Inconvenient Truths in Oakland’s Charter School Wars

Oakland has more school aged children that don’t attend a district or charter public school (17,572), than attend charters (11,774).  Further OUSD has only lost 55 students since 2013-14, declining from 36,869 students to 36,814.  These facts found in last week’s Board packets, further challenge the narrative that charters are the problem in OUSD and that declining enrollment is driving the fiscal crisis.  And to get to solutions we need to start with facts.

With all the yelling from a small contingent about charters being “the devil” we are missing what is really happening.  And until we face the facts and the real challenges we will never solve them. Charter schools are not the main area where the district is losing students, and in the recent history, OUSD is barely declining.  Further, that decline is within its control. OUSD has a whole set of structural challenges it needs to reckon with, and until it addresses those, no amount of scapegoating will help.

Where are 17,572 Oakland Youth?

More Oakland youth, do not attend an Oakland public school (district or charter) than attend charter schools.  Check the numbers, of the 65,740 school age youth in Oakland, 36,392 went to a district school, 11,774 went to a charter and a whopping 17,572 students went to neither a district school nor charter.

Smartly OUSD’s enrollment office is reaching out to these parents. But why isn’t the status of these children a priority and subject of debate?

Is Declining Enrollment the Root of Fiscal Problems?

OUSD has decreased by only 55 students since 2013-14 according to the FICMAT report. That is fewer than the number of entering students at OUSD’s newly opened Oakland School of Language. And while some of those students likely would have attended other OUSD schools, some of them would not have.  Check the table below.

OUSD is a smaller district than it was 10 years ago, but to blame the current fiscal crisis on declining enrollment is missing other contributing factors. And until we address those structural challenges in the OUSD budget, we will never right the ship.

Why it Matters

Our current charter versus district narrative misses the larger issues taking place, and will not help us solve them.  Yes charters are a convenient scapegoat, and yes charters may contribute to some of the districts woes.  But the issue is really one of quality and access.  Some OUSD schools are under-enrolled and some schools get 5 applications for every seat.  In many cases families are not satisfied with the schools they have and vote with their feet, or pocketbooks.

Truth be told, you could hypothetically eliminate every charter, and the district would still have the same problems and families in Oakland would have even more.  Nobody can make a credible argument that things were better for Black and Brown children in Oakland before charters, check the numbers.

Blaming charters does not help kids, families or the district.  OUSD needs to take a hard look at its portfolio of schools, structure of its budget, and the familiar areas of overrun.  It also needs to find a productive way to engage with the charter community, and coordinate to better and more equitably serve families.

It is time for us to get to facts in Oakland.  And while scapegoats may rally the partisans, they don’t carry us towards solutions.

They stall us while our real problems fester.

Beyond Sanctuary Schools. Más Allá De Las Escuelas Santuarios.

Sigue abajo para leerlo en español

Mirella Rangel grew up in the Bay Area and in Mexico and began doing community organizing for educational justice while studying biology at the University of California at Berkeley. She is an Oaklander and Xicana mother working for a more just, loving, and sustainable world. Follow her on Twitter: @mirella_rangel.

I’ve worked in Oakland schools for 19 years as an educator, administrator, and organizer. During that time I have met hundreds of relentless family leaders. I have learned from the Jingletown families who didn’t ask for permission, and instead demanded decision-makers hear their demands, and the persistent families who launched the Small Schools Movement that started schools like ASCEND, Think College Now, EnCompass, MetWest, and many more.

And more recently families in East and West Oakland who have sounded the alarm about the unacceptable learning conditions at their children’s schools.

Oakland’s families of color are boss. And I am not talking about the regular attendees of school board meetings whose children attend some of the most sought-after schools in OUSD. I am talking about the families whose access to a great school feels largely out of reach.

For those families, especially Oakland’s immigrant community, it has never been so hard to advocate for change at their school.

I write this blog from the perspective of some of the families I have worked with who have given me permission and blessing to share their story.

Organizing to change power relationships is never polite. These families tell stories of being pushed and shoved in school hallways, and yelled at by school staff for their organizing efforts. They took this in stride, and even when they feared for how their children would be treated at the school site, they persisted.

But what made them pause was when they had school staff threaten to call ICE on them. I don’t mean a casual comment in passing, I mean letters sent home telling families that ICE would be contacted should they continue their organizing efforts. Steps were taken to address the issue with this individual, but the fear lingered.

Recently, I met with a few of these leaders to discuss local and national education issues. In that meeting, one leader told me that in reflecting on her organizing efforts from previous years. She shared that she and the other families would have NEVER organized at the school site if Trump had been president. The risks now are too great.

My heart sank. Second guessing your every move is a daily reality for immigrant families leaving under the threat of deportation, but now under the new regime, mothers who would stop at nothing to advocate for their kids feel silenced. These are the families whose voices need to be heard and it is a loss to our schools and community. Recent reporting across the country reflect that immigrants are changing their relationship to social services and opting to stay out of institutions that are perceived to increase risk of deportation.

