2 Big Takeaways in the Latest Charter and District Comparisons in Oakland

If you haven’t seen Informing Equity: Student Need, Spending and Resource Use in Oakland’s Public Schools, you should.

It is a critical first step in understanding what is happening in the difference public education sectors in Oakland and across the range of schools. I will excerpt the reports own big takeaways, but there are two critical ones I want to start with.

The Sectors Need to Talk

First, we need to talk, and share data across public school sectors in Oakland. Charters are more than a bit player—at roughly 30 percent of public school students—and the collection and thoughtful comparison of data is a critical step in understanding better what is actually happening, and then what we can do about it.

This effort to actually share across sectors, conducted jointly by The Oakland Achieves Partnership and Education Resource Strategies, was the most collaborative I’ve seen in Oakland.

I know there are critics to district–charter collaboration, but this should be evidence against that position.

This was the work of the Public Schools Equity Pledge or the Public Pledge or whatever it’s called now in its dormant state. But cutting off lines of communication or collaboration, may draw a line in the sand, but it does not help students, families, or the public to understand what is actually happening. And the average family is much less concerned with the governance model, or charter versus district, than they are with the quality of the school. They want the sectors to talk and to provide better information.

Digging Deeper for Insights

Second, this first round of data really does not answer many questions. It should get us asking them. And I have already heard the back and forth start.

Are the lower special education numbers in some charters because they don’t enroll students or because they serve students well without referring them for special education services or because the district over-refers, and tends to put more children in special day classes? For each area of the report there are arguments for and against, but now at least we are in a position to do the next level of analysis—and start asking the why questions, based on valid data.

And there is extremely wide variation across both public school sectors, with some charters vastly over-representing high needs students and others vastly under-representing, same with the district schools. So the sector generalities really don’t apply to any individual school.

The Report’s Key Findings

The report had three big findings. From the report:

This study examines district-run and charter schools in Oakland across three dimensions: (1) student need, (2) resource levels, and (3) resource use. We analyzed data for the 2014-15 school year from every school run by Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), as well as 32 charter schools, which serve 88 percent of all the charter school students in Oakland. In some cases, we also compared Oakland to a set of peer districts from around California or around the country.

On high-needs students:

Student Need: Overall, the student population in OUSD schools had greater needs than did the Oakland charter school student population. District schools are serving a greater proportion of higher-needs students, in terms of incoming academic proficiency, students in need of special education services, and late entering students.

The report also noted some trends and policy issues that may impact the numbers:

  • Compared to peer districts in California and nationally, OUSD places 30 percent more of its special needs students in restrictive environments, which are more costly.
  • The state funding law that caps concentration funds for charter schools is resulting in millions of dollars of lost revenue for charters serving high-needs students, making it more challenging for charters to serve them.

So, while charters do serve more low-income students and English-learners overall, based on the data they do serve less of the highest needs students.

Part of this is a function of charter school lotteries, which take place in spring, and by their nature tend to disadvantage latecomers, who on average, will have higher needs.

But that means that as a sector we need to look at some of our practices and get creative.

Getting Creative on Charter Admissions

Rather than using a ranked waitlist, we could re-lottery a percentage of open seats in the summer, so latecomers would have a fair chance.

And we need to think about how we reach and serve foster and homeless students better. And while the charter school common enrollment system is a step in the right direction, and I know they did lot of outreach, I would love to see Enroll Oakland Charters going out to even more shelters, and partnering with more community advocates, working to extend access to our most challenged families. I’d love for our schools to also develop the specific differentiated supports that some students need.

We also need to look harder at admissions preferences for underserved students. These are actually pretty commonplace in New York, but not so here. Alongside a push to reform the funding formula, this would encourage schools to take those higher-need students and get funding for them.

Resource Levels and Use

The report also found that charters get significantly fewer resources than district schools, which may surprise some given the rhetoric we hear about rich charter schools.

Similarly, when we look at how the money is spent, one glaring issue is the amount of public funding spent on private rents—over $2,000 per child in the most extreme situation.

But in terms of whether the resource disparities are “fair,” we need to look harder at the data and ask some additional questions.

From the report:

Resource Levels: In 2014-2015 OUSD spent $1,400 more per pupil than the average charter school on operating expenses, adjusted for student need differences in special education, English-learner status and eligibility for Free and Reduced Price Meals. This adjustment does not capture other potential differences in student need, such high mobility rates and or the number of students entering school significantly behind academically.

Again, we have some raw data to start with, but not the answers as to whether these disparities in funding may be justified somehow. We need to do that next step of answering the question.

Resource Use and the High Cost of Private Facilities

The most glaring issue here is how much money charters spend on facilities and the wide disparities:

Resource Use: OUSD district-run and charter schools used their resources differently in several important ways…

  • Rent for space: Across charters, spending on rent varied from $190 to $2,250 per pupil, with those renting from OUSD generally spending less per pupil than others.

In a state where Proposition 39 gives charters the right to use district facilities, it seems like a waste of resources to pay landlords. Just imagine: that $2,250 per child could make a huge difference if it was invested in instruction.

There will be much more to come in terms of data and analysis, but I hope that this report keeps us talking and asking the right next set of questions based on real data.

That’s what families want, and it’s the only way we will move public education forward in Oakland.

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.

2 Things You Need to Know about the “Charter Movement”

Everything you hear about charter schools is true.  And everything you hear about charter schools is false.  That’s what 20 plus years working with them has taught me.

