A Victory for Adult Education in Oakland

On Wednesday, May 22, the Oakland Board of Education voted to keep what remains of it’s adult school open for the 2013-2014 school year in a last minute reversal of the planned complete closure of the program.   While the Oakland program that once served 25,000 students now consists of ten classes, this is an important victory for adult education.  Hopefully it is the first sign of a turning towards the preservation, and eventual restoration of adult schools after five calamitous years of closures and cuts.

The meeting took place at La Escuelita, which houses one of the adult school classes that were to close.  This was the meeting where the budget for 2013-2014 would be presented, and there was a large crowd, many of them holding signs. With many audience members wearing lime green Oakland Education Association tee shirts and blood red armbands in support of adult education, the place was colorful and the mood raucus and contentious, even rancorous.  There were signs demanding that adult education be saved, and others protesting the low cost of living increase planned for teachers.  There were “chop from the top” signs, and other signs complaining that administration in Oakland is top-heavy and that the district spends too much on consultants.

There was a lot of calling out from the floor, starting with the announcement that thirty minutes would be allowed for general public comment at the beginning of the meeting.  “That’s not enough time!” someone called out from the audience. Each speaker was given one minute, and the microphone was cut off as soon as a speaker went overtime, while some people from the floor called out “Let her speak!”, and others, apparently unaware that the silencing of the speaker was intentional, called out “We can’t hear!”

While most speakers who planned to speak for adult education had signed up to speak to the budget agenda item,  the comments in favor of keeping adult education began during the general public comment period and continued throughout the meeting whenever the public was allowed to speak.  Many students from the adult family litearacy program spoke, some of them in Spanish. The audience periodically broke into chants, including a chant of “Rebuild adult ed!” at one point.

While most of the audience was at the meeting to speak to the budget, there was a lengthy presentation about high school graduation rates before the budget came up, which further angered some audience members.  The audience and the board shamed each other on multiple occasions, with the audience breaking into a chant of “Shame on you!” at one point, while board members asked the audience to stop talking among themselves and repeatedly stated, “This is a business meeting!”

“It’s a public meeting!” an audience member retorted.

“I think we can all agree that we are here for the children,” one board member said.

“What about adults?” someone yelled from the floor.

Once the budget came up, things quieted down.  Board members asked questions about Governor Brown’s May Revise, particularly the provision that districts would not be eligible to participate in the adult education consortia that are scheduled to begin in 2015-2016, and thus become eligible for their share of about $500 million in adult education that will be distributed through the consortia,  unless they maintained their adult school programs at the current level of funding.

Public comment on the budget item began at about 9:00 PM. The meeting began at 6:00 PM.  I had to leave at 9:00, and so was unable to hear all the public comment.  After I got home, I received an email from an exhausted Oakland adult education advocate saying that the board had voted to retain the existing adult school program for another year.

While I was in the audience, someone put into my hands a newsletter entitled “Classroom Struggle”. There was a two page article in support of Oakland’s adult school, and the plight of adult education was mentioned in most of the other articles as well.  On the back of the newsletter was a cartoon showing public education as the Titanic about to hit “the tip of the iceberg”, cuts to adult education.  The part of the iceberg that was under the water was the scheme to privatize education and all the woes that come with it.

As an advocate for adult education, I think that cartoon gets it right.  I always feel that the fight to save adult education is part of a bigger struggle, a struggle to save public education which is ultimately about better  education for children too.   Adult education is the low hanging fruit of public education, the part that those who would like to see all of education turned over to business interests think can easily be picked off.  This is partly because adult education is poorly understood by the general public, but also because, like schools for children in low income areas, which are also under vicious attack, adult schools serve vulnerable populations who don’t have a strong voice.  Immigrants, seniors, the disabled, those who don’t have a high school education — these are the marginalized in U.S. society, and they are the students adult education serves.

Some in education have been convinced that sacrificing education for these marginalized adults is the only way to save  public education for children. But the destruction of adult education, if it comes to pass, will be a victory for the privatizers, and will make them stronger.  If you google “adult schools” now,  already you will see websites for many private schools like University of Phoenix before you see anything about public adult schools.  Once public adult schools are gone, what is to keep privatizers from coming after the rest of public education?

Hopefully, the decision of Oakland’s school board is the beginning of a resurgence of adult schools in California, and this will strengthen all of public education in the state.

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