You Tell Us: An empty classroom, and a long waiting list
on May 3, 2011
Next year, Peralta Elementary in North Oakland will have overcrowded classrooms—while one classroom will sit empty. Despite the fact that Oakland Unified has announced a dramatic plan to shield elementary schools from layoffs of credentialed teachers, Peralta is still slated to lose one fully qualified teacher from its small staff of 12. Students at the award-winning school will suffer for a surprising reason: because they have highly successful, experienced teachers.
The education funding crisis is only partly to blame for this situation. It’s also the unintended consequence of a district budgeting system that actually penalizes principals for retaining teachers. The system, called Results Based Budgeting, was established with a very worthy goal: To reduce inequities caused by the high concentration of veteran educators at wealthier schools. The idea was that if principals were given entrepreneurial control of their budgets—in a lump sum that includes salaries and benefits—they would hire a mix of cheaper junior and pricier senior teachers and staff to keep things in balance.
But in practice, this system has done little to achieve that goal. It’s popular with principals at schools with large junior staffs, because they can get more teachers for their money and keep class sizes small (which is why, before the district rescinded most of the 657 layoff notices sent to teachers with the least seniority, some schools were in danger of losing their entire faculties). But the budgeting rules haven’t changed the reality that once new teachers get some chalk under their fingernails, many move on: Seventy-three percent leave Oakland Unified within five years.
The district recognizes this debilitating problem, and says improving teacher retention is a top priority. Yet the financial incentives work against it. The longer teachers stay at a school, the tighter the budgets get. Teachers want to stay at well-run schools, and union rules say they can. The longer they stay, the tighter the budgets get. That is what has happened at Peralta, which has a talented principal who supports her staff—which does include a couple of excellent, newer teachers, among a majority of veterans. But after cutting the supply budget to zero for two years in a row and increasing enrollment, it was impossible for Principal Rosette Costello to maintain 12 positions. There was no room for entrepreneurial management. And since cuts are based on seniority, Peralta is losing a junior teacher, which will result in minimal cost savings. One of the teachers asked, ”So we are being punished for who we are? We have to lose a teaching position because of our years of experience? Isn’t this some type of age or experience discrimination?”
It’s disheartening to watch Peralta get dismantled, when its teachers—and students, families, and principal—have done everything the district hopes for and more. Amid the noisy rhetoric of education reform, Peralta is a public school that is working, on limited resources, for a mixed-income, racially diverse group of students. Peralta was named a California Distinguished School last year, and for the past two years it has been a Title I Distinguished School, an honor based on its progress in lowering the achievement gap. Four years ago, it became one of just six schools statewide where African American students broke 800 on the Academic Performance Index (API), and those scores have risen steadily since then. Peralta’s overall API is now 910 and is ranked 10 out of 10 among similar schools. The entire staff deserves credit for this.
Peralta’s success has not gone unnoticed. It is one of the most requested schools in the district’s “options enrollment” system, and it has a long waiting list (the principal even asked to enroll a few more students, to balance the budget, but was told Peralta woud be taking students from other, less popular schools). Two years ago, the district granted Peralta’s request for an extra portable classroom to accommodate its growing enrollment, and now a classroom will be unused. Class sizes are already above average—26, versus 22.7 district-wide. And after losing a teacher, class sizes could even exceed the maximums allowed by the teacher’s contract: 31 for 4th and 5th grades; 30 for 1st through 3rd grades, and 27 for kindergarten. This will hit struggling students hardest.
Peralta is not the only school suffering—and succeeding. Many schools are beating the odds, and the education funding crisis is universally devastating. If Governor Jerry Brown’s tax proposals are unsuccessful, things will get a whole lot scarier, with baseline state funding plummeting to $4,395 per student, or almost 25 percent in four years. We applaud Oakland Unified for finding a way to keep the worst of the cuts out of classrooms next year, and recognize that it requires some extraordinary measures. But in this difficult process, it must not let its successful schools fall by the wayside. It must not replace one inequity with another. Teacher and staff salaries should be removed from site budgets, and the district should find incentives to keep experienced teachers at high-needs schools. District leaders should grant Peralta, and other schools like it, a one-year reprieve while they find a way to avoid punishing students just because their teachers and staff love their jobs.
Laura Counts, Julie Quiroz-Martinez, and Christopher Frost are Oakland residents and members of the Peralta Parent Teacher Group. Collectively, they have five children at Peralta Elementary.
Update: This article was amended at 5:30 pm on May 3 at the authors’ request to include additional information in the fourth, sixth and seventh paragraphs.
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