A Charter School “Moratorium” in Oakland Would Be Wrong, Illegal and Stupid

Rather than asking why so many families attend charters or even more pay for private school in Oakland, there is a misguided effort at a charter moratorium.

This is not only illegal, it’s counterproductive—which makes it stupid.

Case in point: Unnamed Charter School, a school soundly denied by the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), was approved on appeal to the County. That’s right, the school district doesn’t have the final say on who gets to open a charter school.

So, not only did the school still get approved, it has a different authorizer, so now OUSD has less authority over it. Rather than taking the opportunity to think how the district might work with a committed team to serve kids, OUSD stalled the school. And rather than working with the new charter to coordinate with existing district schools, the school may now draw students from an improving  and high quality program at Parker.

For those advocating a “moratorium”—formal or informal—it’s time to rethink that. You can’t do it.

The “wild west” of charter schools is a problem, but it won’t be solved by denial, or grandstanding. It will be solved by talking. And if you start with a moratorium…well, there ain’t much to talk about.

A Primer on Charter Law

I know some don’t like charter schools, but the legislature created them, and wrote a law to govern them. Change that if you will, but that is the law. And that law does not allow a “charter moratorium.”

Let’s take a look at the California Department of Education website:

On what grounds can a local governing board deny approval of a charter petition?

EC Section 47605(b) specifies that a local educational agency shall not deny the approval of a charter petition unless it makes written factual findings, specific to the particular petition, that:

  1. The charter school presents an unsound educational program.
  2. The petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition.
  3. The petition does not contain the required number of signatures.
  4. The petition does not contain an affirmation of each of the conditions described in EC Section 47605(d).
  5. The petition does not contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of all of the 16 required elements of the petition.

Note that pesky “shall not deny” language. Basically, if a solid, comprehensive plan is presented in the charter with a solid team behind it, the district is supposed to approve the charter. And if they don’t approve it, the charter can be appealed to the County, and then the State. With each body taking a fresh look.

Districts can deny all the charters they want, but if charter applicants have good paper, a good team, and a good lawyer, they will still be approved later on down the line. So, a “charter moratorium” both violates the law and more plainly—it don’t make no sense. No legal sense and no moral sense, if the goal is to best serve students.

Too Many Schools, Not Enough Great Schools

I don’t think anyone in Oakland could argue that we don’t need more good schools. We may have too many schools, but you are high—really, really high—if you think we have too many great schools.

We have some great district schools and some great charters, some struggling charters and some struggling district schools. And I may be naïve here, but I always thought it was about the students and families. I thought it was about giving all families access to high quality, culturally-responsive schools. But somewhere the debate that families care about, the one about quality and access, has been overtaken by the professional debate, of charter versus district.

Progress can’t stall because the district is struggling with its portfolio or pocketbook. And by the way, this is not a post about Unnamed Charter School itself. I have heard very positive things, but haven’t read the proposal or attended the hearings.

This is a post about how to productively move forward. In reality, if OUSD thinks it can, without legislation, impose a moratorium on charters, it’s just wrong. And just ceasing approvals will be counterproductive, and destroy relationships that should be continuing to build.

Charter school students are roughly 30 percent of public school children in Oakland, that is not changing. The district can either figure out a way to work with the sector, or the sector will just do its own thing…or 38 different things, which I agree 100%, is not good for kids and families.

But neither is a moratorium. I hope we can keep our eye on the ball, and remember what parents want and need, rather than the professionals.

Lamenting School Choice Week and the Need for Braver Authorizers

It’s national school choice week next week, and as the resident charter killjoy, I am compelled to throw some cold water on the celebration.  School choice is not a panacea.  There is no real “market” in education (and if there were it would be scary) and there is nothing inherent in providing a hypothetical choice system that will necessarily lead to better schools for underserved students.

“Choice”, like “freedom”, “democracy”, or “justice” is defined on the ground, by context, institutional and individual decisions, and constraints.  And unfortunately, the lofty visions discussed in board rooms, seldom match the gritty realities experienced by underserved families.

Our blog has long railed against “creaming” and the inequitable practices of some charters, it’s good to see that more attention has been focused on this issue by the media around Success Academies’ so called “got to go” list and now that the authorizer, SUNY charter Schools Institute is taking a harder look.

Charters are public schools authorized by public agencies, and it’s crucial that these agencies take more responsibility not only for the policies and practices of schools, but also the overall student composition of the charter sector.  If we really want charters to serve a somewhat representative sample of high needs students, then authorizers should adopt that as an institutional goal.

Authorizers do matter, and schools and applicants will listen.  The sad reality of applying for a charter school is that the more high needs your students are, the harder it is to get approved and stay open.  Correspondingly, authorizers often discuss the academic success of their schools, but not their student composition, or really breaking out the success of subgroups.  This narrow focus has the effect of narrowing the focus of applicants.

I have run into this first hand.  We envisioned opening a school in NY that would have 50% special education students, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts we got a meeting with the State special Ed. folks—they said they would never recommend a school with 50% or more special education, because “the normal students wouldn’t have role models”.  We lowered our percentage of special education students and got approved.  Same issues when you talk about formerly incarcerated kids, foster kids, or any other harder to serve group.  It is harder and riskier work, and authorizers who want to talk about pure proficiency rates often shirk from the challenge.

I have also made several complaints to authorizers around charter school practices.  In one school they seemed to give an aptitude test and then draw students off the wait list out of order, and at another they seemed to be pushing out high needs students.  Neither authorizer was interested in investigating.   And in one case they didn’t investigate, but called the school I was complaining about, whose lawyer and staff called me to complain about my complaint.

Weird thing is, legally they were kind of right.  At least in NY the law says that a family must exhaust their administrative complaints before they can bring it to the authorizer.  Which means appealing through multiple levels of the school you got kicked out of (unlikely to happen), and for me, as just a dude, I can’t complain for the family.

For those with longer memories, “freedom of choice” schools were the initial obstructionist answer to desegregation.

There is nothing magical about school choice’s power to reduce inequality, rather it is up to us on the ground, the legislatures, and authorizers above it, to do the hard work of creating a context where real choices exist for underserved families.

This year, let’s reframe school choice week, from an abstraction lacking meaningful goals, to a concrete statement about creating high quality options for underserved students. We all need to dream higher, be braver, and take more risks for these families.  We know what happens if we don’t act.  And those tragic outcomes should be motivation enough.