic process behind simply crafting the ballot measure has yet to run its course.

Maybe you can help the parcel tax coalition and the Oakland school board (that, or further muddy the waters!), by opining on the following points that are still up for debate. That is, if you think the school district should float another parcel tax to boost the compensation of its employees in the first place.

Should the measure…

a) go on the June 2010 ballot (more expensive, fewer voters, but it would take effect more quickly if it passed) or on the November 2010 ballot?

b) be a flat tax ($195 per parcel, which would generate an estimated $20 million per year), or should property owners be taxed based on the size of their property (10 cents per square foot, which would generate an estimated $26 million annually)?

c) give publicly funded, independently run charter schools a fixed percentage of the tax revenue, or a proportional share of the dollars that might flex over time (In other words, if charters educate 17 percent of the city’s public school children, they’d receive 17 percent of the money; if enrollment rises or falls over the years, they’d receive more or less, accordingly)?

d) allow charter schools to spend the money however they see fit — not just on employee compensation?

The board finance committee has directed district staff to create two proposals: One with a flat rate, and one with a square footage rate (which the teacher’s union apparently would prefer, although the union dropped out of the parcel tax coalition this fall, saying it wouldn’t support a tax that benefitted charter schools).

I watched the video of the committee’s discussion online, and it seems likely that the tax will benefit all employees in OUSD, not just teachers.

Here’s what David Kakishiba, the board member who also co-chaired the parcel tax coalition, had to say at the meeting:

“As we go to the voters, what’s very clear is that there’s no way we can win unless everybody is united in supporting a given measure, whatever it may be…. While it’s not perfect for everybody, I hope we move forward because this will be a major infusion of resources while the state is hacking us to a comatose state.”

By the time my voter information guide lands on my doorstep, I’m sure this measure will read like poetry.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Ms. J.

    In response to #46, I was impressed by the thoroughness of the response to an earlier post, until I noted that every single point came back to API. I know that test scores are not irrelevant, but the fact that a district representative would find NOTHING else to support an argument about achievement in the district is discouraging because it exemplifies our nationwide fixation on standardized tests as the ONLY measurement of growth. Unfortunately even thoughtful, dedicated educational professionals–people who are good at their jobs in many ways–now fail to question this. So we are trapped. API score = Truth. When someone uses test score growth as a way of showing that a school has improved–and doesn’t go beyond that–s/he is only supporting testing culture, NCLB, and the end of public education.

  • Henry

    I observe the Troy Flint’s post, while passionate, makes a few errors in logic.

    Mr. Flint observes that a previous poster gave “short shrift” to the educational accomplishments of students from modest circumstances. Indeed, the poster does not really discuss this, hence the poster does give this topic the “short shrift.” However, did the poster really “belittle” those students?

    The poster says that family wealth and education level influence student achievement, and then accuses OUSD of better serving schools in affluent areas of the city that schools in other areas. Hence, rather than arguing that demography is destiny, the poster lays the blame on OUSD, rightly or wrongly, for teacher turnover and class size disparities, and to a lesser extent, the wealthy citizens of Oakland, for failing to “give back to the city.”

    Other posters, and even Mr. Flint, agree both 1) that wealth and parent education influence student achievement, and 2) that OUSD has “not done enough to break the negative cycles and destroy the pathologies that exist in our city.”

    However, neither the poster in question nor any of the other posters here “belittle” students from modest circumstances or argue that lack of achievement is their “destiny.” What Mr. Flint has done here is create what are known in argumentation as “straw men,” that is, attributing arguments to opponents that were never actually made, and then proceeding to bash those arguments down.

    Mr. Flint is right to be proud of OUSD’s improvement in recent years. But rather than attack OUSD critics, he should realize that many critics are potential allies.

    Many of the posters on this thread are angry, very angry. They are angry because they think OUSD is failing them, or because they have to spend extra money to ensure that their children are well educated. That negative anger, that “zeal,” could perhaps be turned into positive energy, but probably not if OUSD and Mr. Flint dismiss critics with fallacious counterattacks.

