Selective Criticisms on Philanthrocapitalism in Oakland

When district reforms like common enrollment come up, OUSD is besieged by arguments about how outsiders are driving policy.  And until we can pay for these things ourselves we shouldn’t do them.

Funny to hear the deafening silence from critics around outside funding when they agree with the spending.

Case in point: the Oakland Promise, which will provide college savings accounts and college payments for students, and is paid almost exclusively through philanthropy. I don’t see protesters decrying this initiative for its outside funding or the impact that billionaires and corporations are having on it.

Here’s a quote from the Chronicle article today describing the program.

$25 million raised

While sustained funding is the central challenge, Oakland officials say they raised $25 million to launch the effort. The school district is expected to cover $1 million annually, and the city has committed $150,000, a number that may increase now that the initiative has begun, officials said.

The East Bay College Fund plans to contribute $1.5 million per year, while Kaiser Permanente and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. are giving $3 million and $1 million, respectively, to start up the program. Organizers will need $18 million more to cover the costs through 2020, an amount they say is reachable.

“It will be on us to make the case that eventually this would be one of the smartest public investments that any city could make,” Schaaf said.

That investment includes the $500 college fund for each child born into poverty — with eligibility tied to the same government standards that apply to free and reduced-price school lunches — as well as a $100 college account for every kindergartner, high school counseling centers and up to $16,000 in scholarships that come with individual mentors and support through college.

So let’s be honest, I don’t think it’s really about outside funding (as we argued elsewhere all new initiatives in CA and Oakland need outside funding because the state woefully underfunds schools). It’s about policies.

If you don’t like policies or policy proposals, just say that. If there is some nefarious relationship between funders and policy call those out. But this idea that anytime Oakland is getting outside money to drive reforms that those are necessarily tainted is garbage.

So for all those decrying the wholesale influence of philanthropy in Oakland—go and protest scholarships for low income kids, and while you are at it, picket the public libraries (spearheaded by the robber barons back in the day—Carnegie, I believe).

But if you are not going to do that, then let’s just get honest. You don’t like some of the reform proposals, fine, let’s talk policy going forward, rather than these shifting and inconsistent attacks on philanthropy that seem much more about personal preferences than a principled stand.

Real Innovation in Education

The revolution will not be computerized, to riff on Gil Scott Heron.  No the education revolution will not be computerized. The innovation we need in schools will not be technology based.  No algorithm is going to reach and teach our most vulnerable students, nor will a panopticon manage their behavior and develop the social and leadership skills they will need to prosper.

But over and over “innovation” means a computer, it often means reducing the human contact and relationships that are the glue of schools for underserved kids, and technology is what is funded.

Real innovation that changes the trajectories of our underserved kids will not come with a microprocessor—it’s rooted in human relationships.  And until we focus on those relationships and how we create healthy, supportive, and prosperous ones—focused on the kids themselves, we are bound for failure.

Years ago, I came to failing charter school, they had gotten tech grants, installed T1 lines (I know I am dating myself here), and had an 86% attendance rate.  New principal, new day, T1 lines are literally ripped out of the ceiling by hand, and the school is reorganized.  Small classes—less than 15 kids– smart engaged invested teachers are hired that look like the students and can relate to them, and we create self- contained classrooms in middle school, where the teachers loop for 3 years with that same cohort of students.  Teachers are with kids 6 hours a day for 180 or so days a year for 3 years straight.  That is a structure that forms relationships.

We had the highest attendance in the District the next year.  Kids had someone who would greet them every day, miss them if they didn’t show up, value them in the community, and push them to success.  No fancy technology, except the oldest one we know—the human mind.  And these were kids with major challenges, 96% free and/or reduced lunch, 15% homeless, all historically disadvantaged minorities.  The school eventually won a National Blue Ribbon Award.

And I continue to see the real innovations when I go out to schools.  Like Lavelle Preparatory Academy—that trains paraprofessionals extensively in trauma and wellness before they are hired, is creating the first program in a NYC public school that honestly and responsively addresses student addiction and substance abuse and really integrates a program to support students through mental health challenges and recovery.

