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.

After 8 Schools and Almost Giving Up, I’m Graduating From MetWest and Headed to UC Davis

This guest post is by Camille Marley Brewster (aka Mars), who is graduating from MetWest High School in Oakland Unified School District this month.

During my time in Oakland I’ve been to eight different schools, some district, some charter, one home-schooling program twice, and then finally ending up at one very different and special high school, MetWest, that I graduated from this June. Also, I’m excited to say that come next September, I’ll be attending UC Davis as a part of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences with an interest in Clinical Nutrition.

Who am I? My name is Camille Marley Brewster, but I go by Mars and I’m a born and raised California city girl. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and most prominently, Oakland, have become my hometowns. I was only 7 when my single mom and I moved to Oakland after being on the East Coast to take care of family for eight months. I went to kindergarten out there and began the rest of my education here.

When I first started school in Oakland I went to the local public school a few blocks down from our apartment building, Lakeview Elementary. They didn’t have a proper after-school program and just let the kids out to the busy intersection of Grand and Lakeshore, right at the highway exit. My mom felt really uneasy about my safety as no staff member ever seemed to be watching over those kids until they got picked up. Right away, my mom decided I needed something different and put me on the waitlist for EBCC (East Bay Conservation Corps Charter School), a charter elementary school in Emeryville that focused on Civic Literacy.

It always seemed, at first, like I had more and better opportunities at the charter schools than the district ones. It took a little more than a month, but I was accepted into the school and almost instantly got to participate in so many life changing events, even as an elementary school student. As early as the first grade, I was learning about the four R’s: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, & Rot” and I never would have been able to go out to Washington, D.C., as a second-grader to give a speech about “Buddy Reading” to the Congressional Congress of Civic Literacy (an audience of about 400 leaders) if it wasn’t for the school’s imagination and innovation.

Like any school, though, they had their flaws and my mother withdrew me after my fourth grade year. They were completely unorganized and cared more about their reputation than the students sometimes. I first saw this in my third grade year when they lost my STAAR Testing and then without warning me or my mother, pulled me out of class to retake it.

They never informed the district of their mistake and my anxiety over the event showed in my test score results, which we received the following summer. This is when my mom first found out, because I, as a third grader, of course didn’t understand the situation as clearly as I do now and didn’t tell her when everything first happened.

They say “everything happens for a reason.” So I guess it was perfect that my mom pulled me out of EBCC (who were in the process of changing their name to Civicorps) and then placed me into home-schooling instead, because the summer before my fifth-grade year I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Home schooling was just what my situation called for, as I needed flexibility in my schedule to learn how to balance my life with my new label.

During my semester in home-schooling as a part of the K-12 Cava program, I was my own teacher, sitting at the kitchen table at my mother’s work (she’s a nanny), learning on the computer. The program itself wasn’t the issue, it was my need for social interaction that was lacking. I didn’t have many neighborhood friends, most of my friends were always from school, so without a physical school to go to, I was lonely.

After the first semester of fifth grade and me becoming more adept with my new condition, my mom placed me in another regular district school, Chabot Elementary School. I felt they were unprepared for my medical needs due to lack of resources and although they had a school nurse I found myself avoiding eating all day so that I could also avoid going to the office at lunch for my insulin shot. Maybe I just didn’t want to be treated differently by the other kids, but I soon found out this was impossible anyway.

Middle School was more of the same old same old. I went to Oakland School for the Arts (aka OSA), an arts-focused charter school. They had great ideas on how to improve education while promoting passion among their students for their art emphasis, but they also were extremely unorganized. They were packing the school with more and more students in hopes of receiving more money from the district and sponsors. In the end, it was a disaster and certain art departments got zero funding while others seemingly got it all.

For example, I was in the visual art department and the main art room that we worked out of wasn’t even big enough to hold each one of the middle school students in the department! This issue was never fixed when I attended the school, but three to four times a year the theater department got more funding to go on awesome and expensive field trips while we were cramped in a room without enough chairs.

This seems to be the biggest issue with non-district schools: funding.

After going back to home-schooling for a bit, I ended up at another public school for the second semester of my eighth-grade year. Claremont, despite its reputation, made me feel more connected to its community than I had to any school community in a very long time. I remember one time I was in English class and a boy saw me checking my blood sugar under the table. He then proceeded to ask me if I was a Type 1 diabetic. This was the very first time that anyone had made this kind of distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

I almost cried then and there, simply because for the first time ever I didn’t need to try and convince anyone that I wasn’t a diabetic because I “ate too much candy when I was little” or that I could actually eat anything I wanted as long as I gave insulin for it (so many people mistake Type 1 diabetes for what they think they know about Type 2).

This, to this day, is still the one thing I love about district schools, they don’t have the power to discriminate against kids labeled undesirable because they have to accept everyone. I was always able to find someone, whether it be a student or a teacher, that wasn’t completely ignorant about other people’s struggles and didn’t grow up in a bubble—a feeling I got a lot about the community at certain schools with the power of this “selectivity.”

I went to one of the biggest high schools in Oakland for two years, Oakland Technical High School, and failed miserably due to the lack of attention I received from the teachers and administration.

I really just gave up on school entirely. There were many times in math class when I would sit by the door to the classroom and wait for attendance to be called before slipping out of class simply out of lack of interest, but because of the class’s student to teacher ratio I was never caught. I don’t think the teacher ever really noticed either.

I transferred one last time to this very special school I mentioned earlier, MetWest High School. This school, while a part of the Oakland Unified School District, was more like an independent study school than anything else. It helped me believe in education again and I began to see opportunities to prove my intelligence left and right, after only a few days of being there.

We would have normal school hours three days a week and then spend the other two out in the world learning through internships. My internships have helped me realize my love for working with others my age on projects to better the future or help others. That’s why I want to be a nurse or work out of a hospital, besides the fact I’ve already been close to hospitals and the medical world for most of my life.

I was also given the chance to take college courses before graduating high school and am now that much closer to getting my degree in college in my next few years. I feel like I am actually being prepared for the world.

This is what education should look like and feel like. And I love that every single flaw I could possibly think of in this school is not only being worked on by administrative staff but also includes teachers’ and students’ voices. I was given the amazing opportunity of being on the Student Council and Prom Committee this year as a senior. I’m both sad and happy to be graduating from this wonderful school because while I will miss this type of environment, I now have clear goals for my future and life.