Katrina Scott-George worried that Oakland's grand educational experiment would fail before it even started. It was the spring of 2003, and the state of California was about to take over the school district and fire the man who hired her. Superintendent Dennis Chaconas had recruited Scott-George to help run Oakland's groundbreaking small-schools initiative. But she also had been working on righting a decades-old wrong.
On paper, all the city's public schools belong to the same district. But in reality, the Oakland Unified School District has long operated two distinct systems: one for rich and primarily white kids in the hills, and another for poor black and Latino kids in the flatlands. The shiny hillside schools stood out for their top-notch test scores and savvy veteran teachers. The flatlands schools stood out for their broken toilets, uncredentialed instructors, and rock-bottom test results. These disparities were all the more scandalous given that Oakland Unified also spent more of its discretionary funds on schools in affluent neighborhoods. The difference was caused primarily by teacher salaries: The veteran teachers who gravitated toward the hills cost more than their rookie flatlands colleagues. As a result, Oakland spent millions of dollars more each year to educate the kids who needed it the least, while cheating the kids who most depended on public schools.
When Chaconas took office in February 2000, he and the school board essentially threw money at the long-struggling district. The flatlands schoolkids deserved better, they reasoned, so they gave all teachers a 24 percent raise over three years, and Chaconas launched a campaign to put credentialed instructors in every classroom.
At first, the plan seemed to work. Test scores began climbing. But Chaconas and his advisers failed to realize the disastrous side effects of the pay raises. They so successfully stanched the flow of quality teachers out of Oakland that they left the district with too many well-paid veterans. As enrollment plummeted, classrooms of twelve or fifteen students became commonplace. An early 2003 study showed that Oakland Unified employed 400 to 500 more teachers than it could afford. But by then, it was too late; the district had overspent its budget by $57 million. In June 2003, the state Legislature extended Oakland a $100 million line of credit -- the largest in state history -- and stripped the school board of all its powers.
When state Superintendent of Schools Jack O'Connell handed Chaconas a pink slip, Scott-George figured any hope for wholesale reform had ended. After all, student achievement did not notably improve under previous state takeovers, and financial inequities were not addressed. "I was expecting some bean-counting administrator," Scott-George said. "I thought I was going to last about five seconds."
At first, her fears seemed well-founded. Chaconas' replacement, state Administrator Randolph Ward, arrived under a cloud of suspicion. There was evidence that the state financial experts hired to help Chaconas had instead worked behind the scenes to replace him with Ward, who had developed a reputation as an aloof manager in his previous job as the state administrator of Compton's schools. He also looked like the classic bean counter: Ward made sure that Compton repaid its state loan in full, but the district's academic record was still dismal after ten years of state control.
Yet Ward surprised Scott-George. Not only is she still with the school district, she's helping him lead the country's most extensive and controversial transformation of a large school district. If successful, Oakland Unified could become a national blueprint for urban school-district reform. "I was shocked," Scott-George said of her new boss. "One of the incredible things about Randy is that I've never heard him say anything bad about Dennis. Instead, he came in and looked at what we were developing and said: 'This looks great on paper. Let's do it. Let's talk less and do more.'"
Using the public schools of the Canadian city of Edmonton as a model, Ward, Scott-George, and their colleagues are completely revamping how Oakland schools operate. They're transferring decision-making power from bureaucrats in the central offices and handing it to school principals. And they plan to equalize funding among hillside and flatland schools by instituting a sort of school-wide salary cap. "There were already good elements in place," Ward said in a recent interview. "I certainly wasn't going to throw that all away and say, 'I now have the Randy Ward plan.'"
Other large urban school districts -- including those in Boston, Cincinnati, Houston, St. Paul, San Francisco, and Seattle -- also are copying aspects of the Edmonton model. But none is doing it as extensively as Oakland Unified, says author William Ouchi, a UCLA management studies professor who has studied Edmonton and other urban districts. By decentralizing power and turning principals into entrepreneurs, Oakland also is emulating American industry. Not surprisingly, the reforms have received the blessing of business leaders interested in educational reform, including Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Eli Broad, cofounder of housing giant KB Homes.
But Ward's ability to pull it off is in doubt. Although his absolute control over Oakland schools is allowing him to implement much of the overhaul right away, his entrepreneurial vision, my-way-or-the-highway leadership style, and fondness for hiring young business experts with little or no experience in public schools have engendered a strong backlash. Thus far, he has failed to achieve substantial buy-in from the people his new system most depends upon -- school principals. And while he's expecting a multi-million dollar infusion of private capital to help institute his plans, he's also facing a militant teachers' union leadership that distrusts his motives and opposes his latest contract proposal, setting the stage for a possible teachers' strike -- which could cripple the district's reforms.