Or another planning team we are working with, who will take kids as they come off Riker’s Island (yes they house juveniles at Riker’s-stupid and shocking I know), we will provide housing, counseling, paid work, and a responsive school.  This will be tied together through mentoring relationships with faculty, and also guys like them who went through the same struggles and came out the other side.  They will work in their communities doing community service and renewing the bond there with community members.  Where in some cases they were takers from the community, they will return as givers.

But yeah, no robot caretakers, or smart phone apps required.  The real work of education for our vulnerable students is caring relationships.  We all crave those, and they are the entryway to academic progress.

I used to run a training where I would say I have the four letter answer to all your problems, to engaging every student, and finding initially small and then escalating successes. L.O.V.E., real love and caring, not its stepcousin pathos, who pities and makes excuses.  The one thing I might quote George W. Bush on was that line about “the soft bigotry of low expectations” which we see parading as love or concern, but it is a whole different beast.

But true empathetic love, where we listen, understand, and push for our children the same things that we deserve and want, or better.  When we see us in them, and know that the pressures that many of us face creates diamonds where others see only coal.  If only we listen long enough to know where and how to look we can find diamonds in every child.

No technology is going to do that.


Bad Arguments Against Common Enrollment Part 2


The debate over creating a common enrollment system for parents that includes charters and district schools rages on.  I attended the recent OUSD engagement session and the Oakland Post also ran an op-ed critiquing common enrollment by Rosie Torres, “’Common Enrollment’ is a Misfit for the Problems that Plague Oakland Schools Retaining and improving principals and teachers should be a top priority”.

We have been following this pretty closely with pros and cons of common enrollment.  And we have some new issues with the latest arguments against reforming the enrollment system and leave with one big philosophical question that I think cuts to the heart of the matter.

But first two statistics that frame my thinking on this issue;

  1. Oakland has the most income segregated schools in the country of large districts- Check the stats. Low income families are 18 times more likely to be in the lowest performing schools.  This IS the result of our current enrollment policies and segregated housing.
  2. 73% of the public wants a unified enrollment process that includes all school options according to the only survey I have seen

The latest arguments against reforming OUSD’s enrollment system

  1. OUSD can’t walk and chew gum at the same time—OK I am oversimplifying—but basically this says that until Oakland fixes special education and staff retention that it can’t handle enrollment reform. Retention and special education issues have been with Oakland forever, and while I expect we can do better, I don’t think they will ever be “solved”.   And all of these are long term issues that will require repeated iterations, and novel solutions.  And yeah, most districts can work on more than 2 challenges at a time, so if we can’t, we need some new representatives and leaders in the District.
  2. “Outsiders” are leading the change and they aren’t connected to community– Yeah, some of the consultants are experts who have done similar projects in other cities. Outside of that I am not sure who they are referring to.  Seems like a veiled reference to outside philanthropy funding the outreach and some of the initial implementation.  And I actually do think that philanthropy can distort this process—which is why OUSD is holding these engagement sessions and creating a local oversight board—further—any change needs to be voted on by our elected representatives on the school board—so the decision and it’s details is with locals.
  3. Common enrollment has had problems in other localities– Common enrollment is not perfect, and won’t solve all ills in a fell swoop, but is seen as an improvement. In NOLA I heard parents criticize it, but they were far more critical of the free for all that happened prior to the system, which was opaque and seemingly relied on relationships.  Folks should talk to the parent advocates there; the Urban league, and the Micah Project, there are continuing issues, but I think the balance of opinion would favor common enrollment over what they had.  Just like the 73% of Oakland parents.
  4. Families don’t trust the algorithm that matches them and savvy parents can game the system– The algorithm is up to us, and the degree of transparency can be written into policy, so if we want a new matching process we should create that. And our most savvy parents work the current system to their advantage now (and I don’t blame them), creating and perpetuating the vast inequalities that we see in Oakland.  And as described last night—the current enrollment algorithm is some dude shuffling pieces of paper at one Lake Merritt site.  Pretty sure that is NOT the most equitable or transparent way to get it done and pretty sure most parents would agree.