  • Nextset

    I’ve been looking at this thread – the part about Math Education in OUSD.

    Some people are born with ability to handle math and some are not. OUSD is not a district with a lot of students with talent in advanced math. So they don’t invest in math education (and math qualified teachers) – it would be wasted on the population they are in business to serve.

    This is another example of why European Systems sort students at puberty and send the students with ability to schools for them. So everybody doesn’t waste time trying to make one school fit all. People are different and when the schools pretend otherwise you get frustration and wasted opportunity.

    Someone with a child who is unusual for OUSD – and intends to get an advanced university degree in Math or related subjects – should ask themselves what they are doing at OUSD.

  • Henry

    I cannot bear bad arguments, hence I must reply. Nextset, even if we assume that some are born with an innate ability for math and others are not, OUSD serves a huge population – last time I checked Oakland had around 400,000 residents – and any distribution of innate mathematicians will be as well represented in Oakland’s population as in other districts.

    You appear to be making some sort of argument that because OUSD has an over representation of what Mr. Flint terms “students from modest circumstances,” therefore it somehow follows that these students are innately less capable of math. That is absurd. Any innate ability for math will be just as well represented among “students from modest circumstances” as among other students.

    Therefore, we must assume that OUSD has just as large of a sample of innate mathematicians as any other group of students. If OUSD students are failing at math, then the deficiency is in the quality and/or quantity of the instruction.

  • Henry

    Moreover, parents of “students from modest circumstances” whose children possess and innate ability and/or interest in mathematics deserve a public school system that will foster that ability and interest. They should not be required to move their child to another school district.

  • Henry

    Now, to the extent that some students, including OUSD students, will not have an inherent ability and/or interest in mathematics, your argument is fine. I agree, these students should not be forced to take advanced mathematics courses they do not need and cannot handle. However, they do require basic a basic education in maths.

    The European system you speak if is all well and fine, but do not forget that in such systems, the non-university bound students receive a comprehensive basic education, which includes a foreign language, and then on top of that they receive intensive vocational instruction in a trade.

    On contrast, our U.S. system fails to provide many students with even a basic comprehensive education, as they numerous posters’ comments about the lack of maths and foreign language opportunities attest to. And then, even when our system works, rather than training many students for a career in a trade, our system does nothing more than provide them training for a job.

  • http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us Troy Flint

    A number of thoughtful points have been raised in this thread. In fact, it has produced more responses than possibly any other topic in the time I’ve been reading this blog. More proof, I suppose, that discussion of taxes rarely fails to provoke robust debate. What drew me into the fray, however, was the subject of recognition for high-performing students and schools in areas not typically associated with strong academic achievement.

    The issue is textured, but the essential argument is that while we must transform the social context and organizational structures which encourage inequality, we commit an injustice if we do not sufficiently acknowledge the achievements of those who succeed in adverse circumstances. One need not actively belittle a person or group to devalue their accomplishments; much the same can be accomplished (inadvertently and with no ill will) by ignoring them.

    As Henry noted, I largely agree with the original poster’s analysis of the factors producing uneven academic performance throughout Oakland and other American cities. I also believe that the system is in many ways “broken” and that, particularly in a time of shrinking public resources, it will take an incredibly creative, highly collaborative effort to re-imagine and to re-create a school district that can work for all children.

    I also happen to believe that we can acknowledge the gross deficiencies in the current structure while at the same time paying tribute to those who have succeeded in an unfair system we are working mightily to change. The two need not be mutually exclusive. I say this not just because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy (although many find evidence of student success inspirational ), but because in order to transform the school district, we must identify what works as well as what doesn’t.

    Building the school district the children of Oakland deserve is a process and there are certainly many bleak moments. But there are also, to use a term of the day, “green shoots” that indicate substantial growth. We need to replicate these models on a scale that results in the type of school district (virtually) everyone on this blog wants to see. That won’t happen unless these examples gain sufficient attention to inform the public discussion about what is possible for our students and what’s required for them to succeed.

