OUSD’s Year in Review and the Challenges Ahead

By most accounts Oakland Unified is doing pretty well.  Our schools are as fully staffed as they have been in recent memory, public support is at historic highs, academically we are making progress and progress with some of most historically underserved students, and financially we are as strong as ever, with an improving bond rating.

So despite the rancor in Oakland, things are going relatively well.

Nobody should be satisfied either with where we are or even the pace of progress, but most should agree that we are moving in the right direction.

The District has developed some of its own notable successes, like Coliseum College Prep, which boasted a 91% grad rate, in the Flatlands.  It has also smartly expanded bilingual support, restorative justice practices and specialized support programs like the African American Male Achievement Initiative.

You can see from the graph below—the public is liking what they are seeing based on the most recent polls (you can click the graphic for a clearer image)



But before we call it a day and proclaim mission accomplished there are some thorny issues that need to be tackled

Some Big Challenges Ahead

Overall Achievement and Equity– Even with the increases in graduation rates, they are still too low for many subgroups.  Native American students have less than a 50% graduation rate and English language learners, Pacific Islanders, Latinos, African American males and special education students are under 60%.  And while this is the best it has ever been in Oakland, it’s not good enough.  And as I keep harping on, Oakland has some of the most unequal access to quality schools in the country.

Read the report (above) page 32, low income students in Oakland are 18 times more likely to be in the lowest scoring schools on reading—the largest disparity in the country.  And while racial achievement gaps are slowly closing, they are still too wide for anyone to be comfortable with, I hope.

Facilities– While Oakland Unified had a slight uptick in enrollment this year from 36,981 to 37,089 students, it is a district with significantly fewer students than 15 years ago (even when charter students are added to district students).  And many charters are in private buildings.

Here’s the chart from the latest 2012 OUSD Facilities Master plan

2016-08-22 (1)

OUSD has some buildings bursting at the seams, and others less than half full, it also has undeveloped lots.  At the same time, the growing charter sector has struggled to find adequate school spaces, even as the voters gave them the right to “reasonably equivalent” public facilities in Proposition 39.  This is part of a larger issue of coordination between charters and the district, which is being worked through in the equity pledge.

So I know some folks don’t like it or personally agree but by law charters are public schools and by law they have a right to basically equal public facilities.  Oakland has not provided those buildings to charters (and I know it’s tricky) but right now OUSD is likely on the losing side of multi million dollar lawsuit from the State Charter Association.

We need to find a better way to allocate sites, and also settle this suit.  There are a lot more losers than winners if OUSD’s students are on the hook for legal fees and damages.  Some solutions in a future blog, but it’s completely doable.

Staffing stability and local trends

Without great, committed, responsive, stable staff nothing else will matter.  No workplans, no curricular changes, no technology, no restorative justice, or career preparation—it all depends on staff.  And Oakland’s turnover is too high, particularly in special education and harder to staff subjects.

This is a tough one, Oakland will never be able to pay what wealthier districts can, based on how  California funds schools.  We also will continue to have a high need student population, who really need, great and responsive teachers.

With rapidly rising rents and property prices, many Oakland teachers won’t be able to live here.  These and other factors conspire to continue a churn of educators and ongoing vacancies, and instability for children who need consistent, caring adults.

OUSD will need to work with the City, other local governments, and developers to get creative on teacher housing and affordability.  And we also need to do a better job with the incredible human capital in Oakland.  I am shocked to see the challenges we have finding bilingual staff, when we have a ton of smart, hard working, passionate former Oakland students, or others who would feel at home in Oakland, we might more deliberately develop.

But we will need to get creative here, and really do more with less traditional resources.   Adequate funding is a continuing issue in Oakland that requires a statewide funding fix.  And while we should work for that, we can’t wait for it.

Thank You

Oakland is doing relatively well.  This is a credit to the Board, Supe, staff, stakeholders and families.  This is incredibly, hard, hot, and contentious work, and the stakes could not be higher.  So let’s keep the progress moving, the debate robust and civil, and tackle some of our ongoing issues together.

