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How are Oakland schools responding to Prop. 16 failing?

on November 20, 2020

California voters have decided not to restore affirmative action in schools. Proposition 16, which failed by a margin of 12 percentage points, would have reversed a 1996 ban on considering race, gender or ethnicity in public education systems and public contracting. 

State lawmakers—motivated by high-profile racial injustices, such as the police killing of George Floyd—voted to put this proposition on the November ballot. The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) had already begun discussions on how they would take advantage of the measure if it passed. The board passed a resolution in support of the motion the week before the election to make clear they would take action, regardless of the outcome. 

In Alameda County, the 59% of residents voted “yes” and 41.04% voted “no” on Proposition 16.

OUSD School Board Director Jumoke Hinton (District 3), says that nothing will stop her from talking about race and gender in schools. She believes something needs to be done to address the fact that there is no infrastructure in place to combat institutional barriers. 

“This notion of equality is not easy for people. Something could be taken away from you if you’re leveling the playing field,” Hinton said. “We’re trying to call out that we want to be an anti-racist school district. We want to name ways we can make our systems more racially diverse. We want to [do away with] barriers that exist in our classrooms.” 

According to OUSD enrollment data, Black, Latinx and Asian students all together make up almost 80% of the school’s population. Yet when it comes to OUSD educators, 47% are white, compared to 48% of teachers who combined are Black, Latinx and Asian. 

Critics of Prop. 16, like Richard Sander, a law professor at UCLA, say that many California voters may have decided to vote against it because they were skeptical about giving the government the power to discriminate on the base of race and gender in school and work systems. 

Sander believes that it was in the school’s best interest to not reinstate affirmative action for admissions decisions. He believes it made universities reach out to low-income communities more than they ever had before. 

“In the years before Prop. 209, University of California engaged in relatively little outreach to disadvantaged communities. It simply augmented its normal admissions pool,” Sander said. “ In 1997, faced with the loss of the ability to use racial preferences, UC embarked on a massive, multiyear effort to build bridges to disadvantaged schools across California.”

Chaz Garcia, a longtime OUSD teacher, believes that the failure of Prop. 16 has shone a light on the inequities that exist for Black and Brown students and teachers. In her eyes, it’s now obvious that they are not awarded the same opportunities which has led to a disproportionately negative impact in education. 

“When we look at job positions or applications for schools, generally white students will be pushed to the forefront and be selected…many more times over that of Black and Brown applicants,” Garcia said. “Seeing the need to have some sort of structure in place that provides what would then be equal opportunity, because without anything in place, it’s not equal.”

According to the Learning Policy Institute, a research and policy organization in Palo Alto, more Black and Brown teachers has implications for student learning. Their studies found that “increasing teacher diversity is a very important strategy for improving learning for students of color and for closing achievement gaps.” 

Both Garcia and OUSD special education teacher, Christina Anderson, believe that students of color in K-12 schools need to have teachers that look like them so they have mentors to look up to, someone who will help them succeed in their education. Something she believes affirmative action would have accomplished. 

“If you have kids who are steeped in trauma, students who are already struggling with difficult situations, to have someone [a teacher] who can’t really identify with their struggles makes it harder,” said Anderson. “Our obligation to our students, especially in our under-resourced community is to make sure they have an equitable education system.”

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