Common enrollment is like the Sharia Law of Oakland’s education debate- something that is not going to happen, but is trotted out as a convenient boogey man for all that supposedly ills us. Common enrollment is dead in Oakland—politically it has no chance. I have long predicted this death, the time of death has been called, and there won’t be a resurrection, without some massive public outcry.
But again and again we hear about the threat of common enrollment. The East Bay Express ran a recent piece on school board elections. I won’t copy the quote but they devoted 185 words to the fight against common enrollment. And the rest of the article really framed the issues in the district, as a charter school versus district school divide.
And politically maybe that is true, but in reality it doesn’t matter that much. And while funders of candidates on both sides may be deeply invested in the fight, I don’t think the average parent is, nor should they be. Give me two minutes to explain why.
Charters aren’t THE problem or THE solution
The issues facing Oakland are only marginally related to charters and charters are more a symptom of the challenges of the district than the cause. And in reality, by law, the OUSD Board has limited authority to check the growth of charters or even the sharing of public buildings.
Given this, we would be better served by a substantive debate around the district’s issues that the Board does have authority over, and an airing of practical strategies to improve outcomes for students and families. A discussion of how candidates will strategically address the long term issues facing OUSD, rather than these fiery rhetorical contests, that are mostly irrelevant.
OUSD’s actual authority over charters
State law sets the threshold for charter approval and it says that when a set of conditions are met by a charter applicant, then the district “SHALL” approve the charter. So legally once a charter petition meets the conditions it is legally supposed to be approved.
Well, the District should just say that charter applicants didn’t meet the conditions of approval you might say. Charters then have a set of appeals to the County and State. And so a charter turned down by the district—if sufficient—will likely be approved by the County. This gives OUSD less actual oversight than if OUSD approved the school themselves. So illegally denying charters will not resolve this issue, and will actually exacerbate it.
So if your whole platform is about denying charters—it’s not much of a platform. Or at least it’s not legal, and not likely to be successful.
Similarly with buildings, the law, Proposition 39, approved by the voters, says that public charter school students from the district get “reasonably equivalent” facilities.
I know many disagree with these laws, but they are the law. Change them if you wish, but until then, it’s the law of the land.
The big issues we need to hear about
So while the debates focus on things that either A, won’t happen, or B, the Board has limited authority over, we don’t focus on the consequential choices that will be facing the Board.
School Access Equity– The district sets its own enrollment rules, and it could reallocate education opportunities with rule changes. We could cap the overall concentration/segregation of students by race and class at any site. We could prioritize stability in schools for vulnerable students, even if their families move, and we could change attendance zones and deliberately create more integrated neighborhood catchment areas. According to the stats, Oakland has some of the most unequal school access in the country. We can change that and reallocate opportunities to the students most in need.
The Coming financial crisis– While our schools are still underfunded, we have benefited from significant one time funds from a strong state budget and schools are relatively flush with cash. This will change.
First, the state budget will recede at some point, and even more importantly, the State has been playing with funny math in terms of pension contributions, and a huge deficit has developed—that local schools and districts will have to pay.
Projections I have seen, have the pension and health contributions basically doubling over the next five years- this will swallow up any additional state funding. How are we going to plan and deal with this?
Human capital development and retention-I don’t care what the salesman from Pearson said, ain’t no computer going to teach your baby.
Great schools and particularly great schools for kids facing challenges require strong, stable relationships with caring skilled adults. With rents skyrocketing, a deeply flawed and unequal statewide funding system, and an ongoing and worsening teacher shortage, we need inventive strategies to develop and keep great staff. Without those structures nothing else will matter, no reforms will stick, no professional development, nothing will matter if we just keep churning staff, and can’t keep those bedrock educators.
The debate we need
If every charter school closed today—that would not solve any of the District’s problems. It would not improve the quality of education or the outcomes for kids. And in any event that is not happening. So why is that all we hear about?
I want some concrete answers to the issues facing the district and some actual programs. We all want a great neighborhood school in every ‘hood. But that seems like more a dream than reality right now, and while some families enjoy that luxury—others are told to keep waiting—with a pretty direct correlation between neighborhood wealth and school quality.
There is a coherent set of policies that the current board has advanced, and as I have argued—by almost any measure the district is making real and substantial progress in boosting achievement and getting its finances straight. What are the critiques or further improvements that the school board challengers would implement?
So I get that the charter debate captures many of the bugaboos and buzzwords and makes for good political theater. Sharia law always rallies the troops. Governing requires more than theatrics though, and without real debate and real plans, we are threatened to get a theater of the absurd rather than a functioning school board.