Ending the Prop 39 Charter Facility Fiasco

The way that Oakland Unified allocates facilities is bad for kids, schools, and likely the district’s bank account.  We have all heard about the “too many schools” problem, but here I am talking about Proposition 39 which mandates that districts make “reasonably equivalent” facilities available to public charter school students.

This is an annual ritual fraught with conflict, anger, and lawsuits: a giant game of musical chairs where a couple of district staff are supposed to allocate thousands of charter seats amidst district facilities, smashing large square pegs into a myriad of small round holes.

Practically this can’t be done fairly without, in many cases, disrupting existing OUSD sites in bigger or smaller ways or splitting the charters into multiple sites, and usually both.  It’s doubly bad for the charters, who often don’t know where they will be sited, go through an appeals process and delays, and have to put precious time and energy into a fight for something they have a right to be given.

And it’s hard to tell parents who need to enroll their child somewhere, that you aren’t sure where you will be located in the Fall.

Leases or lawyers

There are only two things the district can do legally; one, they can develop a long term lease outside of the Prop 39 process, or two, they can go through the yearly musical chairs, or I guess, three, they can get sued and lose.

As a lawyer I agree with Dickens, “the law is a ass.”  Going to court wastes time and money and also subjects you to judicial fiat, which even if well intentioned probably won’t come up with the best plan.   I believe that we are better off negotiating our way to good agreements which provide stability and better outcomes for everyone.

And let’s be clear, there is no free ride.  Charters pay for the sites, which otherwise may sit shuttered costing the district money.  And speaking for Lazear Charter Academy, millions of dollars are going into upgrading the site, which is OUSD’s.  And in many cases, charters continue to use the district custodial staff and pay for them.

Meanwhile, the musical chairs game of Prop 39 is a mess year after year, with stupefying results that will likely cost the district money, and further divide the community.  Nobody likes to get sued, but nobody likes to get screwed either.

The absurdity of this process was on full display at the 3/22 OUSD Board meeting, 16 charters requested facilities under prop 39, and the majority of those are going to be a fight.  At the same time another 15 charters did not request sites, because they have long term agreements, so no fight, no instability.  We need more in column B and less in column A.

And let’s look at a couple of the “offers

An offer you can’t accept

The detailed offer proposed at the Board meeting involved moving East Oakland Leadership Academy which is currently at Seminary and Foothill (Emphasize the East Oakland) to Westlake Middle (yeah on the west side of Lake Merrit), that’s 6 miles.  And for a school whose parents walk to school with children, it’s a community killer, maybe a school killer.

And that was a single site offer, so I guess that is relatively good. Though Prop 39 says that charter sites should be “contiguous,” many charter offers are sited across multiple campuses.

American Indian Public Charter II had its students distributed over 5 different sites; Allendale, Skyline, Munck, Howard, and Garfield.  How could a principal manage that?  They can’t.

And I challenge anyone with a straight face to argue this is “reasonably equivalent” to other district facilities.   You can’t.  It’s not.  You will lose in court.

Instability is bad for schools, kids and the district

I know a vocal minority don’t like or agree with the Prop 39, but it was approved by the voters overwhelmingly, and gave public charter school students rights to district facilities, setting rules and timelines.  By all means lobby to overturn it, but until then it’s the law.

Districts have ignored the law to their own peril.  LAUSD lost a $7 million lawsuit last year on Prop 39, and Oakland is poised to lose as well if it comes to that, based on my reading of the law and facts.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  The current approach is administratively very challenging, and leaves few real options.  Meanwhile the district is sitting on undeveloped plots of land, underutilized sites, and other assets to use in reaching agreements with charters before it comes to Prop 39, avoiding the yearly drama, lawsuits, and uncertainty.  And OUSD already has successfully negotiated many agreements.

Schools not knowing where they are going, last minute changes, splitting schools into multiple sites, all these things are bad for kids and learning.  So to advocate for policies that consistently create these conditions is bad for kids no matter whose “side” you are on.  And it’s going to create a bad situation for the district, where they will lose a lawsuit, lose money, and may lose autonomy on these decisions.

There is a better way to get this done, I hope we can sit around a table and agree before we are disagreeing in front of a judge.


The Spook Who Sat by the Charter School Door

I am the fly in the school reform buttermilk. An outsider, now marginally on the inside, trying to plot the revolution. 

Young, gifted and Black, I founded a charter school support organization in Oakland at the dawn of the movement in the ’90s, followed Katrina into New Orleans to help resuscitate the (charter) schools, and then was CEO of a $41 million dollar public-private partnership to spur charters in New York City, with Chancellor Joel Klein on my board.