I obviously have not agreed with everything the Board has done, but I have generally admired their commitment, and deliberations, in a very difficult and thankless job.

Looking forward to another year of progress, hopefully with more light and less heat.


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The Best NYC Charter School Story You Haven’t Heard

A predictable war of words has erupted around interpreting the latest set of NYC test scores. The charter sector has touted its successes, with Success Academy Charter Schools front and center, and the mayor has increasingly pushed back, critiquing the results, Success Academy itself, and broadly tarring the sector.

Missed in the battle of the elephants are some other remarkable outcomes. First and foremost among them is an autism-inclusion charter school in Harlem that posted the top scores for any independent charter school, all while serving high-needs students in an authentic and responsive way.

I have written about Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem before. A school our Incubator helped start that deliberately recruits and reserves spots for students on the autism spectrum. The school has a robust program of support that integrates students on the spectrum and helps them develop socially in a safe and staged way. 

This is crucially important work from a societal standpoint and would be worthy of applause for even taking on the challenge. But when you see the development of students and also the awe-inspiring outcomes, this is a lot more than a social development program, it is one of Harlem’s highest performing schools.

Outstanding Results

Take a look at the scatterplot below provided by the NYC Charter Center. Neighborhood Charter shines.

Scatterplot of test scores for NYC independent charter schools

While the analysis does not take into account differences in student populations, and schools that tend to serve more disadvantaged students tend to have lower overall scores, nobody can argue that Neighborhood is “creaming” kids. And the work it is doing is much deeper than a test score.

One story from the school really struck me. A parent was talking about how her son was basically mute in school, but at Neighborhood he had started to open up, talk, make friends, and develop a previously nonexistent social circle.

The joy and contentment is evident on kids’ faces when you visit, alongside a responsive design where every class has individual supports for students.

And the results are really remarkable—75.4% of their students are proficient in math, compared to 16.7% in the district. 69.7% of kids are proficient on English language arts, compared to 21.5% for the district.

After the Rhetoric

So let’s move beyond the mayor’s history of talking loud but carrying a small stick on school reform. It really is not about charters versus district schools—at least parents don’t see it that way. And somewhere along the line I heard that this was supposed to be about parents.

It’s about good schools that treat families fairly. So please, let us move beyond the education wars in NYC, and the personal battles between the Mayor de Blasio and Ms. Moskowitz. You guys don’t like each other. We get it. We don’t care.

A good first step was the mayor’s visit to DREAM Charter (full disclosure: I was on the founding board), and I hope he goes out and sees some of the other great work happening in the community. 

These fights may make us feel important as adults but they do nothing for children. And if we are honest, there is so much need in NYC that we don’t have time to waste tearing each other down, when so many families need us to work to build something better.

Humpty Dumpty and “Public” Charter Schools

Some people in Oakland don’t like charter schools, most of them seem to live in the Hills, and have good neighborhood choices. Meanwhile many Flatlands families are voting with their feet, choosing public charter schools.  Lost in this debate is the fact the families at charters are more likely to be low income, people of color and English language learners than District school families.

But what is the real meaning of “public” schools and why does it matter?

An author attempted to address this in a recent editorial in the Oakland Post ‘There’s No Such Thing as a “Public charter school.”’  First I think the state legislature (who is the elected representative of the people) disagree, they explicitly defined charter schools as public schools in the law.  But let’s dig into the claims.

The PR conspiracy and the Purported Origins of Charters

According to the author,“ the term “public charter school” was developed by a PR firm to reframe the way we understand schooling in relationship to “public” and to democracy.”

Really?  Albert Shanker from the AFT is the philanthrocapitalist who founded this atrocity?

Here’s what the tubes in the interwebs say,

In 1988, education reformer and American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker proposed a new kind of public school—“charter schools”—which would allow teachers to experiment with innovative approaches to educating students. Publicly funded but independently managed, these schools would be given a charter to try their fresh approaches for a set period of time and be renewed only if they succeeded.

