Parents of students in the Oakland Unified School District have joined forces with the ACLU of Northern California to file a complaint with the California Department of Justice to investigate the district’s school closures. The ACLU hopes to urge California Attorney General Rob Bonta to expose the truth behind the closures, which disproportionately impact Black students and families. According to California Department of Education data, more than half of the students enrolled in four of the seven schools that will close are Black. Across the district, Black children made up 21% of the student population enrolled in the 2020-2021 school year, and over 47% are Latinx. The closures follow a 20-year pattern of school closures that deprive Black students of equal educational opportunities.
The complaint was signed by the Justice for Oakland Student Coalition (J4OS), which includes students, parents and family members, and teacher allies who work to increase equity for low-income students of color in the district. According to the complaint, OUSD failed to follow the “Reparations for Black Students Resolution,” which recognizes the impact of structural, historic racism over generations on Oakland’s Black families. The school board approved the Resolution in March 2021, but ACLU says OUSD did not appropriately analyze the impacts the school closures would have on Black students, according to the Resolution. The complaint also alleges that the school closures violate Black students’ fundamental rights to equal educational opportunity under the California constitution. J4OS, the ACLU, and the OUSD community hope the attorney general will overturn the school closure plan and that the district conduct an equity analysis for any future closures.
In February, the school board voted to close seven schools, merge two, and eliminate middle school grades in two other schools by 2023. The community strongly opposed the decision, sparking hunger strikes, protests, and walkouts across the district.
“This is a physical attack against our communities,” said Joel Velasquez, an Oakland resident and parent of three children.
Velasquez said two of his children attended Lakeview Elementary School until 2012 when the district closed the school and allowed a charter school to open in its place. His children were transferred to Westlake Middle School and La Escuelita Elementary School, respectively. Both of those schools have since been targeted for closure—the former was spared after two staff members held a weeks-long hunger strike, and the latter will lose its middle school grades after this school year. Students at La Escuelita will now have to transition to much larger middle schools.
“It’s traumatizing,” Velasquez said. “We watched the school not only be closed by the district, but replaced by a charter school only months later. [My kids are asking,] ‘Why can we go to school here anymore? There’s kids in our playground that we’d been at for the last six or seven years.’”
Velasquez said that while his children no longer attend Westlake or La Escuelita, the decision to close Lakeview 10 years ago is still affecting his family and many of the same families originally impacted. In 2013, Velasquez testified with the Department of Education about the impacts of the closure on his community, along with Black and brown community members from 18 cities facing similar public school closures across the country.
“This is not just specific to Oakland, this is truly an attack against our public education system,” Velasquez said. “We have a democratic system in our public education system that elects school board members, supposedly from the community, to represent a constituency to hold the district accountable. We’re technically the boss of the school district. With charters there’s no protection.”
The OUSD continues to cite under-enrollment as the driving reason behind the changes. According to district data, enrollment in OUSD has declined by more than 18,000 over the past 20 years as a result of falling birth rates, the pandemic, and the district’s push toward charter schools. But, the ACLU said the drop in population that is being used as a factor for closing schools is cyclical and caused by economic deprivation tied to historic redlining. It is a direct blow to Oakland’s declining Black population as a result of gentrification, skyrocketing housing costs, and increasing income inequality. According to the U.S. census data cited in the complaint, from 2010 to 2020, more than 15,000 Black people left Oakland.
ACLU hopes the complaint will yield an investigation into the way School closures have disproportionately impacted black families and students and that the closures, which are slated to be enacted by 2023, will be canceled. They hope to receive a timely response from the state attorney general, but it is now out of their hands.