I sat in the boardrooms, and the meetings before the meeting where everything was really decided, and often was there when folks negotiated the futures of these communities in bigger or smaller ways. And I can say, as usually the only brother in the room, that school reformers—and I’m talking about the “deformers” here—can be a little scary. Well, sometimes a lot scary.

I apologize in advance to the good, well-meaning folks who are actually trying to understand and empathize with our kids and families. I love many of y’all—but you gotta admit there are some real pieces of work in the room, too.

Colonial Reformers

Many, many folks have an “other people’s children” problem. They support and applaud the creation of schools that they would never send their own children to. “No excuses” schools where students eat silent lunches and walk in silent halls, where trauma is disciplined into submission or exit.

These schools are usually led by some young, relatively inexperienced hotshot, who has learned a lot in school or in some prep program, but knows very little. But he’s great, they love him.

The natives, not so much. For instance, the veteran Latina educator and school leader, who has a doctorate and decades of experience, starts one of the highest achieving schools in the South Bronx, in the shadow of one of its dropout factories. She’s lived there her whole life and fought and worked in the community. They’ll say, “She’s crazy.” No money for her. These “deformers” might even undermine her behind her back.

I can’t count how many times people of color were called “crazy” for the dreams they have for our kids and their willingness to fight bareknuckled for them, while White folks are called “ambitious” and given money to achieve the same thing. 

And sometimes these people are just racist. One of these Thurston Howell-types (anybody else watch Gilligan’s Island?) walked into a discussion I was having about a weak charter leader. I was running through a number of data points. First question from him: “Is she Black?” No, she isn’t. But why is that the assumption?

And keep in mind, these are the deciders—the authorizers in some cases, the funders in others.

There Are No “Sides” When Kids Lose

Then there are those that cheer or snicker when “the other side” fails. Too many people delighted at the stumbling of a charter school founded by the New York City teachers union. But it was serving kids in East New York, where kids need to be served better. Do you really want to see that school fail?

When you are the spook, there is nothing funny, nothing to be self-congratulatory about, not another “side.” Kids are failing and being failed. When you are the spook, those are your kids.

But to many of them, it’s just another point on the political scoreboard. Something to throw at the union in an adult mudfight. And that’s all it is, because their kids will never go to these schools. They can’t imagine themselves or their kids living where these children and families are.

The Choice Is There Is No Choice

It’s not easy being the spook.

Maybe you know the Black nationalist novel from the ’60s (or the movie it inspired), “The Spook Who Sat by the Door”? The main character is a “spook”—another word for a spy in the CIA. But there’s a deeper political message. The real meaning of “spook” is an old racial slur for Blacks. The early response to affirmative action was to force your token Black employee to sit right by the door, giving the appearance of a “diverse workplace” that still operated on the same system of White privilege and oppression that this country was founded on.

Sometimes I feel like that spook. Sitting in these funders’ boardrooms and closed-door meetings, sometimes I wonder if they’ve positioned me right by the proverbial door, to add some legitimacy to an enterprise that—for the worst of these “deformers,” for the colonial reformers—isn’t really isn’t about empowering communities of color at all.

Late at night I often wonder whether we can dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. Whether being the spook inside is better than being the agitator outside. Whether trying to build institutions and children in the space the system affords us will ever work.

But spooks don’t have too many choices. We see the daily toll taken on youth and the price of inaction. And we’re joined by many other reformers—White, Black and Brown—who are here to do the work, and really believe in the schools we’re building.

In a rigged system where few even get near the door, I am picking up what tools I can, and hope to unbolt the foundations while a smarter and better army of young architects and carpenters develop.

Maybe those who inherit it can finish the job of remaking this system into something better.


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What to Make of the New ‘Dashboard’ for California Schools?

How is your local school doing? Last week, the state of California presented its answer in a new, color-coded dashboard, reflecting a range of academic and school culture measures. This was a 180-degree turn from the old measure, the Academic Performance Index (API), which boiled school performance down to a single number. While the API was easy to understand, it made complex issues too simple.

But did the pendulum swing too far in the other direction?

Early Reviews Not Good

So how is the new system? Not great, according to most of the commentary I have seen.

To some, the methodology is off and not particularly helpful in providing useful transparent school quality information. The East Bay Times captured many of these critiques in its piece, New State Education Portal Hides School Disparities:

Unfortunately, while state education officials deserve a B for effort, their execution was a D. Through illogical data manipulation, their presentation hides differences between districts and schools, and between student groups based on ethnicity and income…

For example, a school at the very top in math scores that had recently been slipping receives the same yellow ranking as a school at the bottom that has seen some improvement.

