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Failing the Test: Oakland’s Charter School Tipping Point

Rosie Torres

Oakland school board member Rosie Torres, left.

Last September’s sensational leak of the Great Public Schools Now Initiative, a half-billion-dollar plan to double the number of charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), sparked a firestorm of controversy. Citing the plan’s potentially crippling fiscal impact on a financially troubled district that already leads the nation in its number of charters (around 230), critics denounced the plan as “an outline for a hostile takeover” and “a declaration of war on public schools.”

The combination of public furor and the LAUSD school board’s unanimous repudiation of the initiative — which was quickly dubbed the “Broad Plan” after its sponsor, Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad — subsequently forced the nonprofit tasked with implementing it to beat a retreat in its rhetoric, if not its intent to transform half of Los Angeles’ public schools into charters.

Rosie Torres, Oakland School Board Member: “What’s going to happen if we continue to have charter schools opening and we destabilize the financing of public schools?”

Yet Capital & Main has learned that a similar private initiative has been on the table for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) for at least a decade. Virtually unknown to Oakland’s parents, and without the benefit of public exposure or open debate by its school board, the Oakland charter expansion scheme has been quietly driving policy under the political radar for a number of years. (The OUSD school board did not respond to Capital & Main’s request to comment for this article.)

Charter schools, which were born of the education reform movement of the 1980s, compete for public tax dollars but are today often run like private businesses and aren’t bound by much of the state’s education code. But what makes such large-scale expansions problematic, researchers contend, is how charters exacerbate existing inequities through access, retention and recruiting practices that “cream” high-achieving, inexpensive-to-educate children and “push out” students challenged by learning disabilities, limited English skills, academic deficits or chaotic family lives. That leaves already struggling urban district schools burdened with a larger percentage of high-needs kids but a smaller amount of money with which to serve them.

The major Oakland charter advocacy groups that responded to requests for comment about the 50 percent charter-school goal issued carefully worded denials or demurrals. Jason Mandell, a spokesperson for the California Charter School Association lobby group, admitted to “a goal for growth, but not a specific target in each district.” Rhonnel Sotelo, who has been executive director at the Rogers Family Foundation for nearly two years, said he’s never heard of a 50 percent goal for Oakland. And Debbie Veney, a spokesperson for the Silicon Valley-backed NewSchools Venture Fund, said she “can’t confirm that such a plan exists.” The city’s pro-charter coalition, Great Oakland (GO) Public Schools, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Yet according to Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, that 50 percent charter-school objective has been more or less an open secret in East Bay charter circles.

They were probably talking about [it] 10 years ago, about whether they could take over Oakland. The idea’s been kicking around for a while,” he stated in an interview, recalling that he first heard the figure through the NewSchools Venture Fund.

Mike Hutchinson

Mike Hutchinson

Many charter supporters, Fuller added, believe a 50 percent stake is necessary to “drive the ‘reform’ agenda” in a school district. The problem with the way that charter school funding works in California is that there’s no way that a charter school’s expansion will not push a school district closer to bankruptcy. The math is simple: For every new charter seat created, a traditional district loses that much state Average Daily Attendance (ADA) money, which represents the bulk of its funding. Taking half of OUSD or LAUSD’s enrollment means taking half of their budgets.

Worse, though the ADA money follows the child to the charter, the students that remain in the public school actually become more expensive to teach. As students are siphoned from a neighborhood school to the charter down the street, the building overhead and paychecks to teachers, nurses, librarians and custodians at the non-charter do not go down correspondingly. It costs the district the same to open the doors of a classroom whether it is full or at 75 percent capacity. The emptier the classroom, the more the economies of scale that allow California districts to educate a student at the rock-bottom annual price of $9,794 collapse.

Bruce Fuller, University of California, Berkeley: The idea of charter schools taking over Oakland has been kicking around for a while.

Creaming and push-out by the charters only further inflate the expense as, over time, neighborhood public schools accumulate a disproportionate share of difficult and expensive-to-teach, high-needs kids. All a school can do is cut staff and services, along with art and music instruction, band, recess and phys ed. Eventually, those under-occupied classrooms are seen by districts budget managers as “overcapacity” and the neighborhood school itself must be closed. 

Charter school defenders deny that charters are to blame and insist that districts can offset the fiscal chaos of ADA “siphoning” by simply restructuring school budgets to expand and contract with enrollment by, among other things, automatically cutting staff along with “legacy costs” like retiree health care.

