Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown's embattled plan to open a military charter school has passed muster with the State Board of Education.
The 6-0 vote Wednesday at a regular board meeting in Sacramento clears the way for the Oakland Military Institute to open next fall with 162 seventh-graders at the former Oakland Army Base.
The controversial proposal got a critical boost from Brown's former aide and longtime ally, Gov. Gray Davis. Davis made only his second appearance before the Board of Education to tout the military charter.
Plans call for students to wear uniforms and participate in inspections and Outward Bound-style physical and mental challenges as part of a rigorous, six-day-a-week college prep program. They would take classes from California National Guard personnel and civilian teachers.
Brown, 62, who has pushed his plan for a military charter school for more than a year, emphasized that the school would not be a boot camp aimed at pushing students into the military.
"This is going to be an excellent academic program designed to get kids into high-ranking colleges and universities," he said.
Still, concerns about undue military influence in the staunchly anti-military Bay Area had rankled officials with the Oakland Unified School District and the Alameda County Office of Education. Both agencies had rejected the plan in recent months.
In a letter to the state board, Wilson Riles Jr., a former Oakland City Council member, said the proposal represents the "continued and deepening influence of militarism and the legitimization of violence in our community."
Dan Siegel, a self-avowed pacifist who heads the Oakland school board, has criticized the program as too expensive, too vague and racist.
Such opposition prompted Brown to take his case directly to the State Board of Education. Under the charter school law, the board becomes the final arbiter for a charter school petition if a petitioner believes that a school plan has been unfairly denied.
The board also Wednesday approved the petition for another charter school, Ridgecrest Charter School in Kern County, that had previously been rejected. The two schools become the 349th and 350th to be chartered in the state in the seven years since the law took effect. They are the only two that the state board has agreed to oversee. The others operate under a local school district or county office of education.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently, are run by parents, nonprofit groups and businesses. They are sprouting in states across the nation as parents seek alternatives to beleaguered public schools.
Davis, who served as chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s, had in recent days urged state board members to approve the project. On Wednesday, Davis described his own experience at the military school he attended, Harvard School for Boys in North Hollywood. (Harvard merged in 1989 with Westlake, a girls school, to become Harvard-Westlake School.)
"I am proof that military school can make a positive, lasting influence in a young person's life," he said.
A military school would not leap to mind as a pet project for Brown, who studied with Jesuits and whose first foray into the political arena was to develop the peace campaign for the California Democratic Council in 1967. But he disputed the notion that the idea was contrarian.
"I was commander in chief of the National Guard, and I created the Oakland Guard program in 1975," he said. Many students, he said, need the discipline and structure that such a school could provide.
Brown has helped create several charter schools in Oakland, including an arts academy. He has made improving the public schools a top priority, even making an unsuccessful bid to put the district under his authority.
State statistics paint a grim picture of education in Oakland. In 1999 only 29 African American males, fewer than 10% of black male high school graduates, graduated from Oakland schools with the courses needed to apply to the University of California or the California State University system.
The state's new accountability measure, the Academic Performance Index, shows that the city's six high schools are among the state's worst.
While supporting the notion of a military charter, Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction, said at the board meeting that the state Department of Education does not have the staff to oversee the school on behalf of the board. Board President Monica Lozano said she would urge Davis and the Legislature to provide the needed resources.
Another option would be for the board to contract with a local school district to handle the day-to-day administration of the charter school.
Davis has already signaled his support for the project, setting aside $1.3 million for the school in the 2000-01 budget.
Students at the school are to have an extended day, running from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with three hours of instruction on Saturdays and mandatory summer school. Such long hours, Brown said, will be needed to overcome the academic deficiencies that he expects will be rampant among students applying to the institute.
Plans for the institute call for adding one grade each year for five years until the school serves nearly 1,000 students in grades 7 through 12.
All students, Brown said, will be expected to abide by an honor code. Collaboration with the California National Guard is intended to create an atmosphere of tradition, civility and respect.
The Rev. Ken Chambers, a Baptist pastor and economic development executive in Oakland, said the school would provide an opportunity for "regular citizens to participate in the kind of school usually open only to the elite."