    If I was overzealous in my response, it’s because I fear these valuable lessons sometimes get lost and prevent us from a full understanding of OUSD and the knowledge necessary (on a community-wide level) to make the tough choices ahead. The criticism is necessary and welcome, as much of it is valid and enlightening, but when certain memes threaten to overwhelm the conversation an interjection is warranted in the interest of balance.

    I recognize that the original poster was merely presenting his view in a dramatic fashion so as to underscore his argument and did not mean to slight Oakland’s high- achieving students from impoverished backgrounds. I apologize for giving the opposite implication in my desire to provide instructive examples of schools which are thriving and can serve as a beacon for others in Oakland and around the country.

  • Nextset

    Henry: No, when students are failing it is because they are bad students. Or they fail because they have no aptitude in the subject they are failing in.

    Gameplayers try to gun for the teachers in this situation. It’s not the teacher’s that are making the students fail to learn to read, write and handle math. It is the students who are the failures.

    Failing students should be placed elsewhere in a program they are ready, willing and able to function well in. They should not be in academic programs beyond their ability.

    You think a “good” school is good because of the dirt underneath it, or because the magical teachers have better pixie dust to sprinkle on the students. No. A good school is good because that’s where the good students are.

    OUSD needs good schools. All they have to do is have entrance standards and promotion standards for those few schools they would be “good”. Then they could compete with SF’s Lowell High and Piedmont High. OUSD carefully refuses to do this – even though San Francisco has always maintained Lowell as a good school.

    So good students stay away from OUSD and go to Piedmont, Orinda, etc. And bright children who live in OUSD’s service area are denied the ability to go to a good school because OUSD doesn’t have one. But that’s OK because we can pretend all people are created equal and at OUSD they’re going to be equally badly educated.

    Brave New World.

  • Union Supporter-But

    Nextset: You said something about very few mathematically gifted kids in Oakland. I work with a group of elementary school students and will not identify the name of the school here because there is wide-spread criticism of teaching them advanced algebra in elementary school because as we have been told “what will we do with them in middle school and high school.” This group of flatland students is using a 9th grade algebra text and they are able grasp this material easily and play with the material in a way they call fun. We’re not talking about one or two students we’re talking about a dozen.

    Ask Katie for my information if you want to come and take a look for yourself.

    The problem with teaching really bright kids in Oakland at the levels in which they are able to learn is that we don’t have anywhere for them to go. This group of students could easily be doing geometry by June. But then when they come back to elementary school in September, what will they do? When they get to middle school, what will we do with them?

    The mathematics these students perform is on their own time outside of school hours by volunteers. It’s profoundly amazing. Oh, not a white kid in the crowd – hispanic/Latino, Black, mixed, Pacific Islander and a couple of Asian kids. Nearly all qualify for free lunch, some live with two parents, some with one, some with other relatives. All perform way, way above what we are able to teach during the regular school day.

  • Just My Thoughts

    #59 I think the case that Nextset raises is that there should be public magnet schools (middle and high school level) created to work with students like the ones you mentioned. I too am surprised that these do not exist. All over the east coast, particularly in cities like Baltimore and New York, there are middle and high schools that require a test, GPA requirement and interview to gain admission. Schools like Stuyvesant in New York rival any private school and send their grads to excellent universities, prepared. These magnet schools offer students an opportunity to pursue academic coursework (with a high level of rigor) within the public school system. This gives students and parents real choice and levels the playing field; meaning, poor students with academic promise have a public school that will prepare them for college within an environment that celebrates intellectualism and hard work. Why parents and students don’t have that choice in Oakland is beyond me.

  • Nextset

    Union Supporter: You are right of course that there are math gifted students at OUSD. However I doubt that the number of them per thousand students are as high as Milpitas or the Silicon Valley Area.

