It felt like Open House Monday night at Redwood Heights Elementary, with teachers and parents discussing test scores and music programs in an auditorium decorated with student artwork. But the evening focused on the election year instead of the school year, with Oakland City Council Member Jean Quan presenting education proposals for her November mayoral run.
“The mayor has to be an advocate, to use the bully pulpit for the schools,” Quan told a group of about 40 supporters at a panel discussion on Oakland education. “A little bump up in test scores is not enough. We have to put our arms around the schools and help students succeed.”
Quan is in a race that currently includes former State Senate President Don Perata and fellow City Council Member Rebecca Kaplan; incumbent mayor Ron Dellums has not announced whether he will run for re-election. She is now moving to establish her credentials as the “education candidate,” citing her three terms on the Oakland Unified School District Board from 1991 to 2003 prior to her tenure on City Council.
“No one is better at getting parents involved in schools than Jean Quan” said Lucella Harrison, a former Oakland school principal who was one of Quan’s colleagues on the school board. “No one is better at getting businesses or the city involved in Oakland schools.”
At Monday’s event, Quan said all Oakland public policy starts in the schools, and that an educated work force leads to better economic opportunities and reduced crime. She characterized her school board tenure as time marked by library expansion and new school buildings, including Redwood Heights Elementary School’s own auditorium. Quan explained that Oakland funded these buildings through a tax on developers, despite objections from the city’s business organizations.
“The Chamber and the City Council said you don’t want to do that because you’ll drive business away,” Quan said. “But our point was that if you don’t fix the schools, we’ll never have a stable community and young families won’t stay here.”
In evaluating other Oakland mayors’ education legacies, Quan criticized what she characterized as former mayor Jerry Brown’s emphasis on a handful of elite charter schools. She said Brown prioritized these schools over ensuring that all 50,000 Oakland public school students received a quality education. Quan had positive things to say about former mayor Elihu Harris’ program of encouraging Oakland businesses to adopt schools and have their employees read to third graders as a concrete example of how a mayor can encourage the city to become more involved education. “The State of California plans its prisons based on projections from how many people can read by third grade—that’s how important of an indicator it is,” she said.
OUSD faced budget problems immediately after Quan’s tenure, with the state government seizing control of Oakland schools in 2003. She opposed the state takeover of Oakland schools, and Oakland State Assemblyman Sandre Swanon has credited Quan for helping return Oakland schools to local control in 2009. The six years in state receivership hurt Oakland schools, Quan said, and she criticized State School Superintendent Jack O’Connell and other Sacramento politicians for what she described as their financial mismanagement of the city’s schools. “If you are going to take over our school district, it should not be three times more in debt than when you took it over,” Quan said.
The 2010 election comes at a difficult time for Oakland’s public schools, which are facing an $85 million deficit, staff cutbacks and a one-day strike planned for April 29 by teachers who have not received a raise in two years. Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association, participated in Quan’s education panel and said no teacher wants to leave the classroom. She said her union had no choice, however, as Oakland teachers are the lowest-paid in Alameda County.
“I’m asking Jean for her support for a fair contract,” said Olson-Jones, whose teachers’ union has not yet endorsed a candidate in the Oakland mayoral race. “Every teacher I know wants to be in the classroom teaching, working with students engaging them. But we feel we have to strike in order to protect public education.”
Quan said that she will support the OUSD strike, but called for both teachers and OUSD management to continue negotiations. She said the bottom line is that Oakland needs to find a way to improve conditions for its public school teachers. It’s those teachers, Quan said, that allow Oakland to be a “city of dreams” for immigrants from places as far away as Eritrea and Bhutan. Quan cited her own life, as the daughter of an illiterate mother who emigrated from China, as an example of how a quality Oakland public school education can create opportunities.
“It’s because of public schools, I am running for mayor and will become the first woman mayor of Oakland if I win,” she said.