The Debate We Need is not about School Choice, It’s about Access and Quality

As a long time education reformer, I couldn’t care less about “school choice.” And focusing on “choice” by itself, doesn’t necessarily help kids or increase equity.  Most importantly, that’s not how I hear families describe what they want, which should be our focus.

Sadly though, parents and families are more often positioned as props than listened to, or engaged as deciders—and that’s a problem for both charter and district sectors.  It’s time we listen, and reframe the debate to one about access and quality—that’s what families I talk to talk about, and that is what actually matters.

The vacuous meaning of choice

“Choice” has served as a banner that a range of reformers could stand underneath and not engage in the civil war that would erupt if we talked values or endgame.  Who isn’t for choice?

But in reality it is an empty banner—that has no values and is subject to being co-opted.  Health care is a choice…  And choice for choice’s sake has really gotten us nowhere.  Remember the right to choose a better school for children in “failing” ones under No Child Left Behind—only thing, there were no spots open at higher quality schools.

I heard the same comments from families in the years after Katrina in New Orleans.  Sure, there are all these hypothetical choices, but in reality there often is not a spot for your kid.  It feels the same as having no choices, maybe worse, since you were promised something better.

Or, Oakland is an open enrollment district, technically everyone can choose their school—how is that working out—is equity and quality increased by that—not sure?  I would bet you dollars to donuts that the choosers will tend to have more resources and better neighborhood schools, than the non-choosers.  And choice in Oakland often requires transportation, which again is inequitably distributed.  This is a charter issue too.

Listen to Families and the Message is Clear

Most Importantly, I almost never hear the “real families” of Oakland—those who really need quality schools and struggle to find them—voice arguments about “school choice.”  That is not on the list of demands.

They want access to a quality school where they are treated with concern and respect.  It’s about quality and access, and being treated fairly.  And the further we move our eye from that ball, the weaker our standing in the community and the lower our likelihood of success.

If we want real reform that sticks, it needs to be rooted in the experiences and desires of families, not some neo-classical economist’s notebook.  And in this age, where language is increasingly debased and a certain double speak prevails alongside alternative facts.  We need to be really clear about what and who we stand for.

Choice is an empty banner, that has outlived its usefulness.  It may be a means to an end, but it is not an end in itself, and needs to be judged by results.  So let’s jettison this increasingly meaningless reform jargon and listen to families for a change.

They want access to quality schools, they don’t need unlimited choices, they don’t need charter schools, they don’t need vouchers.  They need authentic access to quality schools, and if we focus our eye on them and in supporting that, in whatever form those accessible quality schools come, I think we will be OK.

While, if we keep parroting this rhetoric around choice, I worry reformers will be seen as even further out of touch, and real reform that matters to families, even further out of reach.

Hills Parents Need to Clean Their Own House Before They Meddle in the Deep East

It was a heartfelt moment recently when a member of the Alameda County school board asked the question that many of us were thinking, why are Oakland Hills families so opposed to charter schools in Deep East Oakland.

A question doubly important, because there are some serious hostile environment issues playing out at the Hills schools, resulting in a walkout at one, and consternation over a misguided “colonial day” at another. So while Black, Brown and other underserved students are being disserved in your backyard you are going to Hayward to attempt to block a school in Deep East Oakland?

But back to the board meeting.

A group of East Oakland families had just shared their support for a charter school when a group of, I presume, non-East Oakland parents/adults opposed it. That’s when school board member Amber Childress asked plainly, “Why is it that families from the Hills are coming and speaking in such strong opposition against quality programs? It’s frustrating.”

It was particularly frustrating to me. I have spent a lot of time this month meeting with frustrated families. A diverse group of parents at one Oakland Hills school recently staged a walkout on the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education to protest conditions. I also hear painful stories about another Hill school’s “colonial day,” where students played assigned roles, which from what I hear included slave. And it weren’t no White kids in that role. You can guess who it was.

Sticks and Stones and Glass Houses

So you are going to schlep to Hayward, protest a school in the Deep East that doesn’t even exist, while families in your own backyard are getting abused by the schools in your neighborhood. Probably the schools your kids went to. Many families are feeling the lash, while some deliver it, others serve as allies, and most stand by.

So I guess if you want to fight inequality, start at home.

And at the hearing, I never heard the Hills parents talk about improving district schools in the Deep East, or providing more quality options there. It was mostly esoteric talk about their interpretation of charter law, or signature requirements.

‘You Can’t Tell Me We Have Quality Options’

It’s just another salvo in the charter wars. There is nothing about actual access to quality schools in the neighborhood. And there doesn’t seem to be any critique of district schools that are not treating all students with equal concern and respect.

Nary a peep about a racist “colonial day,” or schools issuing “stay away” orders against parents, along with threats, retaliation and intimidation—stories that break your heart about children of color who are broken at Hills schools.

But back to the Deep East, and the hearing.