    If OUSD decided to field a high school such as Lowell they would find a group of students to assign to that school that would take advanced science and math. Some of those students would even come from the flatlands, if not a high percentage.

    OUSD is not interested in having an academic school where attendance is strictly limited to those with established aptitude for such work. OUSD doesn’t believe in running education systems that way.

    I think that is too bad. But who cares what I think, look at what the families of the bright kids think – they are hotfooting it to Contra Costa County, Piedmont and elsewhere.

    So I suppose we really are seeing the schools segregate by ability. OUSD just isn’t establishing any place for the brights. Piedmont and SFUSD/Lowell and the others are. So the segregation is by district with brights and their parents shunning OUSD – with OUSD intending things to be this way.

    Until the rise of the Charters.

    Because it seems to me that Sacramento and the Feds are writing legislation that will give the Charters the money and the opportunities.

    And I would really prefer education to remain a more common thing, run by city school boards. But those days are gone and the elite schools seems to be the wave of the future, not the democratically elected school boards and their schools.

    Brave New World.

  • Union Supporter-But

    #60 and #61: I have been a proponent of a Lowell-type school in Oakland; there is the engineering academy and Paidea at Oakland Tech, however on this blog and others you hear parents whining that their average students who have average motivation should be given a slot.

    I say put the K-5, 6-8 and high school that allows students to learn as fast and in-depth as they want in deep East Oakland. When you do that, you will attract hard-wroking talented students and keep the entitled hills GATE-identified for the purpose of making people feel good students out. Too many GATE identified students are unmotivated (lazy), feel entitled and have parents that make sure their STAR test scores are high (the second way to become GATE identified – Ravens Progressive Matrices in the first) and feel the identification comes with privilege rather than responsibility. As a school district we would also get more bang for our buck by having students required to perform the work to get into these schools.

    But, once again, when you limit it to high school – just as we do with Skyline and Oakland Tech, you loose a huge number of families in elementary and middle school because the students are not getting what they need. The parents of the math students I refer to cannot afford the tuition of private school, but if Orinda, Lafayette or Piedmont gave them a slot and transportation, they’d jump at the chance – and their parents would jump at the chance to give them the opportunity to be the next Nobel Prize winning mathematician or scientist. Students want these opportunities and are willing to work before and after school, often walking in the dark, to get the opportunity to learn at high levels. Give them the schools they need and I guarantee you will find a whole new group of brown, black and yellow kids that can and will perform at exceedingly high levels.

  • Nextset

    Union Supporter: I agree that the need to have an academic track free of the dull children should start by puberty, probably 8th grade. I agree that bright children will be found in the flats. I caution that they will be at sharply reduced percentages among the black and brown children and everybody had better get that straight up front so there will be no crying when the numbers come in and the advanced schools are not racially pro rata to the population. Moreover such schools in Oakland will be dominated by immigrants (including African immigrants) to the exclusion of American Blacks. That is the way the profiles and percentages are going to be in the East Bay.

    I firmly believe the Educrats are well aware of this and for this reason have no intention of creating such a school system. They’d rather have no functioning academic track than have one that gives proof that all people are not created equal. They are here for idiology rather than to help children of any color get ahead. If they can’t have it their way they’ll crash the system rather than have anything “elitist”.

    The families of bright children are aware of this mindset also and shun OUSD when possible. And there we have it.

    The Brave New World. The brights physically move away and associate only with each other in residences, occupations and education. Previously (60 years ago) the residency wasn’t as critical and there was less emphasis on physical segregation because everybody went to the same school districts, saw each other and played on the same teams (and got drafted together). The differences were in the classes and programs within the district. We were in the large schools together and took some classes together but were in different tracks. This was OK with my parents back then because tracking and classes assured that we got our University of CA Entrance requirements in with high quality, and they knew that the school maintained iron clad discipline. Not anymore.