Yet massive school closures were the scenario in Oakland in 2010, when OUSD’s then-superintendent, Tony Smith, floated a contentious plan to close 25 to 30 city schools. In the fierce public outcry over the destabilizing dislocations that the closures would pose for thousands of Oakland public school children, Smith and the board backed off, and in the end only closed five. Research on the student impact of mass school closures in Chicago and Philadelphia, triggered in part by charter expansions there, suggests the disruptions may hinder, and rarely help, students’ academic progress.

Mike Hutchinson, a local education activist and school board candidate who was at the center of the fight to save the schools, believes that when Los Angeles looks at the future of its public schools, it should consider what’s already happened to a large degree in Oakland. Districts like OUSD, he told Capital & Main, are being used as a kind of policy Petri dish by charter supporters, precisely to refine the kind of detailed takeover strategies outlined for Los Angeles by the Broad charter expansion plan.

A lot of these policies were first tried out in Oakland,” he said. “If you go back and look at the Eli Broad handbook on school closures, a lot of the source information that they used for that report is from Oakland. Because they used Oakland to experiment for a lot of these things.” 

One evening in February about 100 parents filled the auditorium of East Oakland Pride Elementary School, a stately, prewar Spanish Colonial Revival structure spread along a quiet street of low-income, single-family homes. The neighborhood sits at the center of the “Deep East,” a fingerlike diagonal of flatlands sandwiched between San Francisco Bay and the 580 Freeway. This community’s high-crime streets rank at the top of Oakland’s neighborhood stressor index.

Clarissa Doutherd, Executive Director, Parent Voices Oakland: “Racially we are a diverse city. But that doesn’t mean that we have to have the McDonald’s of schools coming in.”

The gathering’s mostly Latino and black families had turned out for an “informational meeting” held by the Oakland school board for parents who were deciding whether to enroll their children in one of the 86 district-run neighborhood schools or one of the 37 charter school upstarts (seven more are authorized by the Alameda County Office of Education). These have given Oakland the largest percentage (over a quarter of all students) of charter enrollment in the state.

Kim Davis

Kim Davis

That night a tension hung in the room, caused by OUSD superintendent Antwan Wilson’s “common enrollment” program. The controversial $1.4 million plan, proposed by Wilson last fall, would for the first time in California combine district schools and charters in one enrollment process.

Oakland public schools advocates immediately condemned the policy as the latest move by Wilson and the East Bay’s charter school forces to accelerate the migration of district students to charters and tip the city’s already under-resourced neighborhood schools off a financial cliff. It’s a suspicion fueled by the fact that common enrollment’s main financial supporter is Educate 78, a local pro-charter school group financed by the NewSchools Venture Fund.

After board president James Harris brought the meeting to order, Silke Bradford, the polished and well-spoken director of OUSD’s charter school office, delivered a PowerPoint presentation of charts and side-by-side comparisons of district-wide performance statistics and demographics of charters and district-run schools. The show was flattering to charters, particularly in slides showing that charters bested district schools on the new, Common Core-oriented SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) standardized tests in math and reading by 13 to 22 percent. This, despite teacher complaints last spring that the tests were confusing and didn’t provide a meaningful assessment of academic performance.

However, one of the Oakland school board members, who are called directors, took a look but refused to sit with her colleagues beneath the auditorium’s proscenium arch. Later, District 5 Director Rosie Torres explained her decision to Capital & Main.

I was so angry, I just walked out,” she said. “It seemed like everybody danced around and talked about wanting a strong leader, or talked about wanting diversity — everything but the issue [of] what’s going to happen if we continue to have charter schools opening and we destabilize the financing of public schools.”

It was a startling admission from a woman who, in 2012, enjoyed the endorsement and financial backing of CCSA and GO — the latter of which receives funding from NewSchools and the Gates and Walton foundations. GO was founded with seed money from the Rogers Family Foundation, Oakland ice-cream magnate Gary Rogers’ pro-school-privatization nonprofit. That election saw GO’s candidates wrest control of the school board, which ever since has generally supported GO’s policies in the face of increasingly vocal public opposition.

Torres said, however, that once she was in office she quickly dropped her charter “neutrality” when she learned of the scope of the East Bay charter advocates’ plans for Oakland. “They actually want 50 percent [of OUSD’s enrollment],” she said. “The former charter school association president said, ‘We’re going for 50 percent of Oakland school kids.’” Torres was stunned. “Financially, what is our role as a board if not to mind and to be directing public dollars in a way that would not decapitate us?”

