A Parent’s View on Oakland Public School Funding Inequality

Great look at the disparities in funding for public charter schools and traditional district schools in Oakland.  We all pay parcel tax money, but right now the roughly $500 per child that comes from measure G, doesn’t flow equally to public charter school students.

Take a look at the piece here


I Don’t Understand Why My Child’s Oakland Public School Receives Less Funding

The Importance of “Fit” and the Costs of Student Mobility

One of the schools I volunteer with is a “maker” school.  It is built around empowering students to create their experience and even the physical environment.  This starts day 1 of school where they literally construct, using tools and timber, the stool they will sit on.

For some families and kids this is fun and exciting work.  For at least one family—they turned around and took their child somewhere else.  While they probably didn’t realize it, both their initial decision to enroll and the one to leave, likely both significantly, negatively affected their child’s education.

Mobility matters

The more students change schools the worse they do.  I have written before about the benefits of increasing the traditional grade spans—creating 6-12s, Tk-8s, or Tk-12s.  There is a solid body of research that says children and particularly high needs children do better with fewer transitions.  And now, even more compelling data has emerged around the negative effects that any movement between schools by students has.

Edweek recently highlighted these issues, and pointed out the disturbing outcomes, not only affecting students who move, but the schools themselves and the students who remain.

In a report on student mobility by the National Academy of Sciences, Chester Hartman, the research director for the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington, noted that high-poverty urban schools can have more than half of their students turn over within a single school year.

“It’s chaos,” he said in the 2010 report. “It makes all the reforms—smaller classes, better-trained teachers, better facilities—irrelevant.”

In fact, in a study of 13,000 Chicago students, University of Chicago researcher David Kerbow found those who had changed schools four or more times by 6th grade were about a year behind their classmates—but students in schools with high churn were a year behind those in more stable schools by 5th grade.

“It is unclear how school-based educational programs, no matter how innovative, could successfully develop and show long-term impact” in a high-churn school, Kerbow concluded.

So basically, if kids are mobile between schools—it doesn’t matter what schools are doing.  All those fancy powerpoints and process maps on reform, aren’t worth the toilet paper they are printed on.  A priority investment needs to be on student stability.

Why kids move?

Sometimes it is fit, the kid at the military school who might be better served at the arts school.   But often its circumstances beyond the student’s control

Again from Edweek,

The most common causes of student mobility are residential moves related to parents’ jobs or other financial instability. A 2010 Government Accountability Office study followed students who entered kindergarten in 1998 through 2007. It found 13 percent of students changed schools four or more times by the end of 8th grade, and highly mobile students were disproportionately more likely to be poor or black than students who changed schools twice or fewer times. The same study found families who did not own their own homes made up 39 percent of the most highly mobile students.

Similarly, a 2015 state policy report in Colorado, which tracks student mobility in its districts, found mobility rates in 2014-15 ranged from more than 17 percent for students in poverty to more than a third of migrant and homeless students, and more than half of all students in the foster care system.

So our most vulnerable students are most mobile, and it matters for student learning

Student mobility undercuts learning

Students, particularly high needs students, need stability in school; stable relationships, predictable routines, a sense of knowing kids and adults and being known, and any move can have huge consequences.  Again from Edweek,

Various studies have found student mobility—and particularly multiple moves—associated with a lower school engagement, poorer grades in reading (particularly in math), and a higher risk of dropping out of high school.

While research has found students generally lose about three months of reading and math learning each time they switch schools, voluntary transfers, which are more likely to happen during the summer, cause less academic disruption and may be associated with academic improvement if they lead to better services for the student.

Why this matters for Oakland

This matters for Oakland’s enrollment debate for two reasons.  First, we need to work to get the right fits for students from the outset.  To help families understand the options they have and to help them to enroll in the best school for their child.  There is something wrong where Farmersonly.com has a better system to match lovelorn White folks, than most families can find to match schools.

Secondly, we need to emphasize stability as a policy preference.  So even where families may move, we need a system where children, and particularly high needs children, can practically stay in the same schools, which may mean transportation.

Our enrollment rules and processes really are up to us.  And no reforms will root, where children are constantly churning.  With so many variables beyond our control, and many complex reforms with unproven results—giving high needs students stable learning environments is something we definitely can do, that we know will matter.

It would have mattered to the family that dis-enrolled from our maker school, who now will be pounding the pavement in Oakland for rare high quality seats, even rarer after the school year has started, and their child is likely stumbling further behind.

There Are Things We Can Do Right Now to Make Oakland Schools More Equitable

Oakland’s fractious public education sector may have found some common ground.  New leadership in the OUSD enrollment office, openness to real changes at the top, and a public push for equity and integration in Oakland across the community have created a moment of opportunity.

In my view the biggest doable change we can make in the short term to increase equity is reforming the overall district enrollment processes. The devil will always be in the details—but if we look at it from the standpoint of what’s good for kids and what’s good for Oakland—rather than one of exclusively what’s good for me—I know we can get there.