Far from a PR conspiracy by billionaires—charters can be laid at the feet of the teacher’s union.  No multiple shooters in grassy knolls, just the union trying to innovate and  empower stakeholders, which they should be applauded for.

Democratic Accountability by Voting Makes Something “Public”

The author further states,

Public institutions—schools, libraries, zoos—are, at least in theory, funded by 
taxes from all the people in its jurisdiction—local, state and national—and are held accountable to and by those people through that fundamental process we in a democracy call voting.

Personally I don’t remember voting for the zoo board or have any sense of its accountability publicly.  And if you want a philanthrocapitalist conspiracy look no further than the public libraries—the robber baron Carnegie founded that system.  And even with the schools.  So the OUSD traditional public schools stopped being public schools when we were under receivership, and the State ran our district?  Really?

I don’t see voting and democratic accountability consistently in any of the examples that the author gives, and indeed we are in a republic whose founding fathers explicitly rejected a democracy by popular vote, however you may feel about that.

Charter Boards Suck and District Board’s are Awesome

Again from the author,

Most public schools are accountable to an elected school board made up of community 
members. Residents of that community have the right to be present at Board meetings, weigh in 
on votes and debates, and access public financial documents.

Charter schools are run by executive boards, committees or corporations whose members often 
live outside the community in which they are located and are not accountable to parents or 
the taxpayers/community members who fund them.

From the first line here there is an admission that some public schools aren’t accountable to an elected school board, which seems to undermine the overall argument, but anyhoo…

In terms of process they are wrong, charters, as far as I know, follow the Brown Act (Open Meetings Law), they hold public meetings, must have public comments, and must share financials and other documents.  All of mine do. The boards I am on have parents elected from the whole parent body (not just voters), do District’s require that?

And when families or staff or anyone shows up or comments it is listened to and matters, we are a community, and listen to, and care about stakeholders.  And I guarantee you families that come to our meetings prefer them to the chaos and waiting of the OUSD meetings, where folks from outside the community hurl invectives that I wouldn’t allow at the dinner table at our elected representatives.  I can’t speak to every charter.

What Are the “Public” Schools Really

Democracy often means two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.  Don’t get it twisted, poor Black and Brown folks have made up the meal historically and still do.

When schools were legally segregated—those were the democratically accountable public schools.  When I worked as a public interest law firm and helped sue OUSD for failing to serve English learners—and they fought and fought not to serve kids, paying lawyers rather than teachers—those are democratically accountable public schools.

When we have a set of enrollment rules that allocates educational opportunity by zip codes, zip codes created by redlining and segregated housing and reinforced through structural racism- those are the democratically accountable schools.

If I wanted to create a system that would guarantee segregation, guarantee that the kids with the most needs are typically in the weakest schools and the kids with the relatively least needs are in the strongest ones.  I would build it the way the traditional democratic system is—by neighborhood.

And let’s carve out the most exclusive island for those not even satisfied with the segregation of the Hills- Piedmont.  Where they get 5k more per kid, and the admission price is $1,700,000 for a home.

This “public education” system is systematically unequal.  I challenge anyone to show me more than 3 urban districts where more than 50% of Black boys graduate in 4 years.  When you look at the NY Times analysis of test scores in “public schools” nationwide—you can’t find a single district where Black students are at parity or above White ones, and poverty is an almost equally common crippling condition.  Check it out click a district, every district shows these persistent inequalities.

So if democratically accountable means waiting 4 hours to give a 1 minute public statement, in a rigged system, where at least a third of our parents can’t vote for their “elected” representatives, either because they aren’t citizens or have lost the right to vote, then I am not so sure.

And again if democratic accountability is the key—our families that most systematically need high quality public schools can’t even vote.

So who is the wolf and who is the sheep.  And believe me I haven’t seen the wolves offering to change the dinner menu, none of them are offering to open up enrollment rules at their neighborhood schools, and forsake some of their well-inherited privilege.

Public Schools Serve the Public

I personally judge who the public schools are by who they serve.

