Closing Doors to Education

Public schools are being shut down in large numbers throughout California. How will this impact racial and economic equity?

Anika Chatradhi and Alice Kang

This February, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) voted to close down over nineteen schools over the next two years—schools that have a majority of Black, Brown, and low-to-no-income students. This disparity has resulted in an ongoing wave of backlash and protests from affected families.

“My children would potentially have to walk through a very, very dangerous area to get to a farther-away school. It would mean that the community we’ve built over the years would be torn apart,” said Azlinah Tambu in an interview with KPIX. Tambu is the mother of three students from the recently closed school La Escuelita.

The OUSD contends that there are too many schools in Oakland that the diminishing enrollment levels and drastic budget decrease cannot support, especially since other Bay Area communities successfully have fewer schools with the same number of students. However, the main concern for families is that the school closure is an excuse to establish more independent charter schools. 

At first glance, this may seem beneficial to society—the addition of more schools would lead to an overall increase in students with access to education. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that often do not meet the standards and requirements that make up a good school.

Many of these schools lack open meetings, refuse to share financial records, and do not adopt conflict-of-interest policies. And these lacking standards also contribute to fraud, corruption, and mistreatment of students, so this general increase in charter schools is of great concern.

Furthermore, the San Francisco Unified School District is now laying off teachers due to the school closure and budget shortfall, but the decision of who to lay off is based primarily on seniority. This leads to another racial disparity: since the district had recently made efforts to diversify faculty, young teachers of color will likely be the first to be laid off.

But what’s causing these school closure rates in the first place? A key factor is the Covid-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated California’s financial issues. Since the pandemic started, at least thirty million people have lost their jobs and millions of others’ income have declined. With the revenue loss and spending increases, state and local governments need around one trillion dollars to avoid massive cuts in employment.

California is infamously one of the most expensive states to live in. As the cost of living steadily increases, schools can afford fewer teachers, staff, and resources. This contributes to the decline in access to education and eventually mass school closures. 

Is there a solution to the problem at hand? Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, has proposed various changes in his budget proposal this year that may help to relieve the school closures. These changes include altering California’s education funding formula to minimize the impact of lessened student enrollment.

For example, districts could base their current number of students on the previous year or on the average of attendances from the past three years. Overall, school districts should be making strategic decisions and investing in quality education for the students being displaced—lower-performing schools especially need the proper funding to accommodate the influx of students. 

Although COVID-19 seems to have taken its course, it has had a significant impact on our community and continues to disproportionately impact those who are less privileged. School districts are caught between a rock and a hard place: they need to be financially responsible in light of the budget decrease from declining enrollment, but in the end, they must prioritize their students’ well-being.