A strange thing happened on the way to the office last week

My oft critic “Oakland Parents United” agreed with me on the piece I wrote about integration.  And while the arguments often seem personal, I do think that most of us really want better and more equitable schools—it’s often an argument about how to get there.  And we have real disagreements on methods.

Anyone who has looked at the recent KQED series on segregation in Oakland, should be shaking their heads at the current state of equity and integration.  Most of us believe that diverse schools are better, and anyone with a conscience would also say that concentrating all the most highly impacted kids together is probably a recipe for disaster.  But we have very segregated schools, and also schools that are hyper-segregated, by both race and class.  Schools, that if you listen to the series, are struggling to meet high needs with fewer resources.

The current rules on enrollment comfort the comforted and afflict the afflicted, to butcher a phrase.  Not only are housing patterns in Oakland explicitly formed by racist public and private practices—which we should not honor, but a whole host of rules and conditions disadvantage the disadvantaged.  Neighborhood zoning, ranked waitlists, sibling preferences, early school choice periods exercised by a few, transportation, differences in information, and capacity to navigate the system.

They all work against equity and diversity.

Our Schools Our Rules

Enrollment zoning, preferences, waitlist management, transportation, and access are all things we can control.  The school board approves the rules.   With transportation it may cost some money—but otherwise—it’s just changing rules.  Costless.

And not all preferences are insidious, some just tend to perpetuate the same or a more homogenous student body.  Look at sibling preferences, it completely makes sense that children would go to the same school—but as there are fewer available spots—some percentage of those will always be swallowed up by the existing families—which tilts the percentages towards those families, which may continue to tilt the racial balance.

Same with ranked waitlists.  Again they make sense, they give families a sense of where they are in line, allowing families to  juggle their choices.  However, thousands of families register for school after the formal enrollment deadline—over the summer.

These families will tend to have more needs, but will get the spaces left at schools that other families did not choose.  Which will tend to be weaker schools.  So those with greater needs actually get less.  I never finished my Ph.D, but that don’t make no sense.

Neither of these are intractable—you could give preference to non-sibling students for available spots that would increase diversity, or you could just re-lottery a certain percentage of saved seats at high performing schools for latecomers.  It is up to us.

Where enrollment zones for schools are set, who gets preferences, and how we engage the community are all actions in the hands of district staff and the board.  Maybe rather than big flat enrollment zones above the 13, we create some oblong zones that dip below it.

I can show you all kinds of studies on how inequitable the system is in Oakland, but anyone who is paying attention knows that.  And since we know it, we should do something.

So amidst all the rancor and disagreement—this is something that we should come to agreement on, that will actually matter for students, that doesn’t rely on the State or some funder, or whomever.

We have leadership from OUSD staff, who have already made huge progress with the Family Welcome Center, our Board Chair James Harris has also led on this issue.  So now it’s time to go out to the community, listen and understand some of the complex challenges, and make fairer enrollment a reality.

I hope that’s something we can all agree on.

There is No “Free Market” in Public Education

Any time someone starts talking about the free market in K-12 education I immediately know that they don’t know what they are talking about.  And as a hack economist myself, I know that public education is nothing like a free market—for good reason.

Stick with me.

There is no “free market”

Economists like competitive markets as a way to deliver the right amount of what people want, that whole supply and demand thing.  Well-functioning markets rely on good information, basically free/costless choices (so-called “transaction costs”) and competition.  So “consumers” have a wide range of choices, they know the quality and value of them, and they are basically free to choose between options who are competing to give the buyer the best deal.

The ideal is something like buying rope on Amazon.  You have a lot of reviews and reliable information about quality, you have multiple suppliers competing on price, and it’s basically costless to choose option A or option B or nothing.

Now let’s look at K-12 schooling.  Everyone has to go to school by law, so whether you want to consume it or not you are forced to.  And many of the actual “consumers”, kids, would probably say they would rather not go to school at all.  So even if they don’t want a rope they have to buy it.

Schools are usually assigned by residence, with widely varying quality within and across districts.  And everyone pays for schools through taxes, whether they have children that attend or not.  So all public schools “cost” the same—nothing—or an exclusive rent or mortgage depending on how you look at it.   So the price (which is free) may or may not have any relationship to quality.

Pretty far from the supply and demand graph that every economics student studies, where supply and demand meet to set the price.

Questions of Quality

School quality is also notoriously hard to determine.  The state itself struggled to even determine an accountability system.  Understanding the likely outcome of schooling when you put your child in kindergarten is very difficult—and indeed there are a range of outcomes; academic, social, developmental, all of which are hard to measure and isolate.   Outcomes also may ultimately depend more on your child’s “fit”, the teachers they get, and the overall stability of the school and its leadership, or what they brought from home.

