The Activist

The schools edition

Issue 292: 08-30-2020

In this issue:

A back-to-school like no other

This year’s back-to-school has been like no other.

In Contra Costa, where distance learning began a few weeks ago, teachers have spent the summer adapting their curricula while the District has rushed to get laptops and internet hotspots distributed. But despite the best efforts of educators to adapt, researchers and educators warn that the pandemic will “explode” the educational achievement gap along race and class lines. But as we know, schools are much more than places of learning. They provide health care, mental health and social services, nutrition and much more.

There are no good answers, and the tension between getting schools open again and protecting students, staff and communities has played out on every level -- from the President down to individual families.

The pandemic of course comes on top of a slowly-unfolding structural crisis faced by our local schools. One of the greatest challenges is the drain on school funding, both as a result of 1978’s Prop 13 (which capped property taxes) and the growth of charter schools. The combination of the two sets the District on a course for possible bankruptcy within the next several years. In recent years, the movement to resist the expansion of charter schools has gained strength, but some of this progress is at risk as the pandemic provides political cover for charter schools to expand their power.

In this edition of The Activist, we feature four candidates for WCCUSD and the CCC Board of Education who are stepping up to the unprecedented challenges of these times, and standing up for all families and students. 

-- Michelle Chan, editor

[Photo credit: PXFuel]

Education and equity in an era of COVID-19

Richard Rothstein of the Haas Institute at the University of California at Berkeley recently wrote that the pandemic “will take existing academic achievement differences between middle-class and low-income students and explode them.” The extensive efforts that public schools make to ensure equity among students in the classroom are being undermined this year in the switch to distance learning. “At-home” factors like varying levels of digital access and fluency and differing language and educational backgrounds become more consequential. And the pandemic itself has hit families in dramatically different ways; some students have guardians who are at home and able to supervise distance learning, others have parents who do “essential work” outside, while others may be facing evictions or utility shutoffs.

As working parents struggle with their jobs and overseeing their kids’ educations, many are trying to share the burden with others by self-organizing into small groups, or “pods.” However, there are real concerns that these pandemic pods could become the latest manifestation of school segregation. Even when these pods are based around schools’ online learning programs (instead of around a custom curriculum designed by a privately-hired teacher, for example), issues of privilege, exclusion and inequity abound.

“The formation of these groups holds the risk of exacerbating educational inequities throughout our country,” wrote the Oakland Unified School District in a letter to parents. As a result, at least 14 OUSD schools came out saying they “will not be honoring requests to place students in classes together based on pandemic pods or teacher preference,” and some WCCUSD schools have also declined such requests. But, as the Oakland letter recognizes, parent-organized pods are a response to “an impossible situation.”

Indeed, the impossible situation looming over parents and educators revolve around how long the pandemic will last, how to re-open safely, how to best support kids’ learning, and how to ensure equity. The teachers’ unions are playing a lead advocacy role in many of these questions, and their insistence on a safe reopening is part of a labor organizing trend where unions are not just looking out for their own interests, but “bargaining for the common good.” In this case, teachers’ unions are not just calling for safe working conditions and actions to bring about a swifter end to the pandemic, but also for things such as rent and mortgage cancelations, a moratorium on evictions, and police-free schools.

Here in Richmond, the United Teachers of Richmond is advocating for a range of safety supports, including testing and contact tracing. They have struck an agreement with the WCCUSD to reopen based on safety standards developed by Harvard Global Health Institute, rather than the politicized guidance from Trump’s CDC. Richmond Teachers are also focusing on promoting equity during distance learning, including policies like paid sick and family leave for all workers, and free, universal COVID-related medical treatment.

[Photos: children at Mira Vista school, via WCCUSD; Richmond Teachers before the lock-down, via UTR Facebook]

Consuelo Lara for County Board of Education

The Activist spoke last week with Consuelo Lara, a longtime teacher in Richmond and San Pablo schools who currently sits on the board of the West Contra Costa Unified School District and is now running for a seat on the Contra Costa County Board of Education. She has the endorsement of the RPA. To learn more, please visit her website.

What would you say is the biggest challenge that the Contra Costa County Board of Education is facing - and the WCCUSD?