We all want to recognize improvements. But let’s not kid ourselves. No matter the trajectory of their change, schools at the top and bottom ends of test scores are not the same. Pretending they are hides the differences between schools and between students within those schools based on ethnicity and income. It renders the data meaningless and provides an excuse for struggling schools to ignore the seriousness of their plights.

Beyond how they came up with the ratings, there are constant questions on the usefulness of dashboards for families.

Parent Revolution has led that charge, as detailed in a recent L.A. Times article:

Chief Executive Seth Litt said Parent Revolution showed parents the dashboard as it looks now. “They kept asking us what the API scores were, even though they weren’t current scores,” he said. He added that the layout makes it hard to compare specific factors in one school to those in another.

Alexandra Menjivar, who has children at Wadsworth Elementary in South L.A., traveled on Parent Revolution’s overnight bus. She told the board that the new ratings system “doesn’t give me a starting point for how my school is doing overall. Parents cannot be partners in their kids’ education if the state keeps parents in the dark.”

Others, however, have indicated that the dashboard can be useful when parents are given some support in understanding the data. From the same Times article:

The California Parent Teacher Assn. said it got a different reaction in focus groups it held for parents. “Most of the feedback was ‘I thought it was much more complicated than this. Now I understand it,’” said Celia Jaffe, the group’s vice president for education.

Layered on top of this is Oakland’s participation in its own school performance framework as part of its work with several other large districts in California, the CORE Districts.

So let’s actually take a look.

Putting the Dashboard to the Test

Here is the “student and group report” for Montera on the State’s dashboard:

And here is the “status and change report” for Skyline, again from the state:

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it particularly easy to compare these two examples, except perhaps if I print out the reports. Fortunately, Ed Source has created some tools to help with comparisons. And Parent Revolution has worked to boil the complexity into some more digestible numbers. And I expect we will get better at understanding the dashboards over time as some authors suggest.

And since Oakland has its own school performance framework, let’s take a look at how that system represents the same schools.

Here is Montera on a summary page:

And again a look at Skyline, showing the page with greater detail:

Why This Matters

Knowing how schools are doing matters. It should help guide parent decision-making and it should help us in knowing where we need to provide support. It’s not as simple as a single number to judge schools (like the API). But it also should not be that complicated.

Here’s to coming together amidst the ideological battles to keep working with this rich set of data, and analyzing and presenting it so that it is actionable for schools, families and districts. The stakes couldn’t be higher for under-served families.

Rethinking the Superintendent to Reflect Reality in Oakland

The visionary superintendent. Riding in on a white horse. Or better yet, a homegrown hero—politically connected but without enemy. With the vision and prowess to slay Oakland’s education problems and deliver both equity and results.

Look, this wistful existence of the perfect leader for our district is more than just a unicorn. It’s a harmful myth. A myth that may disserve us and have us looking for the wrong person with the wrong qualities—missing the leaders we need.

Superintendents for Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), local or not, have a long historical record of churning. Take a look the numbers from an analysis by Ed78:

Average tenure of Oakland Superintendents (not including Interims) over the past 20 years is 2.4 years—almost exactly how long Wilson stayed! If we look farther back to the past 50 years, the average is a little higher at 3.4 years. The longest service in the past 20 years? Anthony (Tony) Smith at 4 years.

There are a range of reasons they leave, but consistently short tenures. Until someone shows me how the conditions have changed and that we could expect a 10-year supe or even a 6-year supe, I think it’s less important that we have a visionary planning for big changes, and harboring even bigger aspirations.

What we really need is a great manager. Someone who can collaborate with the range of players, and make some reasoned and well-informed hard decisions. Someone who can identify, develop and retain quality staff, and prioritize investments. Someone to just stick to one consistent plan. Our district workplan, while always evolving, should outlast any superintendent or educational fad.

Don’t Fix What Ain’t Broke

Maybe I’m also guilty of being a little optimistic. But many of the basics of OUSD’s plan are working, or are at least moving in the right direction and just need better implementation.

There are real successes in our services to English-language learners, and also the growth of new bilingual pathways. Same with the restorative justice work and differentiation of programs to support specific students like the African American Male Achievement Initiative. And we are seeing real results in increasing graduation rates for some groups and decreasing suspensions overall—though we still have a long way to go.