    Now entire schools have been abandoned to lower class mores. Too bad for them. Wait till they have to find employment. And the bright minorities will not be able to pass into higher society – they won’t even know how to speak and act.

  • Hills mama

    Re: “Union Supporter-But” Post #48. He/she wrote:

    “My child’s elementary teacher did not even know the standards in math or science and in recent benchmark tests was SURPRISED at the content on the test. The teacher did not know that the 5th grade science test is made up primarily of 4th grade material. The teacher did not realize that the material taught in fourth and fifth grade is used to build on in 6th – 8th grades. The teacher was also unfamiliar with how to access the released test questions and the state standards from the internet.”

    Are you serious? Ok, I know you are. And I get why you’ve chosen the online name that you have. I’m curious – did you raise this to the principal? Talked with other parents about this? As a mother of a 4th grader I’m outraged for you.

  • Union Supporter-But

    The principal was in the meeting – momentary shock crossed the principal’s face – quick recovery and things are slowly, slowly getting better.

    However, I still believe parents who can will need to supplement. And I hope to hold some science workshops offsite to help with kids who cannot afford tutoring.

  • Union Supporter-But

    Nextset: I believe that the really bright and motivated kids need to be put together in elementary school. If you wait until eighth grade there is a huge, huge problem as the “language gap” has grown almost too large to be overcome. Puberty is setting in (Hispanic and Black girls menstruate in fourth or fifth grade) and this detracts from learning unless you have an entire population focused on learning at high levels.

    This is also why if one of these highly motivated kids gets off track the vast percentages will force the child back on the right track in a way that the culture in crime-ridden neighborhoods often force the minority of kids who are working very hard in school into lives of crime.

    Once you build as atmosphere of success, it is easier to work in more success. Just as when there is one really rotten school in a neighborhood it is easier to create several poorly performing schools in that same neighborhood – then the community gets a reputation and things go downhill – this was the case in North Oakland near Clairemont Middle School and the surrounding elementary schools. As a result there may be school closures because of lack of enrollment as the reputation has changed much more than the school environments have changed – for the worse.

  • Nextset

    Some people believe in different schools from grade one.

    I agree that the point of division has something to do with puberty. As in before puberty. I also agree that Black and Brown students reach puberty much earlier and I believe the earlier puberty is part of the problem in educating them. Another way that people are not created equal.

    I am not letting the criminality of the black and brown population get in the way of school. I don’t believe their criminality (numbers) are produced by having or not having a comfortable school to hang out in. They are what they are. I don’t believe we should run a school badly in order to cater to any perceived needs of a population to have a comfortable place to hang out – “or else”. They can have “or else”.

    I do believe it’s the duty of a well run school to detect and identify those students who are conduct disordered or antisocial and expel them quickly without any attempts to “save” them or “fix” them. And by this I do not mean that little Johnny or Otis has a bad day or got into a fight, that just a nice challenge for a good administrator. I mean that it is noticed that the SOB is discovered to be without a conscience. Bad kids are to be labeled as bad kids and gotten rid of. Their handling is not a job for a normal school. They are a small number of people and if not stopped they can destroy any kind of educational environment.

    Part of the reason the urban public schools are such jungles is the unwillingness of the Educrats to prune these weeds. Not a problem for me. Running them and their families off is really easy and kind of fun. It starts from the classical music on the PA system as the come into the property to the reading and writing assignments they hate after they sit down. Dress code, silence rules, constant calling on in class, strict insubordination rules, rules for addressing staff, the list goes on (kind of like my high school). I’m not saying you have to run Spartan High School, you don’t. You just don’t accomodate the ghetto in any way. They will leave or they can stay and change.

    Of course we’d want to maintain a school for the ghetto youth who want to keep it real. Call it MLK Center or something (AKA Ditch Digger U). But OUSD needs to have “a choice” and enforce the differences.

