Let’s Do The Math, how ignoring basic math is perpetuating student failure


Another great guest post from James Harris and his TownBiz blog, please sign up, some great analysis from a voice of experience

The other day I read that OUSD has an additional $216 million of COVID relief money to spend over the next three years.  To you, that may seem like a lot of money, but OUSD spends about $3 million each day, every day, without pause.  With all budgets included, OUSD boasts an almost $3/4 billion annual budget, and in a regular budget year $200 million is spent before a third of the school year is done. School districts are getting these types of disbursements all over the state. If you are asking where the money is going, you are on the right track. The next step is to ask whether or not that investment is sustainable beyond the lifecycle of the money.

The total relief allocation for Oakland was about $294 million, and about $78 million of that has been spent already on distance learning transitions and getting the basic needs met to begin to get everyone back to school, which leaves Oakland with roughly $70 million to spend each year for the next three years.  So before you say, give it to teachers or fund those schools that need additional resources and extra support teachers, this is not an on-going allocation and will not be renewed. Anything that OUSD spends it on, it’s OUSD that will have to find a way to pay for it after the money runs out.

Since we are talking about numbers, let’s take a narrow look at the population we have been trying to reach with intensive supports for the better part of 30 years— specifically, let’s look at student math performance at every district-run school in deep East Oakland. I want us to keep a narrow focus because, in the school business, cash is finite and we have to prioritize expenditures in order to serve all 36,000 students.

In District 7 — or deep East Oakland— according to the last tests given prior to the pandemic, every school the district operates, except one— Esperanza Elementary— is host to a math program where 50 percent of the students are testing below standard. According to the data, you have a 1 out of 2 chance of leaving these K-12, East Oakland schools with insufficient math skills. That was before the pandemic and learning loss and distance learning and all that’s changed during the last year. 

On one hand, I’m excited that we are coming back, but for students in East Oakland, what are they coming back to? How can they participate in the economy after they are done with school if they cannot add or subtract the taxes in their paycheck? How are they going to participate in the local economy if they are not encouraged to think about the power of math and the concept and power of wealth building? 

I lay out math performance across District 7 as one example of how thinly stretched our schools were prior to the pandemic. As we see in the return, it’s these same schools that are having trouble staffing up to meet the post pandemic need. These are the same schools that had trouble staffing prior to the pandemic. Do we assume it’s going to be easier now? 

Got to Get Smaller

Counting both district and charter schools, we have about the same number of schools as San Francisco. The difference: they have 10,000 more students. San Jose operates 41 schools, and has about 36,000 students. San Jose is similar in student population to Oakland except Oakland has many more schools— the 82 it operates and the 40 plus charter schools in the system. Remember, during state receivership, the state added 40 additional charter schools to the existing expanded collection of small schools, leaving Oakland with a disproportionately large group of schools it could not afford to operate without significant philanthropic support.  

For the last decade, OUSD has been working to get smaller, so that it can afford to invest deeper in students and student performance, but those efforts have been stifled by various community groups that say those schools need more funding to deliver results— not to be closed.  The public argument is that closing schools is harmful to students and communities, but the private truth is that we are putting a relationship with a facility before our relationship with learning. It seems we’d rather keep a failing school open because of what it means to the community instead of what it is doing for our children. 

The current landscape is not serving our children, particularly our children in East Oakland. In fact, the system is perpetuating poor performance. 

Kick the Can Down the Road?

The easy thing for Oakland to do now is to kick the can down the road and pretend that $216 million dollars will sustain those schools that are already starving students of the math skills they need to compete in a 21st century economy. The easy thing to do is hope that things will get better after the pandemic. 

The hard thing to do is to lean into the uncomfortable work to improve quality, further reduce the footprint of the district, and get to a sustainable number of schools that allows the OUSD to grow and attract students and diverse teaching talent.  

To give a raise to the teachers costs about $5 million for each percent increase. So (as a hypothetical) a 10 percent raise to all bargaining units (teachers and school staff) carries with it an ongoing cost of $50 million. So, if— for example—Oakland was able to spend the full $200 million on raises for teachers, the money would be gone in four years time, with no way to sustain the pay increase. 

If COVID relief funds are spent shoring up services at one or all of the East Oakland schools that is failing to teach every student math successfully, then it might help improve outcomes in the short term, but can the school district sustain the investments in failing schools beyond the life of the relief money?  

If the district was making cuts prior to the influx of cash, just to provide subpar service, why would they add more or invest more in a broken infrastructure? This is the haunting question of school funding. In the years after the Millionaires Tax reached maturity (in 2018) and successfully increased funding to school districts in California, particularly those with high percentages of underserved and impoverished students like Oakland, the OUSD has had to make constant cuts to keep pace with the demands of school funding. And when the last teacher salary increase was approved, before the deal was signed, the OUSD was already short of the money needed to pay for it. 

With the rising cost of benefits and the demands of teachers salaries, Oakland must downsize in order to survive. It cannot afford what it has. This is a sad reality, but it’s time to face the music. Either you are going to cut today, or you’re going to cut tomorrow, but in the end, a cut must be made.

Before we teach children math, we must figure out the greater problem. To get more resources into the schools that need it most, we have to do the calculations needed to free up the money we need to invest. We can’t keep asking why students can’t do math, when we keep playing the same game every budget season. It’s just not right.

Every year school districts and public agencies adopt budgets that outline exactly how they are spending our tax dollars. Budget adoption is a chance to commit to long term priorities that solve long term problems, but sometimes the conversation about how to solve those challenges results in argument and ultimately fighting, and then the choosing of sides— one alienating the other. Meanwhile, all of the problems we face persist; those with means are able to adapt and navigate in this cycle, and those without are stuck, smothered, and neglected— trapped beneath our inability to act. 

All this to say, the pandemic has provided us with more opportunity than loss. This $216 million that is on the table, right now, is a chance to think collaboratively about how we can apply those dollars to help solve our deepest school challenges. Do we build a reserve? Do we develop sustainable efforts to improve math and reading comprehension across the board? Do we start to invest in the hundreds of children with special needs that we are failing everyday? We can either continue pretending we don’t have too many obligations and that our resources are not stretched to their limits or we can buckle down, do the math, and do what’s right for our children. It’s up to us. 

What do you think?

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