I have also been impressed by the increasing personalization of learning at OUSD sites like Roosevelt and Metwest and the overall, if uneven, progress with career pathways at the high schools. These investments in making learning more relevant for students will pay off, if allowed to grow with some stability.

Stay the Course

So we don’t need to shake things up. We need to keep looking at transparent data, with the Strategic Regional Analysis and School Performance Frameworks being a start, and design ways to make things fairer, with more equal access to opportunities. And let’s face it, we need more high-performing schools—especially in the Flatlands—since nobody should be happy with where our overall student achievement is.

We don’t need a bunch of new plans, or a new team with a bold vision of transformation. That is not how things work in big districts, especially broke ones. But we do need a leader. There are hard choices to be made, with current deficits and larger looming ones in the future. And some real structural problems with an unbalanced budget, declining enrollment, many more school sites than similarly sized districts, teacher shortages, and a huge loan from the state that predates most children in the schools. I could probably list 10 more strategic challenges, but that’s a good shortlist.

We will have winners and losers here, priorities will need to be ranked, and investments made, while still maintaining the confidence of the community, who can vote with their feet in many cases. It will be a long and difficult slog that will outlast any man or woman.

So we don’t need a hero. We need a leader who can manage. And while not as pretty as a unicorn, they might actually get us somewhere.

California’s School Funding Crisis and Two Ways to Fix it

Where does California rank in per-pupil spending? Depends who you ask. I’ve seen us ranked 46th, 41st, 29th or even 22nd.

But no matter which number you use, when you consider that we have more low-income children and English learners than anyone else in the country, it’s not enough. It’s time we addressed the structural funding issues head on, rather than settling for more short-term band aids and bonds.

EdSource did a solid job of breaking down the different ways school spending is compared by different groups with different methodologies. Turns out the big difference is whether you include cost of living in your assessment of how sufficient the school funding is. When researchers used the so-called “comparable wage index,” California was ranked 46th and 41st.  These are the right numbers.

California’s bad math on school funding

As someone who has worked across states and localities, I’ve seen huge differences in average and starting salaries for educators. And the vast majority of school budgets are staffing: the average teacher salary in New York is $77,957, in South Dakota it is $42,025, with accompanying cost differences in everything from housing to hot dogs. A $10,000 per-pupil may work in South Dakota, it won’t work in New York, where the actual per pupil is $22,593.

When I work in New York, we get a per-pupil payment that actually meets the needs of students and even receive a multiplier payment for high-needs students. For students with special needs, you can actually cover the cost of the required extra services.

Meanwhile, in California, we have high costs and a low per pupil, and that’s a recipe for disaster. California has the fourth-highest average teacher salary at $72,842, but the per-pupil estimates drawn from recent data range from $10,291 to only $11,329. Thankfully we have been putting money into education through temporary taxes like Prop 30 and Prop 55 which temporarily extended Prop 30’s tax, but that is temporary. Otherwise we make up the difference through local property bonds, which are about the most regressive and unfair way you can fund schools.

And because California has kicked the can down the road, there will be rapidly increasing pension costs, which will swallow up future funding increases. Pensions will rise between 2-4 percent of annual personnel costs for the next five years, so even if we still see continued steady increases in funding, schools would not see much of it.

And all of this assumes a fairly rosy and stable economy in California. That’s a big assumption.

Fortunately there are two things we can do.

  1. Reform Proposition 13

First, education actually is a giant slice of the state budget pie at over 40 percent, but the pie is too small and Proposition 13 is the major culprit. With that proposition, California voters capped the taxes for all property.

Structurally we need to revise Prop 13, keeping the cap for homeowners who need it, but largely removing it from commercial property and McMansions. If you want to look at the advocacy efforts please join some of the Proposition 13 reform advocacy groups.

  1. Invest in Our Educators, Money, Well-Spent Matters

Schools are human institutions and we need to make them more humane and sustainable places to work. That will take more resources, and a rebalancing of our priorities. We are a rich state, yet we are 46th in our investment in education or “effort” according the California Budget and Policy Center, which is a measure of the percentage of taxable assets that states invest in education.

Unless we increase accountable spending in California, we will face an even greater crisis. There is a looming teacher crisis, that will compound our current one, and unless we address the compensation, training and working conditions of staff, it won’t matter what fancy plans, improvements or reforms we try to implement. There won’t be enough qualified staff to do the work.

And we all know which schools and children will bear the brunt of that.

We can’t do more with less endlessly in California, and students will eventually pay the price—even more than they are now. It’s up to adults to fix that.