According to one sister who lives in East Oakland (but why should we listen to her?), she tried to enroll her child in the esteemed Parker Elementary School—the one school mentioned for its quality by the anti-charter folks—and was told she couldn’t.

Another brother said he had no access to public schools that were good enough for his child, and would have to send his child to private school. So he supported the public charter school, and was even going to serve on the board of it.

“If you live where I live, you can’t tell me we have quality options for our kids,” he said.

So how is it that the families with the most exclusive choices tend to show up and suck the air out of the room at the school board meetings, trying to deny access to parents with the fewest quality options?

It’s particularly ironic that they are most concerned with restricting access and opposing options for families in neighborhoods they likely never visit, and their kids haven’t even seen. Meanwhile a modern day “step ’n fetch it,” plays out at Hills schools annually, and it’s on us to complain, and potentially face retaliation.

If you don’t like charter schools, don’t send your kid to one. And if you want to help Flatlands families, why not volunteer in their community? Or here’s an idea, why not share some of that $500,000 pot of PTA money you’ve got at your school in the Hills? Or why not join as an ally at your neighborhood school and work to end backwards and racist events like “colonial day”?

When housing costs $1.6 million on average for Hillcrest families and your kids attend a very high-performing neighborhood school—yeah, who needs a charter? Private school, at middle or high school—probably. But you don’t need a charter.

Honor the Lived Experiences of the Community

Talk to the actual East Oakland families and I think they have a different answer.

And we heard directly from a child of Deep East Oakland, Trustee Childress, who shed tears and buried peers.

“I am from Deep East Oakland…We can’t give up on these Black and Brown students and poor families in East Oakland,” she stated.

I appreciate her calling out the elephant in the room, and those East Oakland parents and I are still waiting for a good answer to her original question: Why are parents from the Hills so opposed to more public options in the Flatlands?

And how is “colonial day” still a thing in Oakland—no seriously…How is this still a thing here?

If you are in the Hills, you don’t need to go to Hayward to fight a perceived injustice, you can fight very real ones, right in your backyard—you want to help underserved, Black, and Brown kids—please start at home.

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.

We Got Our Homegrown Superintendent in Oakland. Now What?

The community spoke. We wanted a homegrown leader, who understood OUSD and could hit the ground running. And now we got one in the appointment of Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell for superintendent. 

Whether we actually give her a chance is another question.

But before the mud flies, let’s pop a cork. We need a leader and we got one.

She is eminently qualified, if a bit new to the top spot, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I, among many, have high hopes. She knows our kids, schools and staff. And knows what it takes to make them better.

The initial reviews are good, focusing on her instructional knowledge, ability to work within the system but still show bravery when needed.

Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge praised the hire, noting the unanimity of the Board:

The OUSD Board of Education demonstrated its own grit in selecting a new education leader for Oakland Unified—we unanimously brought forward Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell.

With considerable support from a community panel and OUSD students, Dr Johnson-Trammell was recognized as a talented and committed educator.

She is a third-generation Oakland educator and a product of Oakland public schools. We are excited that we have looked within our own organization to nurture and support this capable educator.

We trust she will successfully navigate this new opportunity in a city and school district where she has taught children and supported families and educators for decades. Oakland is fortunate to have her.

Similar praise came from Hae-Sin Thomas, a long time OUSD educator, now CEO of Education for Change:

I have a lot of confidence in Kyla—she is a strong instructional leader and I am glad that we have someone who will maintain a keen focus on teaching and learning through all of this financial stress.

Kimi Kean, another longtime OUSD educator who worked with Dr. Johnson-Trammell as a principal and on the OUSD executive team, now Area Superintendent of Aspire Public Schools, was equally supportive:

Kyla has deep roots in Oakland. Her mom was an OUSD educator and principal. Kyla will be in Oakland for the long haul and is rooted in and committed to the students, families and staff of OUSD. Also, I appreciate that she has been a principal in Oakland—I think that will resonate with Oakland principals.

I haven’t heard a critique yet in my small survey, nor received that kind of side-eyed look you often get.

She is homegrown, has worked in the schools and with our students, and knows Oakland, so what could go wrong?

Will We Give Her a Chance?

Much love to anyone willing to take on the accumulated challenges of OUSD. She did not cause these problems and I hope she won’t be blamed. It’s a lot easier to run someone out of town on a rail than it is to build a better railroad. And I really hope these fools don’t come in screaming about Jim Crow, or in her case she may be seen as “aggressive” or some other loaded term.

Nevertheless we need her to persist.

It’s a tricky time in Oakland right now, even beyond finances. OUSD is making progress in some areas, and it is also starting some difficult conversations around privilege and inequality, culminating in an ambitious equity policy. It will take real courage to finish these conversations and realign opportunities and resources. And I am pretty sure Dr. Johnson-Trammell could tell some stories from her own experience. I believe she went to Montclair.