Of course, the biggest challenge is COVID-19 and going back to school safely. It has highlighted the digital divide and also the health divide in our communities. The areas in our school district with the most cases are the places where we have the poorest families and they are predominantly black and brown. We have many children whose parents are essential workers, and everyone in education is also an essential worker, they need child care as well. Child care has become a really big issue and it’s what I’m hearing the most that our families are struggling with.

After spending the past two years on WCCUSD, why did you decide to run for the county board of education? What do you want to achieve there?

On the [WCCUSD] board, we can talk to the superintendent and say: “Here’s the direction to go in.” At the county level, you can’t really do that. So it’s about organizing and calling attention to different issues. The county board does things like review and approve the curriculum. To me, that’s a big issue because we want to get rid of textbooks that are racist, that are Eurocentric. They review budgets. And they review changes in district boundaries. I’ve been looking at the systemic inequities in education and a big one is school boundaries. Because of redlining, these boundaries are often based on race and class, and yet we accept it. It should not be that way.

What is your strategy for closing the “education gap” that allows lower-income students and black and brown students to fall behind?

When I started teaching in the 70s, we, California, were #1 in the nation academically. People were coming to California to have their kids come to our schools. But we were also #1 in per-pupil spending. Those two things go together. We need funding to close the gap. While working in this district with very high poverty rates, there have been lots of experiences where a low-performing school has been turned around. I’ve experienced that myself. It usually had to do with getting a grant or some extra funding to do what we know makes a difference. But when the funding goes away, the people leave and the school goes back to the way it was before. You cannot starve a school and expect it to close the achievement gap.

What’s your position on charter schools?

I started teaching in the early 70s. Back then, there were “alternative schools” and they were culturally usually based. There was the Escuelita in Oakland, for example, which brought in culture to motivate students who were really struggling and bring them back into education. They were innovative, and to me, that’s what alternative schools should be. More recently, charter schools have come about and said: “We’re going to be innovative and test new ideas.” When I visit them, they’re bright and shiny and look expensive, but they are not doing anything we are not doing in public schools. And in many cases, I think public schools are doing better.

Charter schools on the ballot in school board races

At stake in all the local school board races is the expanding role of charter schools and their impact on the long-term viability of public education for all.

A recent analysis produced by In the Public Interest and WCCUSD found that charter schools cost WCCUSD around $28 million per year, and that the District experiences a net loss of $978 a year in funding for each charter school student. (These figures are actually conservative; for example, in WCCUSD charter schools served only 8 percent of the students with disabilities in the district, they received 14 percent of the special education funding.) In the face of expanding charter schools and ever-declining revenue, the District has been forced to make draconian cuts. For example, in February, WCCUSD voted to eliminate eliminate 300 positions, including 230 teachers, to save $22 million. If charters continue to expand on their current course, it could possibly bankrupt the District in the future.

WCCUSD’s charter-induced fiscal woes are not unique; as charters have expanded throughout California, they have eviscerated school district budgets up and down the state. After years of advocacy, led particularly by teachers, last year Governor Newsom signed into law AB 1505, which gives school boards more power to block new charter schools. Previously, there were practically no grounds that a District could have in saying “no” to a charter school application, even if they were bankrupting the District or redundant with other schools in the neighborhood (even other charters). In a compromise with the charter industry, it also gives “high performing” charters an easier time keeping their charters to stay open.

Critically, the law allows Districts to block new charters schools if they pose significant negative impacts to district finances. Unfortunately, the final version of the bill left out an important provision that would have blocked charter school applicants’ ability to appeal to a County Boards of Education when their applications are denied at the District level. (There have been several examples of WCCUSD rejecting charter school applications, only to have them successfully appealed to the County level.) 

Since the pandemic, charter schools have been under fire for securing at least $925 million from the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program (meant for small businesses), even as they benefit from public school aid. As Public Core points out, “Privatizers see [the pandemic] as a prime opportunity to ‘outsource’ as many public education functions as possible and use schools' temporary reliance on computers and distance learning to give private operators a foot in the door.” Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, also used the pandemic to advance her charter school agenda by taking $180 million in federal coronavirus relief funds and it to create a competition for states to get millions for voucher-like grants and for private virtual, online education (a move that was just blocked by a federal judge)

In 2019, the WCCUSD joined other school districts in passing a resolution calling for a statewide moratorium on charter school expansion statewide and more oversight. The lone voice opposing the moratorium was Tom Panas, who took about $100,000 from charter interests when he ran for office in 2016. He is running again this year, against RPA-endorsed Leslie Reckler.