Not mentioned in the Post article is that charters serve a higher percentage of low income students and English learners than traditional district schools, while also serving fewer identified special education students and receiving less State money.  So roughly the same kids, less money.

And the author admits the law says, “charter schools are public schools”, the people’s elected representatives define them that way. Folks may personally disagree but they would be factually wrong.

This isn’t some Humpty Dumpty moment when a word “means just what I choose it to mean.”   Charters are public schools.   Sometimes there are rogue schools, who should be reeled in or closed—just like with some districts or district schools.

When You Can’t Choose Housing

The parents I see, those who can’t move to better neighborhood schools, don’t have time for these academic debates.  And it is always poor Black and Brown families who are asked to sacrifice their children on the altar of principle.  They should remain in the school with a substitute all year, where the 5th grade class is broken up and put in with kindergarteners, as described at a recent board meeting, by those parents.

Or the student board director who talked about high school students with subs all year, who didn’t receive a grade.  Believe me that’s not kids in the Paideia program or kids in Hillcrest.

Or the settlement where students had “fake classes” in some Oakland high schools—literally taking the garbage out, I don’t think that counts as AP—again not in the Hills, you can guess the names of the schools where this took place.

And this is nothing against those schools and the folks working their butts off for kids, it’s the system.  We are always outnumbered and always out gunned, always getting the short end of the stick, the leftover opportunities.

So charters are public schools, but when I look at how the public schools have historically dis-served Black Brown and Poor kids, the loaded deck on a tilted playing field and the wolves salivating over dinner.  Maybe we do need a new definition of “public schools” because if the past sets the course for the future, I want no part of it.

OUSD Tax Measures Are a Step Towards Equity, a Leap is Needed in CA

Oakland’s schools are underfunded and need a permanent fix.  While it’s great to see local tax measures on property and developers moving forward, we really need to look hard at the statewide funding system if we are going to get to real equity.  The elephant in the room is Proposition 13 which capped all property tax rates, that needs to be reformed if we are really going to try to live up to the promises of equitable education.

Public support for the District and its administration are at historic levels, and I applaud Oakland’s new parcel tax proposal as well as its increasing developer fees, but our kids will never reach parity in funding with richer districts until we have a statewide structural approach to school funding.  Right now Piedmont, that little island in Oakland, gets 5K more per student than Oakland kids do.

If you want a recipe to increase inequality, you have it.  Richer districts structurally get more because they can tax themselves more, and poorer districts where student needs are higher get less, even with temporary additional state funding to support high needs students.

The math on local property taxes and facts on CA funding

Average home value in Piedmont is $1.7 million almost three times higher than Oakland’s at $616,000, so we would have to tax ourselves at almost 3 times the rate of Piedmont to generate the same revenue.  And really children with more challenges should get more resources, there is no way this will happen with school funding tied so closely to property taxes.

And as I have described before, it’s just not like this in other states.  New York basically funds schools in a way that is sufficient to meet student needs.  Let’s review the adjusted education funding data from Edweek, California was 41st overall, paying approximately $8,339 per student in 2013.  In NY, the per-pupil was $17,548.  And CA puts 2.6% of its total taxable resources into education, NY puts in 4.2%.

So yes, pass the parcel tax, make developers pay their fair share, but we also need to structurally invest more in the public sector.  There are plenty of individuals and corporations that can pay more, we could keep current caps for properties under $1 million, and/or split the rolls and have businesses pay market rates while preserving the cap for residences.  But we need to do something structurally Close The Loophole is one campaign.

So by all measures we need to take these small steps forward, but we need to actually change the tilt of the field if we are really going to move towards sufficient and equitable funding in California, and that means reforming Prop. 13.

Why do I and Other Black Families Support Charter Schools

Most Black families support charter schools, not because they are duped or privatizers, but because many see their neighborhood schools, and know their children need better options.  I know, because I saw it first hand in West Oakland, struggling to get my brother the education he deserved, in a system that didn’t treat him with concern or respect.

I never intended to be the charter guy, it just happened.  It all started when I went to my brother “johnny’s” school in West Oakland.