Comparing a hypothetical common enrollment system to perfection will always have it coming up short.  The relevant comparison is to look at what is happening now and what we can do to improve it.

The Heart of the Matter

So what is really going on here?  I think it’s actually a philosophical difference being covered by a dance of the seven veils.  And the heart of the matter is found in the last lines of the Post op-ed.  “(W)ithout all the answers provided to the board about whether common enrollment will lead to reduced enrollment in OUSD…I cannot support such an overhaul.”

So it’s really about the potential for common enrollment to reduce district enrollment, because presumably more families would choose charter schools if they had better access to them.  So what is the role of the District?  To help families to find the best schools for their children and get the best education they can—or to protect itself?

If families and children had more equitable and better outcomes and “the district” somehow suffered, I guess that is a reasonable tradeoff from my viewpoint.  But maybe that puts me in the minority, though if you talk to parents, and particularly underserved parents, I doubt it.

We’re 46th , We’re 46th   (In education spending)

Education Week’s finance issue came out recently and the bad news—California was fifth from last in per pupil spending, 46th counting the District of Columbia.  The numbers are a few years old, and we have maybe passed Oklahoma over the last couple of years (yee-haw?), but it’s even worse than it seems.

These numbers are not adjusted for cost of living, so in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, your money will buy you a lot less than Georgia or Utah.  And starting salaries are significantly higher for teachers in CA, so this money goes much faster.  We also have higher proportions of children who need more support.

And I hate to gloat, but in NY where we do a lot of work (and starting salaries are relatively close), the funding a school gets for each student is roughly double, and there is significant supplemental funding for high needs students.  In CA, the schools tend to absorb these costs themselves, without significant supplemental funding to meet exceptional needs.  And planning schools in NY versus CA, the funding there works, and you can basically give students what they need based on state funding.  In CA, you need philanthropy for a new school.

CA’s budgeting process has been screwed up by the statewide propositions which have tended to cut and slice the general budget into guaranteed categories—with education getting the lion’s share.  And while that share is good, the pie itself is too small because of the now infamous Prop 13, which capped all property taxes (residential and commercial) at unnecessarily low levels.  So schools may get half the pie roughly, but it’s a personal pan pizza to be shared by a football team.

We need to aim higher than 46th, and for real funding growth to happen we need to reform Proposition 13.  There is a logic to capping taxes for fixed income folks like retirees, or middle class homeowners, but for commercial properties, the market should rule, and similarly for McMansions, they too should kick in their fair share.

If you want to look at the advocacy efforts please join Closetheloophole, or some of the other Proposition 13 reform advocacy groups.

All our problems won’t be solved by throwing money at them, but money well spent is well deserved by CA’s kids.

You can see the table below


  2012 2013
  Education spending per
Education spending per
Sort Sort  Sort
Utah $6,688 $6,980
Arizona $8,101 $7,620
Texas $8,113 $7,957
Idaho $8,123 $8,163
Nevada $8,141 $8,172
California $8,308 $8,216
Oklahoma $8,624 $8,638
North Carolina $8,670 $8,737
Colorado $9,020 $8,986
Tennessee $9,113 $8,826
Florida $9,120 $9,096
Washington $9,346 $9,246
Georgia $9,394 $9,152
Alabama $9,563 $9,600
Mississippi $9,587 $9,353
New Mexico $9,736 $9,767
Virginia $9,784 $9,896
South Carolina $10,141 $10,462
Oregon $10,415 $10,377
Kentucky $10,713 $10,407
South Dakota $10,742 $10,639
Missouri $10,798 $10,767
Arkansas $11,224 $11,098
Indiana $11,230 $10,930
Kansas $11,399 $11,284
Minnesota $11,547 $11,684
Illinois $11,730 $11,831
Iowa $11,929 $12,074
Wisconsin $11,968 $11,855
Ohio $12,010 $11,842
Michigan $12,038 $12,009
Louisiana $12,375 $11,267
Maryland $12,435 $12,493
Hawaii $12,727 $12,243
Massachusetts $13,157 $13,347
Montana $13,224 $13,126
West Virginia $13,227 $12,667
North Dakota $13,443 $13,251
Nebraska $13,457 $13,630
Pennsylvania $13,653 $13,989
Rhode Island $13,814 $14,071
Delaware $13,902 $13,573
District of Columbia $13,917 $14,087
New Hampshire $14,561 $14,502
Maine $14,613 $14,310
Connecticut $15,172 $15,340
New Jersey $15,421 $15,511
New York $17,326 $17,291
Wyoming $17,758 $17,256
Alaska $18,113 $18,565
Vermont $18,882 $18,853
U.S. Average: $11,735 Average: $11,667