The day after the East Oakland Pride meeting, Torres appeared at a rally in front of OUSD’s downtown offices to address teachers at a march organized by the Oakland Education Association, a teachers union. The teachers had come to protest common enrollment and the undue influence they say philanthropy-backed groups like Education 78 exert on their school district’s leadership.

I’m concerned … about whether or not we will still have public schools in the future,” Torres announced through a bullhorn. “That 20, 30 years after a takeover, corporations can just turn around and walk away. What would happen if this was a complete charter district? We will be left with empty buildings, no teachers, no education for students who can’t afford to go to private schools, students who can’t afford to up and move to another city that will have public education.” 

Oakland’s charter school movement has been growing since the district was taken over by the state in 2003 because of a $35 million budget deficit. It was put under the control of state administrator Randolph Ward, a Broad Academy graduate, by then-mayor Jerry Brown and then-California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell. By 2009 the district emerged from receivership — and from under two more Broad Academy administrators — having ballooned from 15 authorized charters to 33. (The academy is one of two Broad Foundation programs that groom future education officials in a pro-charter school environment.)

“The state takeover and appointment of a Broad-trained superintendent,” teachers union president Trish Gorham remembered, was pretty much the writing on the wall. [Ward] began the school closures then.” Ward closed 14 traditional public schools during his three years and opened 13 charter schools, cutting into enrollment at district schools. Mike Hutchinson, the education activist, believes that the public pushback against school closures has made Oakland charter groups rethink their tactics but not their overall goal. 

Part of that shift, Hutchinson says, is reflected in Oakland Education Strategy 2020, unveiled in 2014 by the Rogers Foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund. The program strives for “creating new and redesigned high-quality schools with the collective capacity to serve 10,000 students by 2020” – which would bring the charter schools’ share of Oakland’s total enrollment to just under 45 percent. 

Doutherd

Clarissa Doutherd

Though the Rogers Family Foundation’s Rhonnel Sotelo denied that the plan was “necessarily trying to add 10,000 new charter school seats,” the 2020 initiative certainly allows the expansion, even as it dovetails with OUSD’s Quality School Development Policy, announced by Wilson that same school year. Under the Wilson plan, the school board each year would designate persistently underperforming district-run schools to be placed in this Quality School Development Policy. Once selected, the school site then sets up a redesign committee and a redesign process to overhaul the school’s curricula and classroom culture.

Although Oakland is the state’s most racially diverse city, the East Bay’s charter expansion has not exactly been colorblind. The most telling slide in Silke Bradford’s PowerPoint presentation was how, at 19.2 percent, African-American students were dramatically underrepresented in Oakland charters, particularly compared to Latinos at 54.7 percent (compared to 29.5 percent and 42.9 percent respectively in district-run schools).

Mona Treviño, Parents United: “Why should the public school district pay for the enrollment of schools that are not accountable to the district?”

Oakland education’s emerging racial divisions worry Clarissa Doutherd, the executive director of Parent Voices Oakland. A single parent with an African-American son, Doutherd sees the racial disparities between charter and neighborhood school enrollments as part of a larger pattern of real estate development, gentrification and displacement that has been dividing the city’s communities and, in particular, impacting its African-American population.

Racially we are a diverse city,” Doutherd said. “But that doesn’t mean that we have to have the McDonald’s of schools coming in. Letting the market decide who my son’s going to be, I can’t imagine that. That’s a scary future.”

The 44-page Great Public Schools Now Initiative, which lays out a step-by-step blueprint for the creation of “260 new high-quality charter schools” and the generation of “130,000 high-quality charter seats” in eight years, more than doubling LAUSD’s current charter enrollment, openly states its intention to make Los Angeles a model for similar charter takeovers in other cities.

In Los Angeles, however, even the Broad Foundation’s Greg McGinty later backed off from the initiative’s takeover rhetoric. McGinty, the Broad Foundation’s executive director and managing director of policy, insisted that the plan was created only “for discussion purposes.” And Myrna Castrejón, a former CCSA lobbyist who was named executive director of the new, eponymous organization created to implement the plan, held out the hope that some of the plan’s privatization philanthropy could conceivably be used to expand LAUSD’s successful pilot school program, though she maintained that the plan’s “original intent hasn’t changed.”

The simmering anger of last February’s East Oakland Pride meeting the one Rosie Torres walked away from was eventually vented in the school’s parking lot as parents, teachers and board members headed to their cars. Mona Treviño and Kim Davis of the activist group Parents United, along with another parent, Tylon Hunter, paused to speak about their frustrations over what they felt had been left unsaid —that the board was pitting parent against parent.