I applaud OUSD’s declaration of being a Sanctuary District and the charter schools who have followed suit. And I was glad to see Superintendent Dr. Trammell’s op-ed on July 17th reiterating that OUSD does not ask for proof of immigration status and sharing resources for the Oakland Immigration Project.

Oakland is doing groundbreaking work here, but it is not enough. If those who are closest to the pain are to demand and identify solutions, we must do better as a city to ensure that families can live, work, play and organize, without the fear—even if we disagree with them.

What are we doing to make sure all employees see themselves working in solidarity of immigrant families and those under attack? In addition to striving to provide excellent education for all students, we need all staff in all schools, district and charter, to commit to making schools welcoming environments for students and families regardless of their citizenship status, race, gender and ability.


En Espanol

He trabajado en las escuelas de Oakland por 19 años como educadora, administradora y organizadora. Durante ese tiempo, he conocido a cienes de líderes familiares implacables. He aprendido de las familias de Jingletown que no pidieron permiso, y en cambio exigieron a los que toman decisiones escuchar sus demandas, y las familias persistentes que lanzaron el Movimiento de Escuelas Pequeñas que comenzaron escuelas como ASCEND, Think College Now, EnCompass, MetWest y muchas más.

Y más recientemente familias en East y West Oakland que han sonado la alarma acerca de las inaceptables condiciones de aprendizaje en las escuelas de sus estudiantes. Los que mandan son las familias de color.  Y no estoy hablando de que asisten las reuniones de la junta escolar con frecuencia cuyos estudiantes asisten a algunas de las escuelas más solicitadas en OUSD. Estoy hablando de las familias cuyo acceso a una buena escuela se siente fuera de su alcance.

Para esas familias, especialmente la comunidad de inmigrantes de Oakland, nunca ha sido tan difícil abogar por el cambio en su escuela.

Escribo este blog desde la perspectiva de algunas de las familias con las que he trabajado y que me han dado el permiso y la bendición para compartir su historia.

Organizar para cambiar las relaciones de poder nunca es amistoso. Estas familias cuentan historias de ser empujadas en los pasillos de la escuela, y gritadas por el personal de la escuela por sus esfuerzos de organización. Ellos tomaron esto como campeonas, e incluso cuando temieron por cómo sus estudiantes serían tratados en la escuela, persistieron.

Pero lo que los hizo detenerse fue cuando el personal de la escuela amenazó con llamar ICE a ellos. No me refiero a un comentario casual al pasar, me refiero a las cartas enviadas a casa diciendo a las familias que ICE sería contactado si continúan sus esfuerzos de organización. Hubo respuesta de la escuela acerca esa persona pero el miedo se sintió por mucho tiempo.

Recientemente, me reuní con algunos de estos líderes para discutir temas de educación locales y nacionales. En esa reunión, un líder me dijo que al reflexionar sobre sus esfuerzos de organizar compartió que ella y las otras familias NUNCA habrían organizado en la escuela si Trump hubiera sido presidente. Los riesgos ahora son demasiado grandes.

Mi corazón se hundió. Las vidas diarias de los inmigrantes consiste en calcular los riesgos cada dia y ahora con Trump de presidente estas madres que pararian a nada para mejorar la escuela de sus estudiantes se sentían silenciadas. Estas son las familias cuyas voces necesitan ser escuchadas. Es una pérdida para nuestras escuelas y comunidad. Se ha reportado que en todo el país los inmigrantes están cambiando su relación con los servicios sociales y optan por mantenerse fuera de las instituciones que se perciben aumentar el riesgo de deportación.

Aplaudo la declaración de OUSD de ser un Distrito del Santuario y las escuelas charter que han seguido el ejemplo. Y me alegró ver el Op. Ed. Del Superintendente Dr. Trammell el 17 de julio reiterando que OUSD no pide pruebas de estatus migratorio y compartiendo recursos para el Proyecto de Inmigración de Oakland. Oakland está haciendo un trabajo innovador, pero no es suficiente. Si aquellos que están más cerca del dolor son para exigir e identificar soluciones, debemos hacerlo mejor como una ciudad para asegurar que las familias puedan vivir, trabajar, jugar y abogar sin miedo aunque no estamos de acuerdo con ellos.

¿Qué hacemos para asegurarnos de que todos los empleados se trabajen en solidaridad con las familias de inmigrantes y los que están siendo atacados? Además de esforzarnos por proporcionar una excelente educación para todos los estudiantes, necesitamos que todo el personal en todas las escuelas, distritos y fundaciones, se comprometan a hacer que las escuelas sean acogedoras para los estudiantes y familias sin importar su estatus de ciudadanía, raza, género y habilidad.


Mirella Rangel creció en el Área de la Bahía y en México y comenzó a organizar para la justicia educativa mientras estudiaba Biología en la Universidad de California en Berkeley. Es una madre, Oaklandista, Xicana y organizadora que trabaja para un mundo más justo, sostenible, y fundado enamor. Síguela en Twitter @mirella_rangel

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.

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.