They send high numbers of low income kids to college, they pick and choose students, they are safer.  They disproportionately suspend certain kids, they save taxpayers money, they are run by hucksters. They outperform traditional district schools, or they don’t.

It’s all true.  This duality was highlighted in the recent John Oliver segment, which was seen as critical of charters (and has twisted more than a few knickers), highlighting fraud and lax authorizing, but the segment started with boasting about the college going success of KIPPsters.  And both are true.

Whether charters tend to meet their promise of delivering innovative equitable education, depends nothing on the label, “charter”, but the plan and people behind it.  There is no essential ingredient to a charter, except independence, about the weakest organizing principle you can think of.

There is no common content in charter schools

Charter law varies widely between states, authorizer practices vary even more widely.  And the individual charters themselves run from end to end of the spectrum.  This is both in terms of program, and also in terms of outcomes.

Just within Oakland you have military schools, Waldorf, Montessori, arts schools, schools that emphasize testing, schools that don’t, schools that suspend a lot of kids, schools that suspend very few.  Many of these schools don’t necessarily like or even respect the educational methods of their “colleagues.”

Same with students served, some charters over-represent high needs students, some under-represent them, some outperform the district, some underperform.  It’s the gamut.  Outside of the label and resisting control—Charters don’t see themselves as some collective.  And there is no common genetic marker in the DNA of charters, just a shared birth story.

I have long argued there is no “charter movement” just a bunch of folks who want some independence from districts—for all range of motivations, most good, some bad, some the jury is out on.

So charter folks honestly need to lighten up when a comedian pokes fun at some real malfeasance (and clean the house).   I don’t defend “charter schools” some charter schools are horrible.  Look no further than Livermore.

I have lobbied for charters to be closed and others not opened.  There is nothing magic about the label “charter” that makes a school better.  Or worse.  More ethical, or less.

The charter=good and charter=bad worldviews are both wrong some of the time.  And they will continue to be because there is no essential content in a “charter.”  So we need a new paradigm.

It sounds trite, but we really do need to discard the content-less labels and look transparently  at school quality, ethics, and equity.  That is exactly what families care about—if anyone bothered to ask them.

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.

Conflicting Reports on CA Charter Admissions Violations, Any Number Is Too High

Too many charter schools are setting illegal admissions standards, whether that is 2%, as the California Charter Association reports  or 20% as the ACLU of SoCal and Public Advocates report (full disclosure my first legal gig was at Public Advocates).   Charter schools are public schools and need to have open admissions, so any number is too high.

The charter law promises open admissions to charters as the report states,

The state legislature made this principle clear in the California Charter Schools Act, which plainly requires charter schools to “admit all pupils who wish to attend.”1 In other words, except for limitations due to space, charter schools may not enact admissions requirements or other barriers to enrollment and must admit all students who apply, just as traditional public schools cannot turn away students.

The report outlined key types of policy violations, and provided a range of examples, where schools;

  • Deny enrollment to students who do not have strong grades or test scores.
  • Expel students who do not maintain strong grades or test scores.
  • Deny enrollment to students who do not meet a minimum level of English proficiency.
  • Select students based on onerous pre-enrollment requirements such as student or parent/guardian essays or interviews.
  • Discourage or preclude immigrant students from attending by requiring parents/guardians or students to provide Social Security numbers or other citizenship information before enrollment
  • Refuse to enroll students unless their parents/guardians volunteer or donate money to the school.

The California Charter Schools Association responded, agreeing that there were some problems to be fixed, but also noting some disagreements;

  • CCSA believes the types of policies identified in the report have different levels of urgency in terms of their impact on students. The report found only 22 schools (approximately 2% of California’s total 1,228 charter schools) have academic policies that exclude low academic performers.
  • We do not agree that all policies (e.g., essays, interviews or requests for student documentations) are per se discriminatory or exclusionary – there may be a perception of bias or discrimination, they may have been poorly drafted, but there is not necessarily evidence that they are intentional in their exclusion.
  • Nearly 30% of the schools (70 out of 252 schools) identified in this report are non-autonomous charter schools, meaning they function as part of a district and under its control.
  • Limiting the report to charter schools was a missed opportunity to provide the bigger context that all public schools, including district/traditional public schools, should be held to the standards that this report has applied to charter schools.

I think the answer on policies is somewhere in between, but I would also argue that even beyond policies, sometimes that actual practices of charters (and other schools) tend to exclude.  I published a piece covering this earlier in the week on my own experiences, Bad Apples in Charter Admissions and What We Can Do.  But I will just keep repeating, any number is too high, and I hope every charter goes home and checks its policies and trains its front line staff.

The stakes are huge here.  For charters to claim comparability to district schools, they need to have fair admission policies and serve basically the same students.  If not, its just not a fair comparison.

An Example in Alameda

Which brings me to my latest charter school discrimination story.  I was out at one of my middle schools, and got a complaint that students applying to a charter in Alameda were required to pass algebra in 8th grade.  I was looking forward to my-self righteous moment to call the school to blast them.

I looked up their website, sure enough, it was right there in black and white, beyond the lottery there was more

Additional Requirement:

Proficiency in Algebra: ASTI does not offer Algebra 1.  To be eligible for the lottery a student must have demonstrated proficiency in Algebra 1 through successful course completion (C- or better in a full year or full year equivalent Algebra 1 course).

 

Self-righteousness at its peak, I got ready to pick up the phone.  these fools are gonna get it, and then I saw they were a district school.

 

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