[Graphics: Robert Tornoe cartoon via PublicCore.net; Photo of Betsy Devos at 2017 CPAC conference via Michael Vadon Flickr]

Charter school interests likely to spend big this year

It is too early to see what is being spent by charter schools this election, but early signs indicate that charter school spending is likely to be big again in 2020. For example, Tom Panas has loaned his campaign $50,000, indicating that he expects considerable contributions. 

In past elections, we have seen a shocking amount of charter school money flooding education races. The 2016 election was particularly eye-popping, with pro-charter groups spending roughly $250,000, with most of it funneled to two candidates, Miriam Stephanie Sequeira (over $146,000) and Tom Panas ($106,000). The bulk of the funds came from three organizations, Education Matters, Students for Education Reform Action Network and the California Charter Schools Association, who gave under a committee called “Parent Teacher Alliance.”(More information here. Chart below, referencing 2016 WCCUSD Board of Trustees race, from Richmond Confidential)

schoolboardspending.pngDuring the last election, Stephanie Hernadez-Jarvis’s campaign was mainly financed and run by West Contra Costa Kids Can, sponsored by GO Public Schools Advocates PAC. Similarly, Liz Block’s 2018 campaign was mainly financed and run by the Education Matters PAC.

[Graphics: Photo via PXHere; Graphic via Richmond Confidential]

RPA endorses Otheree Christian for WCCUSD (Area 2)

The Richmond Progressive Alliance recently endorsed Otheree Christian for WCCUSD Board of Trustees, Area 2 (NE, central and North Richmond). Christian was also endorsed by the United Teachers of Richmond. Like all RPA-endorsed candidates he does not take corporate money, and also refuses campaign contributions from charter school interests. To learn more, visit his Facebook page.

The Activist: What is your strategy for closing the “education gap” that disproportionately leaves behind students from lower income families and people of color? 

I plan to close the achievement gap by addressing it head on. I also have been part of discussions over the last decade, identifying the specific needs of African Americans and Hispanic students when compared to White and Asian counterparts. Now is the time for our leaders to take action. On my first day in office, I would convene a stakeholder group that would be made up of teachers, parents, students and community leaders to guide positive investment into our black and brown students and community. Along with the stakeholder group, I would evaluate academic achievement by analyzing student data to allow our responses to be informed by the numbers and not rhetoric. I would also guarantee that our teachers are better supported allowing them to serve our most at risk populations with additional resources and services which are targeted for our students most in need like, foster youth, special education and English learners. 

What is your general strategy toward dealing with the school budget deficit? 

My strategy on dealing with the budget deficit would include eliminating upper administration staff and other executives at the district level to start. Along with reevaluating district priorities including the outsourcing of essential district functions and services. However, investing internally is also a strategy that can be used to deal with the deficit over the long term. Depending on Governor Newsom's budget projection, the WCCUSD could face steep cuts in state funding and should consider additional revenue generating strategies to close the gap by partnering with businesses in the cities of the WCCUSD.

How will you promote/support parent participation in schools and classrooms? 

At the center of my campaign, our students and families play enormous roles and to effectively serve them we need to know how they feel about the education system and what they need most from the system as well. I would overhaul our current engagement and outreach strategies and incorporate community school models to further enhance and support our most vulnerable families. 

In January, Governor Newsom proposed paying experienced teachers stipends for working in our most challenging schools. What is your opinion of the Stege Elementary School experiment, in which teachers were given a bonus to work at this “hard to staff” school?

I am very familiar with the challenges and struggles the district and families have experienced at [Stege]. With Stege being one of the schools that is included in my district boundary, I would work together with Stege staff and administration to address the problems by bringing in teacher assistants and mentors. My idea for retaining staff focuses on our ability to provide them with a safe working environment along with amenities that includes additional stipends [like the ones being provided for teachers at Stege] as long as the cost is not fully absorbed by the general fund.