Why is our board putting us in this position?” asked Davis. “This was, ‘Listen to what these people say.’ You know, they want this kind of division between us, and I’m not sure why.”

Tylon Hunt

Tylon Hunter

We’re not having a conversation about whether or not the district should pay for charter school enrollment,” Treviño added. “Why should the public school district pay for the enrollment of schools that are not accountable to the district? I mean, the district is accountable — or the county — for allowing these [charter] schools that are pushing kids out.”

They should be held accountable,” Hunter agreed emphatically, “because it’s not public school parents against the charter school parents. We all should be looking at the district. And really, if you’re going to take money from the state, the county, then you should abide by the same rules that the public schools abide by.”

At the dawn of the charter movement, the education writer Alfie Kohn noted that the biggest hurdle facing meaningful education reform was Americans’ attenuated sense of community. That much of the charter school movement effectively says to parents, “’Never mind about what’s best for kids; just shop for the school that’s best for your kids.’ It’s not a community; it’s a market — so why would we expect things to be any different inside the school?”

This is the underlying concern of Oakland’s neighborhood public schools advocates — what happens to the communitarian safeguards of democratic governance that have guided public education for the last century as that system is replaced by one of philanthropic noblesse oblige?


All photos by Bill Raden

Coming:

Wednesday
Charter Schools’ Winners and Losers, by Capital & Main Staff (with video)
Yardsticks and Rulers: Measuring Charter School Performance, by Julian Vasquez Heilig

Thursday
The Charter School Movement’s Powerbrokers, by Capital & Main Staff
Who’s Accountable? Searching for Charter School Transparency, by Bobbi Murray

Friday
School Solutions and Turnarounds, by Bobbi Murray and Bill Raden
Solutions for Struggling Schools: Nine Takeaways, by Julian Vasquez Heilig

Plus video interviews with John Rogers, Director, UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

 

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  • Douglas Cronyn

    Lots of questionable assertions here about charters not needing to follow the education code, discouraging diversity, etc. How can you say in one sentence that charters don’t address second language learners and in the next say that charters have more latinos? There are perhaps legit concerns out there, but much of this article seems to be more of an opinion piece than anything approaching objectivity.
    Charters are still governed by school boards, the same basic funding exists per student regardless of charter or public school alignment, charters are still open to all. Some of the more interesting debates around charter schools versus “public schools” are not addressed by this article, such as teacher working conditions and specific figures on whether or not charters are funding students with disabilities, how much money of each goes to administration salaries, how much curriculum is driven by the schools themselves or by the district.
    An easy way to access some of these insights would be to anonymously interview teachers who have been in both “public” and “public charters,” get a sense for the working conditions. Also, students and parents who have been in both “public” and “public charters” could also give their impressions of both. These are complex issues needing a bit more thorough and informed journalism in my opinion.

    • Tristan Brown

      Latino does not equal second language learner.

      Charters receive their charter from school boards, but most charters are run by charter management organizations who are non-profit fronts for for-profit corporations. They are able to keep financial information behind the veil of the corporate wall. To say they are “governed” by school boards oversimplifies the relationship. Boards take a look at charters once every 5 years to see if they should renew the charter. That’s hardly governance. The day to day decisions are made by corporate entities, not public ones.

      Charter do receive ADA funding, but the article is completely correct to site that charters take ADA away from the rest of the district. We build schools on long term plans, taking into account population density and growth. When a charter schools pops up out of nowhere, that charter impacts the rest of the student’s district and siphons off the ADA funding from the district. Everyone else suffers now while a few get specialized attention.

      Charters are technically open to all, however they do not have the same rules of the rest of the Ed Code when it comes to removing students. Charters are able to “counsel out” students, by telling parents it’s better to just walk away from the charter rather than be suspended or expelled. Traditional schools aren’t allowed to do that. So the child leaves the charter, but then there is no process for that student to re-matriculate back into the rest of the district. Often times these students end up in adult schools and their learning suffers greatly. It isn’t a surprise that these students who are counseled out are predominately students of color.

      I agree with the rest of your statement however. We do need more review of working conditions, students with disabilities, and transparency.

  • msy

    Ward did not turn 14 district schools to charter schools. He tried to do so and got only two schools to agree to the change, the others he either turned to “small schools” (where the school set up new plan and worked towards it), or did a almost complete turn over of the staff (moved everyone to other schools in Oakland and hired brand new teachers for the schools in question). The ones who did change to charters were done so with fishy votes according to the law though.

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