We know the problems—structural deficits, a state loan hanging over our head, teacher shortages, high cost of living, broken funding system, declining district enrollment, high needs kids and families, to name a few. Things are going to have to change and there will be fallout. There will be some losers, but what we really need is stability and a strategic plan with strategic investments and the courage to see it through, in spite of the interest groups and current entitlements.

The superintendent can’t do any of this alone—it will take a village. And now that we have our chosen sister, it’s on us to treat her fairly, and be sure that others do as well.


Here’s a short excerpt of Dr. Johnson-Trammell’s bio:

Born and raised in East Oakland, Ms. Johnson-Trammell is a fierce advocate for Oakland public schools, having attended Montclair Elementary and Montera Middle School. She holds a communications degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and earned her Ed.D. from UC Berkeley in educational leadership.

Ms. Johnson-Trammell’s commitment to Oakland and urban education is evidenced by more than seventeen years of service in several capacities including elementary school teacher, middle school assistant principal, elementary school principal, Director of Talent Development, Associate Superintendent for Leadership, Curriculum, and Instruction and Elementary Network Superintendent.

Death by a Thousand Cuts, How Not to Balance the OUSD Budget

OUSD will not nickel and dime its way out of the budget crisis, and we need to hire a leader quickly to start making the hard decisions.  The papers are starting to bleed with stories of seeming valuable programs on the chopping block because they cost more, which is only the start of what promises to be a painful budget season.

This week we saw stories about a highly regarded special education program, the Reading Clinic, with threats of being zeroed out, as well as a small travel abroad program, that returned with strong reviews, Thrival Academies, worrying about future funding.  And this is before the budget is even released.  Expect to see a parade of other popular programs and staff being cut, and to hear about it in headache-inducing Board and community meetings.

There is an old line about people who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.  We need to bear that in mind, as some programs do cost more than others, but it’s more a question of value.  I personally don’t know if these programs could be run more efficiently or whether they are the best cuts, but someone needs to, and to have the courage to make these strategic decisions and stand behind them.

Hopefully, our “permanent leader” will be appointed today, and she can start to right the ship.

New Answers to Old Questions

I have argued before that we need to get out of this short term fiscal crisis, step back, and really re-evaluate what is happening in OUSD and what should happen.   This will require some bold plans, and seriously rethinking some assumptions.  I know it’s easy as an outsider to say don’t cut special education—but until you are sure, don’t cut special education.

I know there are overruns and there probably is wasted money somewhere in there—like there is everywhere—but on SpEd, you often pay now or pay later, and paying later usually includes legal fees and a moral price tag too.

OUSD has more seats in schools than students.  And Oakland’s land values are at all time highs.  I would also argue that the schools of the future should not be centered around kids sitting in a building all day, and especially for high schools we should be thinking differently about school buildings.  All that is to say that there has to be some way for Oakland to take advantage of the real estate boom to plug its short term fiscal hole, and figure out its future.

Cuts at the Top

The numbers I have seen show that OUSD, has a relatively large central office, with a recent growth in the top salaries and the number of top earners.  The Justice for Oakland Students Coalition, has led the charge for central cuts, arguing that the last administration increased admin salaries by 566% while also embedding annual raises.  Many of these positions are vacant now as well.  So it really is time to think about the value add of central administrators.

For some specialized programs; ELLs, Foster, Homeless, and the Office of Equity, I think we absolutely need a central office administrator(s), but for much of the other work, I think the positions need to be justified.  Especially for the newer chief level roles that seem redundant or at least superfluous when weighed against cuts to school sites.

Opportunities in Charters

OUSD has several charter schools that have long term leases—like 40 year leases–the schools do pay rent and maintenance, and I do not know the numbers off hand.  But why not offer to sell some of those sites to raise the cash?  Charter schools already have a right to use OUSD facilities under Proposition 39, where it makes sense, OUSD should look to sell sites, and take the cash.

Also on the charter facility front, there is a way charters can draw state money for rental reimbursement, SB 740.  Charters have to choose between using district space, which is guaranteed under Proposition 39, or to rent private space and request the reimbursement.

Again if we talk between sectors, there has to be some incentives OUSD could give to charters to increase usage of SB740.  That would ultimately save space and money.  But we have to be able to talk.  And the way Proposition 39 is going I think most of the talk will be in courtrooms by high priced lawyers.

Teacher housing and OUSD Land

OUSD also owns land adjacent to school sites and could sell that and provide some teacher housing, as a condition.  I saw a great model in faculty housing at a UC, where the housing is reserved for faculty, you pay the mortgage as faculty, and can only pass it on to other faculty.  This is very low cost housing.  And if we want a relatively simple answer on teacher stability; it is housing.

By all accounts, OUSD has underutilized sites, and there is no reason to think that future years will have more children sitting in OUSD classrooms.  Housing and land prices are also at an all-time high.  There has got to be a way for OUSD to capitalize on this trend, rather than fall victim to it, but that is going to take leadership.

The OUSD Board needs to make this hire and then stand behind our next superintendent.  Rome is burning, and we don’t need no more fiddle playing.