RPA endorses Gonzalez-Hoy for WCCUSD Board (4)

The Richmond Progressive Alliance recently endorsed Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy for WCCUSD Board of Trustees, Area 4 (East Richmond Heights up to Pinole). Gonzalez-Hoy was also endorsed by the United Teachers of Richmond. Like all RPA-endorsed candidates he does not take corporate money, and also refuses campaign contributions from charter school interests. To learn more, visit his website.

The Activist: The pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for this school year. How do you think the District has handled the start of the school year, and what would you do differently?

I think having schools in online learning until we can assure we can keep all staff and student's safe is the right decision. I think our current Board, district, unions and parent groups took a strong stance that I agree with in order to keep our school community safe and avoid the spread of the virus. I think the start of school has been a challenge like we all thought it would be. For the first time ever we're transitioning to a fully online model in the middle of a pandemic and in the middle of other crises, which affect the well being of everyone. Our teachers, families and students are trying their best under these circumstances. I think however, that the planning for what the fall would look like was finished fairly late in the summer and did not allow much time for educators and staff to prepare. It also did not provide families with enough details and communication. 

What is your position on charter schools?

Charter Schools are hurting the overall system in WCCUSD, plain and simple. First, Charter Schools in WCCUSD with the expectation of one, do not serve the same population as our public district schools. In WCCUSD we accept and support every student whether you are a newcomer, an immigrant student, a student of color, or a student with a disability, our schools welcome every child. If you look at the data and enrollment of Charter schools in WCCUSD you will see that’s not the case for them, they have a lower number of students with disabilities especially mid/moderate and severe disabilities, lower numbers of African American Students, and way lower numbers of English Language Learners especially newcomers. Charter schools are also hurting us financially and costing WCCUSD students over 27.9 million dollars a year. 

At the same time, I would never blame a parent of a charter school. I know they are looking for the best education for their children especially if they have had a bad experience in WCCUSD. But that is why we also have to work hard in our schools/district to make sure no student falls through the cracks, no student feels unsafe, and we are prioritizing our African American and English Language Learners who are most at risk.

You are currently serving your second term as the President of United Teachers of Richmond, the teachers’ union. What do you see as the role of unions in solving the problems of public schools? 

Unions are essential in solving problems in public schools. Unions represent a majority of staff that work in our schools and represent all the practitioners and experts within the building. We constantly see central office staff as the experts and many if not all have incredible experience serving students and moving schools forward but ultimately the real experts are the teachers, administrators, and classified staff that do the daily work with students. If I am elected, I plan on working with every union in WCCUSD and will work with the WCCUSD/Labor Solutions Team to make sure we’re able to move our district forward. 

LaVonya DeJean middle school has a 70% teacher turnover rate per year. How would you retain experienced teachers in schools with the lowest test scores? 

One of the biggest mistakes I see districts make is when they think they know better that the people at the school. We should be supporting their thinking, giving them flexibility, and providing them with the resources they want. Ultimately, we have to support the teachers and by supporting them we are helping every student. For them to stay long term, they need to feel that their students are getting the resources they need so that they can concentrate in the education piece. Teachers at these schools “burn out” because they have to put on so many hats including being a nurse, psychologist, restorative justice coordinator, sometimes parent, and a teacher while most of the time spending their own resources in their classroom. This system does not allow for teachers to stay long term. We have to support every site staff member and truly fund them and staff them so that they have the resources their students need. 

RPA endorses Reckler for WCCUSD Board (5)

The Activist spoke last week with Leslie Reckler, a longtime parent volunteer and reform advocate who is running for the board of the West Contra Costa Unified School District. She would represent Area 5, which includes El Cerrito and Richmond shoreline neighborhoods including Point Richmond, Marina Bay and Richmond Annex. She has the endorsement of the RPA. To learn more, please visit her website

The Activist: Why did you decide to run for WCCUSD?

Parents with enrolled children have been underrepresented on this board for years. We know our children best, and it’s time that our viewpoints are adequately represented. ... I’ve rolled up my sleeves and worked for this district for the past 14 years, and I have a long track record of real successes. It’s almost like a job for me. I’ve worked on 10 school funding measures -- both parcel taxes and bonds -- so I’ve personally given my knowledge and sweat equity to raising more than $2 billion for the school district. 