© 2005 Editorial Projects in Education

Valid Critiques of Common Enrollment

Last week we broke down some of the crap arguments against common enrollment flying around Oakland. This week we address some real ones, and the need to make any system work for underserved families.

Having one system where families can review school programs and quality, rank their choices and have a match created makes a lot of sense.  Families in Oakland have long complained about the current enrollment process, and the decentralized nature of charter schools admissions, which created a system that favored the more privileged.  However, creating a common enrollment system is only the start of solving the problem and for this system to really work for families we need to understand some potential pitfalls and address them.

I spent some time in New Orleans listening and talking to parents about their experience with ONEAPP, the common application there and also a recent blog School Choice Isn’t Real if Families Don’t Get Help, by Tim Daly covered this issue.  Some themes emerged that I think are valid critiques and areas that need to addressed.

  • Choice processes themselves can be overly complex, or opaque– Families need a clear sense of the process itself and expectations. In NOLA, year 1, a decision was made (with the best intentions) to automatically match  families who would be unassigned with the highest rated local school, even if it wasn’t listed by the family.  A backlash ensued and families complained that, “they assign you schools you don’t apply for.”  And the District subsequently removed this automatic matching process. I also spoke to a parent who lamented that choosing kindergarten had become like choosing college.  While in some ways I like the idea of folks investing a lot of research into K choice, that is a culture change that will take time.
  • The community (or communities) need to be central in development and dissemination of information– NOLA used the Urban League and other local organizations to set up community based enrollment centers. Particularly for underserved families, we need to get out into the community where they are and meet them where they are comfortable to get them engaged.
  • Even with common systems sorting out school quality can be difficult– California’s system of measuring school quality is under review, and the District is just implementing its new balanced scorecard. Given the newness of testing, and accountability, it may be difficult in some cases to judge school quality.  We need parent friendly measures that look not just at proficiency, but student growth and subgroup growth, as well as good information around school culture.
  • Choice without realistic quality options seems fraudulent– There are not enough quality seats for families in Oakland, so some families will not be matched with high quality choices because there are not enough quality options. In NOLA, they did close low performing schools, and the overall school quality ratings increased over time, but there still are not enough options, particularly in some neighborhoods.  And I think from a feel perspective, it is worse to be offered school choices—when you actually have none—than it is to just be assigned to a school.
  • Some families will miss deadlines, what happens to them– roughly a third of families in NOLA missed the initial application deadline for common enrollment- they do a second round, but families in that round have very few strong options—as all those seats filled in the first round. Families who missed the first round tend to be more disadvantaged, so this has the unintended effect of further disadvantaging them.
  • There are practical barriers to choice that need to be overcome– Our blog has covered the transportation challenges of Oakland families before—with many students spending hours in transit each day. Our most geographically isolated areas (West Oakland) tend to have the fewest quality options.  And so, again, if we don’t help with transportation, students further away from quality options will be further disadvantaged.

There are real challenges to common enrollment systems, and the way they are designed and implemented.  This isn’t to say don’t do it.

Our current system officially sucks, and has shown to be incredibly inequitable, allocating quality seats mostly on where families can afford to live, with unfortunate and predictable results.

The system obviously works for some (more privileged) families and compounds disadvantages for others.  If that’s what we really want in the schools, fine.  But if we view the schools as an equalizer and not just one more tilted playing field, we need to make changes and heed the lessons of those before us, with an ear always listening to our most underserved families and assuring they have a literal and figurative spot at the table.