For a segment of families that can choose neighborhoods or private schools there is some potential competition between schools to attract them.  But for most families in the Flatlands in Oakland, not so much.  Housing is tough to find and expensive, and most families I see are just trying to hold on to where they are living now, or potentially leaving Oakland.  They go to the school where they are assigned, or choose between a couple of neighborhood options.

And remember how easy it was to push the button and order rope from Amazon, how low the transaction costs were.

In Oakland where most students have to provide their own transportation to school, those transaction costs can be huge, and vary widely based on family resources.  Some students already spend hours daily on buses, while others are driven to school out of neighborhood, or have high quality walkable options—so the ability to bear these costs varies widely and inequitably.

Education is also plagued with one of the bugaboos of economics—externalities–when my private transaction has positive or negative effects on third parties not involved.  Imagine the polluting factory, who passes health care costs on to unknowing third parties—that cost is external to the sale of their product.

We reap societal benefits from an educated citizenry.  In pure economic terms—we are more productive.  And on the flipside there is also a huge economic, and more importantly, social cost, when we fail to educate children.  In a post-industrial world, these young people will have few viable prospects.  Their lives will be hard.

So even for most economists—they would argue for intervention in the “market” for education.

Free markets don’t exist for good reason

Most of us have never seen a free market and we would run if we did.  Its ugly head rears occasionally, when drug prices spike or Epi-pens triple in cost while productions costs decline.  The “free” market tends to devolve into a few big players conspiring to fix prices or shysters selling water in the desert for the price of your house deed.  Hence anti-trust laws, and host of legal interventions in the market.

Legitimate takeaways

There are still important ideas we can use from Economics 101.

Parent demand is probably a pretty good indicator of quality or a cue that we might increase the number of that type of seat.  And I do believe in extending public school choices for parents who can’t hustle or move to better schools or better fits.  Look at the rates of choice at middle and high school transitions—within and out of district– in the Hills, less than half of children in the “Northwest” go to a public middle schools and just over a third go to a public high school.  They have the ability actuate choices and they do.  All parents should get more practical choices within the public sector, and students who need the best schools should get preference.

We also should, with humility, evaluate whether we are spending money well.  This is easier said than done, but we really do need to look at how we strategically spend money, and do our best to be sure we put our scarce funds where they matter the most.  Money is scarce and schools could all give you a laundry list of legitimate needs, so we need to be smart, and do our best to analyze the effects investments.

Beyond choice policies and spending, we also need to pay more attention to students left behind—who aren’t choosing—increasingly concentrated in schools of default.  What some might call, “the externalities” but we call our kids.  The so called “charter movement” and districts that have embraced more choice based policies tend to not account for these students—and we need to.  Somebody needs to.

A final word of advice

So the next time someone who hasn’t been to a public school, or hasn’t experienced the range of quality and inequality, starts edsplaining about the beneficence of the ”free market” in education, please refer them to an econ 101 textbook and politely tell them to frack off until they have done their homework.

What’s Missing in the Charter School Ruckus with the NAACP and BLM

Black families support charter schools.  Every survey I have ever seen that actually asked families found significantly more African American families supported charter schools than didn’t.  I challenge someone to show me a respectable survey to the contrary.  So why aren’t some of our civil rights organizations listening?

Broad, Consistent Support for Charter Schools

Every credible poll I have seen shows broad support for charter schools by African Americans.  Don’t believe me—here are several—including the latest Education Next Survey.


Here’s another, and note that these are often conducted by advocacy organizations, but I still challenge someone to show me differently.

According to the TV One/RolandSMartin.com poll, 72 percent of African-American parents polled favored public charter schools, with 13 percent opposing the institution; 74 percent of those polled showed interest in enrolling their children in charter schools, with 18 percent saying they would not be interested. View the survey in its entirety at RolandSMartin.com.

Or this one  from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Support was particularly strong in the Hispanic, black, and low-income communities, with 84% of Hispanics, 82% of blacks, and 86% of low-income respondents favoring public school choice. The overall support outweighed the opposition (17%) by almost five-to-one.

Or this one by the Black Alliance for Educational Options


The numbers are clear.

Another Choice Amidst Limited Options

We often live in the most under resourced neighborhoods, with the most impacted schools.   And if anyone thinks this doesn’t matter for the experiences of kids—just listen to the recent KQED series on segregation in Oakland schools.

Black families too often get the short end of the educational stick.  We know this.

We also know charters aren’t perfect.  In some cases they are better.   In some cases they are worse.  But when you are between the devil and the deep blue sea, sometimes you jump.

And our families are not under some mass hysteria, some Uncle Tom Stockholm Syndrome or a countrywide okey doke.  The strength and consistency of the surveys shows this is real.

Schools are there primarily for the families, and for disadvantaged families that can’t move to better schools or go private. Those families should be the number one stakeholder and the loudest and most influential voices.

I wish some of our self-professed representatives would listen a little more and talk a little less.