    Good schools can get the best that it’s students can put forward. They just need to sort the students into different schools. You’d find Black and Brown kids in the better schools and they’d no longer have lowlifes holding them back telling them to stop acting white. How many Black and Browns would be the issue because it wouldn’t be that many (when you don’t count the mixed marriages and the immigrants). At least in the beginning. I think the numbers would tend to rise in time as people decided it was worth striving for.

  • Nextset

    I just reread the above – sounds harsh doesn’t it? In my locality the public schools are flooded with Mexican Indians and Southeast Asians. The Black numbers are going down as a percentage of the total. Most of the energy now is spent on accomodating the ESL minorities and the black students just drift. They are no longer the principal area of anyone’s concern.

    Oakland probably has not reached that level but it will in the forseeable future. The level of violence in this multicultural soup seems to be high. The various groups really hate each other and aren’t inclined to sit and talk things out. And they are heavily armed – knives, cutting instruments and firearms. Plenty of autos used to store weapons and narcotics both of which are used as currency. Autos feature extensively in trouble as in drive bys, sex crimes and assaults where the players drove to the scene and drove away, car crashed and DUI collisions. It’s nice if they had a license and insurance but it’s optional. Plenty of sexual assaults (at least she says so) where an auto was involved.

    It’s the schools where basic discipline and responsibility are established – especially responsibility for what you let happen to you. Parents work and broken homes and single mothers are the norm in the lower classes. Public schools now have a majority of lower class students (Class status is strictly that of the parent(s) – a function of education, occupation and lifestyle much of which is derived from the present vs future orientation of the parent(s).)

    Telling students in this soup that they really need UC entrance requirements is a reach. Only some go for it.

  • AC Mom

    I live in Oakland and have children at an OUSD elementary school, and I find myself explaining to non-Oaklanders that Oakland is far more complex than a single piece of data, but the crime education data for the city and OUSD are dififcult to argue against. There are always success stories to be found, and we should acknowledge them, but these stories cannot overshadow a dropout rate of 34.7%. So, until OUSD consistently shows educational attainment on par with the County or State averages, enrollment will remain low and many residents will not be motivated to invest in the district. OUSD and members of the teacher’s union may view that as a chicken and egg question…how can they improve student outcomes (as measured by API, graduation rates, etc.) with declining revenues from the State and the real possibility that residents will not be willing to pay additional taxes to fund OUSD. That is the question for another thread and perhaps several dissertations, but in the interim the only way that OUSD might be able to convince me to pass a parcel tax, despite all of the responses above that demonstrate that we are currently taxed at a rate greater than other Bay area cities, and the examples of the district’s inadequate preparation for a large portion of its students for employment, college or vocational training upon graduation would be for the district to demonstrate the following:

    It has initiated and implemented the findings of an audit of its organizational practices to see where savings may be found. These findings must be made public and otherwise well-publicized.

    It has moved away from the “one-size fits all” approach to education, and adopts policies that allow more students to connect with educational opportunities that meet their varied needs and interests. This of course means many things to many people, but I am personally interested in more vocational opportunities for secondary students.

    In short, Katy, I could not even consider your follow-up questions, until there was substantial progress on the items I listed above.

  • Nextset

    AC Mom: I just can’t envision the voters agreeing to any tax increases now. And there is a perception that money spent on OUSD is money wasted. I don’t think the voters will give OUSD any more money even if they would spend more for roads and Police Services. For the duration of this depression, OUSD and similar districts will have to live with what they have.

    So they need to spend it carefully.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Whatever one thinks about the details of a parcel tax this year, it is clear that the negative view of the Oakland Unified School District shown in many of these postings is not shared by a majority of Oakland voters. Voters have been very supportive of tax measures for schools over the years, and even Measure N, which was opposed by OEA, garnered a 61% favorable vote.
    I know from experience with my own school’s budget that the parcel taxes which have been passed have increased school security, provided for improved library and arts programs, and have helped retain teachers by providing partial funding for health benefits. We would be in far worse shape without the wisdom and generousity of the Oakland voters.