When schools disrespect you

“The teacher made fun of my mama” my little brother said, restraining his sobs.

I would help Johnny with his homework if I was around, but I was in law school and out a lot.  If his mom couldn’t help him, I told him to just tell the teacher he couldn’t do the homework and needed help.

That’s what he did.  The teacher then mocked him in front of the class, “Johnny’s mom doesn’t know how to do long division.” Chuckles and ridicule, he is humiliated, and she insulted his mom.

I wrote a nice letter…It’s not his fault…maybe we can meet and talk about a schedule to support his homework or what resources there are…very nice.

Next day in class, the teacher starts in again, “Oh I better not say anything to Johnny or he will get his big brother after me.”  Another frustrated call from Johnny.

I write another letter… it’s not right to embarrass him…more formal…and asking for a meeting.

We meet, there are 4 or 5 folks there.  I don’t know what they expected.  The teacher addresses me in a condescending tone, “those were very big words in the letter you wrote.”

I think they were trying to say I didn’t write it or understand it, because some brother from West Oakland couldn’t write it.  But who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of people.

“You learn big words at Berkeley Law School” I responded.

Long pause, and everything changes.

Now the teacher  gives her phone number.  They will write a report each week on his homework and send it home with him.  I should reach out any time.  It took them learning that I was not biologically related to him and a law student, for them to treat him or me with respect, and something is so wrong about that.

Low standards on quality and safety

Then there were the academics.  When I first started doing homework with Johnny, he would not finish it and say it was done.  It was totally annoying until he explained they only checked the first sheet so that was all you had to do.

Or safety.  When I heard that a student had tried to stab him on the playground (in elementary school), and asked about it, the principal said, that “it was only a steak knife.”  So yeah he needed new school.

I saw an article in the paper about a new school around the corner, promising college preparation, a family atmosphere, leadership preparation, and focusing on African American history and culture.  It was a public charter school.  I wasn’t sure what that meant but figured it was worth a shot.  I cold called them, liked what they were doing, and volunteered to help.

Charters and the potential for community schools

This was the early 90s before any philanthropists or corporation cared about charters, before there even was an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or any privatization cabals, or even a “charter movement.”  There were a bunch of Black folks and some honorary Black folks sitting around tables in West Oakland trying to figure out how we can save our kids in the face of a system that was failing them.

That was the beginning of my charter movement.  The union did not oppose this charter, everyone knew our kids were getting shortchanged and nobody had any answers.   Far from privatizing the schools, we brought them to the community.  And far from “creaming” we focused on Black kids from the Lower Bottoms arguably the most underserved students in Oakland.

And I haven’t looked back.  I have worked with dozens of community based groups in creating responsive schools for kids left behind.  There were no college preparatory schools in NY that cater to students with mental health challenges—we did the first, John W. Lavelle Preparatory Academy.

Kids in Harlem were diagnosed with autism later, much to their disadvantage, and there were no inclusion programs, we worked with providers to help families identify indicators of autism and get free screening, and set up the first autism inclusion program in Harlem—The Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem.

Staten Island had thousands of high school aged students out of school, but only one alternative high school.  We created the second, New Ventures Charter School, which targets students who are out of school.  We are graduating our first class this year.

And now we are working on Oakland’s first residential charter school, the Oral Lee Brown Preparatory Academy, as well as programs to support our most vulnerable students, foster kids, and kids in lockup.

History’s lessons and systemic inequality

As a Black man and a student of history, the system is rigged.  It used to be segregation by law, now its segregation by habit and privilege.  And despite the heroic efforts of many within the system, I wonder whether it will deliver in the future what it has never come close to delivering  in the past.  And given the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, I think I am diving in.

So no, I ain’t no sock puppet for the philanthrocapitalists, and I certainly haven’t gotten rich, but I am trying to get free.  Charters are no panacea, and come with a whole range of warty characters and defects.  But for many families, what are their actual options?  How long have we been waiting for that mythical high quality neighborhood school, waiting at rainbow’s end.

I know for my brother I couldn’t wait, if it were your child would you?

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