Losing Ground

Budget cuts and multicultural education at Berkley High

By Wayne Au

Illustrator: J. D. King

Illustration: J. D. King

Berkeley High School in Berkeley, Calif., has always been symbolic for me. I’ve seen it as a kind of lighthouse for multicultural education and a model of a school that illuminated the often-foggy issues of race and racism. When I was fortunate enough to become part of the history department there in 2001, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

Not only did Berkeley High have an African-American studies department , it offered an array of social studies electives that included Chicano/Latino studies and Asian-American history. It even boasted a ninth-grade Ethnic Studies graduation requirement. As a teacher of color who has always placed a premium on social justice education, I thought I had died and gone to multicultural history heaven.

My two years as a teacher of Identity and Ethnic Studies (IES), Language Arts, and Asian-American Studies there were rich and mostly lived up to my expectations. I regularly engaged with students on a myriad of critical issues ranging from the anti-war movement to race as a social construction. But later, as I left Berkeley High, it was becoming increasingly clear that multicultural education was being threatened at the school. This school, which has been in the vanguard of navigating rocky conversations about the value of multiculturalism in public education, was clearly being guided towards age-old practices of institutionalized racism as it made decisions about what to cut in the face of its budget crisis.

Berkeley High is perhaps most famous among education researchers for its racial tensions and its omnipresent achievement gap. Here the richer, more privileged kids from the predominantly white “hills” meet the lower income black and Latino students of Berkeley’s “flats.” It is a highly contentious, politically charged school that struggles with disparate inequality while simultaneously staking a claim to the radicalism of the Free Speech and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This brackish mix of contradiction is what makes Berkeley High so lively and was the main reason I wanted to work there.

In my first year, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) faced an $8 million budget shortfall, with another projected $8 million deficit for the next year. Considering that the BUSD is relatively small with only one high school of 3,000 students and an overall annual budget of approximately $100 million, this $16 million deficit over two years constituted a crisis.

It was in the context of this crisis that the African-American studies department came under attack. As a response to the deficit, the BUSD streamlined its administrative systems and changed how the high school departments were defined. The district decided that small departments would be dissolved as a cost-cutting measure, unwittingly “defining” the African-American studies department out of existence. The African-American studies department at Berkeley High holds a special place in the heart and history of Berkeley. While many other schools and districts offer individual African-American studies classes , Berkeley is possibly the first and only public high school in the country to have an entire African-American studies department .

Community Support

After a spirited protest to the school board, where students and community members rallied around the cause of keeping African-American studies alive due to its political, historical, and cultural importance to the high school and community, the district quickly made an exception to the new policy and spared the department. Berkeley School Board member Shirly Issel said the district had made the decision with a “lack of awareness of the consequences.”

The African-American studies department survived this round, but the brief battle illustrated that the district wasn’t considering the implications of its decisions in terms of multicultural education and racial equity. This was one of the first of several concrete expressions of institutionalized racism as a direct result of the budget cuts, where a seemingly neutral district policy of redefining departments clearly produced a racialized outcome.

Later, as the budget crisis began to escalate, other district decisions further eroded multicultural offerings. One way the school sought to save money was to shrink district graduation requirements, reducing the need for courses and, therefore, teachers. The only requirement the district dropped was the history elective, which housed many of Berkeley’s most unique classes, including Asian-American history, African-American history, and Chicano/Latino studies. Many of us considered this elective the pride of the history department. It offered classes that were culturally relevant to the students, and it created the space for teachers to be actively engaged in subject areas that they were genuinely interested in teaching. The administration argued that these classes would be offered if enough students voluntarily signed up for them. But we teachers knew fewer students would take these specialized multicultural history classes because they no longer fulfilled a requirement.

Even though the history elective had been cut, we still had the “Identity and Ethnic Studies” (IES) class. It was still a ninth-grade requirement and a core component of multicultural education at our school. But the budget crisis severely changed the course’s structure and hampered its effectiveness.

The beauty of the IES at Berkeley High was that it was an untracked, small class of 20 ninth graders that focused on issues of race, social justice, and identity development. We worked on creating community, discussing emotionally and politically difficult topics, and adjusting to the academic and social pressures of high school. The small size of the classes made such explorations possible.

But when the state reduced its class-size reduction money, the district shifted money from IES to other priorities. As a result, average class sizes shot up to 33 students, forcing the layoff of at least four teachers in the department.

The threats to multicultural education at Berkeley High continue. In planning for the upcoming 2004-05 school year, BHS has found that there are not enough teachers to teach all the history courses the state requires and to maintain the ethnic studies classes. In response, the district is planning to allow the ethnic studies graduation requirement to be met by courses from several departments outside of history. As it stands, although individual history teachers will offer specific ethnic studies classes as they have in the past, the ninth graders will not be required to participate in a common ethnic studies curriculum that was designed to be a cornerstone experience at Berkeley High.

Another discussion about ethnic studies at Berkeley High is taking place among students and parents. Recently a former student from my IES class e-mailed me and relayed that, since ethnic studies isn’t a California state requirement, some parents are advocating removing it from the district curriculum altogether. And even though she and some other students are organizing to save the class by circulating petitions, she and my former colleagues are seemingly less and less hopeful about the survival of ethnic studies at Berkeley High.

Berkeley High School is only one illustration of how the current de-funding of public schools chips away at multicultural education. What’s clear is that the budget cuts and the institutional changes being brought to bear in our schools are having racialized outcomes. Seemingly neutral or colorblind shifts in policy, which are shaped by the constraints imposed through funding cuts, are resulting in sharp challenges to multicultural education.

In a broader sense, what we are seeing is the result of a silent conversation about what is important for our children to learn in school. Is multicultural education a valuable, perhaps necessary requirement of our children’s school experience? This is a crucial question, and unfortunately, the conversation is being perversely twisted both by the strangulating effects of No Child Left Behind’s standards and testing-which do not uphold multicultural values-and by an economic vise grip that forces us to choose between subjects. It’s like asking, which are you willing to give up, your arm or your leg? Certain parts of the curriculum are being valued over others, and programs like art, music, and multicultural education are being lopped off.

Berkeley High School has symbolized what’s possible for multicultural, anti-racist public education. Whenever I talk to my friends and colleagues around the country about what Berkeley High has to offer-its electives, its ethnic studies requirement, its African-American studies department-they are amazed at how far multicultural education has advanced there. I feel that Berkeley High exists as a beacon of possibility for others concerned with social justice education. But what has happened at Berkeley High School also warns us about the potential dangers ahead. As we negotiate the choppy waters of budget deficits and the No Child Left Behind legislation, I can’t help but be concerned about the future of multicultural education.

Wayne Au (wwau@wisc.edu)is a former high school teacher who is currently pursuing his Ph.D.in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.He is an editorial associate for Rethinking Schools and sits on the steering committee of the National Coalition of Education Activists.