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Oakland Teach-In Looks at Budget Cuts and the War

by Jesse McKinley

OAKLAND, Calif. - Third period at Paul Robeson High School in East Oakland was pretty much what you might expect on a sunny Thursday afternoon at the end of the term: distracted students, talk of graduation and nearly silent response to teachers' questions.

Until, of course, the topic turned to the recent cuts in the state's education budget.

"We don't have any money because it's all going to the war," said Ashley Lawless, a 18-year-old senior who moments before had been obsessively fixing her hair. "And now they're shutting all this stuff down."

That kind of angry outburst may have been precisely the point of a daylong act of educational disobedience undertaken on Thursday by about two dozen teachers across Oakland, who set aside their normal lesson plans in favor of topics like the war in Iraq, racial inequality and a recent 10 percent cut in the state schools budget.

Craig Gordon, a social studies teacher at Robeson and the author of the day's curriculum, said the goal was to raise awareness among students who may not have a firm grasp of the relationship between what happens at home and what happens "out there."

"I wanted them to actively think about the priorities of society, because they are the ones who are going to be most affected," Mr. Gordon said. "They are the ones that need to be informed so they can make a decision on whether they want to do something about it."

The so-called teach-in was just one of a series of May Day events in California, including a work stoppage at several ports and large pro-immigrant demonstrations. Mr. Gordon's classes were about a third empty because of a walkout by Latino students, some of whom chanted for immigrant rights outside the school's fences.

For those in school, however, the topics being bandied about were far juicier than the average civics class. Teachers from elementary school to adult education classes allowed students to discuss everything from whether the United States was committing acts of violence against innocent people to whether American businesses were getting rich on the backs of the poor.

One worksheet handed out to students was blunt in its assessment of the current events: "About 1,000,000 Iraqis are dead and 4,000 American soldiers. The war will cost the U.S. about $2.8 trillion. Our schools don't have money. Many people don't have health care."

And while district officials did not officially sanction Thursday's change in curriculum, they did not seem to mind, either.

"We recognize that a comprehensive education needs to consider the subjects that are taught in relation to current events," said Troy Flint, a district spokesman. "And today's lessons exemplify that."

School districts across the state have voiced their displeasure with the cuts in financing, which come as California faces a $14.5 billion deficit. But perhaps nowhere have the objections been more pronounced than in Oakland, a historically underfinanced district of some 39,000 students, many of them poor. The district essentially went bankrupt in 2003 and was taken over by the state, though it has recently resumed local control over some administrative functions, Mr. Flint said.

On Wednesday, members of the school board and local leaders rallied to protest the recent cuts and unveiled several proposals meant to help generate funds, including closing a loophole on a state yacht tax. More unusual, the district is also praising a plan to ask residents in Democratic-led legislative districts to "call, e-mail, and/or send a postcard" to residents in Republican districts to try to drum up support for increased taxes on oil, vehicles and the wealthy.

"People just seem to tune out, because every year there seems to be a budget crisis," said Kerry Hamill, a board member who organized the rally on Wednesday. "We wanted people to know that this one is different."

The question of whether such nonviolent means really work also had students debating in a rickety modular classroom at Oakland High School during Thursday's teaching of the alternate curriculum.

Taurus Hamilton, a junior, said he was not sure.

"Sometimes you need some violence to show people that you got something to say," Mr. Hamilton said. "Sometimes you got to show people what you're willing to do to get what you need."

A classmate, Vanessa Dilworth, disagreed. "That's not right," she said. "If you don't do it a peaceful way, there's people that are going to beat you down. It's like Martin Luther King versus Malcolm X."

Their teacher, Ben Visnick, came down firmly on the side of nonviolence, but let the students battle it out verbally for several minutes. A former president of the teachers' union, which helped organize Thursday's curriculum shift, Mr. Visnick said earlier classes had sparred over the economy and the school system's budget, which is never far from some students' minds.

"Most of our students are working class or poor," Mr. Visnick said. "And they know that the deck is not always stacked fairly."

© 2008 The New York Times

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