What are your top priorities?

These are very troubling times, so we need fresh ideas and new leadership. … The district recently discovered a $48 million hole in the budget. Cuts were made last year, but we’re going to roll into December making more cuts. With COVID, we don’t know how bad it will be but the cuts from the state will be very challenging. For the next two years, revenue levels will put us back to the funding levels of the Great Recession. I had a kid in school back then in 2008 and 2009, and those were painful years … We need to ensure that we have a sound budgeting process and the community understands where we are.”

What is your strategy for closing the “education gap” that allows lower-income students and black and brown students to fall behind?

The first step is to listen to parents and students - to really listen. They’ve been telling [WCCUSD] for years what their issues are.

What are those issues?

Teachers that understand them and are culturally competent; that are using materials that are culturally appropriate; that look like them and have had the same experiences as them; schools that are warm and welcoming where people feel included, and outreach strategies that reach all of our parents and students by including translation. Work is happening in all these areas, but we need to put our foot down on the pedal.

What’s your position on charter schools?

The types of programs that parents and students want have changed, and we need to address that. This is what the charter school movement was about in the beginning: new techniques, new ways to fast-track ideas to the classroom. However, what we have now doesn’t really reflect that. Instead, what we have is a very troubling situation, because when a student goes to a charter school, they take all their funding with them, but they don’t take any of their fixed costs. So that leaves less students to pay for retirement, pensions and health care at public schools. You still need a principal whether you have 600 students or 300 students. … [Public] schools have work to do too, though. The reason people leave is that they feel our schools aren’t safe or academically rigorous. We have to overcome some of those perceptions, and we also have to dig in and understand what parents really want -- because we have a lot to offer.

Pitch in for Schools and Communities First!

Schools and Communities First, Proposition 15, is a key policy priority of teachers and community organizations up and down the state this November. Although Schools and Communities First does not abolish the notorious 1978 law (Proposition 13) that limits property taxes in California, it would close some important loopholes by changing tax rates for commercial properties.

Prop 13 was passed during a time when property values were skyrocketing, but median household incomes were staying flat: middle class families found themselves faced with property taxes that were increasing at a much greater rate than their incomes. Proposition 13 limited property taxes -- both residential and commercial/industrial -- to 1 percent of the value at the time of purchase. But as a result, over the past forty years, schools and communities in California saw their funding plummet, forcing cities to turn to sales taxes for example, to generate revenue.

Schools and Communities First would leave the limit on residential property tax untouched but require commercial and industrial properties to be regularly reassessed for market value, and taxed at a rate of 1 percent. Small businesses with a combined property value of under $3 million would be exempt. If passed, it would reclaim $12 billion per year for schools and communities, with 92 percent of the funds coming from the 10 percent of the most expensive non-residental properties in the state.

Schools and Communities First would be a game-changer for Richmond and our local schools. Richmond would see around $21 million in new revenue, while Contra Costa would see an additional $85 million to its general fund. It would generate around $19 million revenue for WCCUSD, while the Contra Costa library system would gain an additional $5.5 million.

Please - spend a few hours helping to get this ballot initiative passed! This is the first chance we have had in 40 years to fix this structural problem that has been the cause of so many problems -- school overcrowding, cuts to public services, and more.

People can phonebank from home (you will need a computer and a phone).

Schools and Communities First Phonebanking

Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays: 4-6pm and 6-8pm

Saturdays: 10-1pm and 3-5pm 

Sign up here

Reminder: volunteer for Team Richmond 

We need your help to win a progressive majority on the Richmond City Council!

Starting this month, Team Richmond (Melvin Willis, Claudia Jimenez and Gayle McLaughlin) are having three days of phone banking per week: Mondays and Thursdays from 5pm to 8pm and Saturdays from 10am to 1pm

With the pandemic making it impractical to organize our community face to face and door to door, we need other grassroots strategies such as phone banking to safely reach voters in Richmond. Please contact Emily at rossem19@gmail.com to sign up for your shift(s) today!