Watch These Oakland Students Tell Us How to Understand and End Gun Violence

About the Author: Sophia Sobko is a former teacher and current graduate student at UC Berkeley.

​Last Friday evening E14 Gallery in Downtown Oakland buzzed as 7th and 8th graders from Lighthouse Community Charter School shared their research, artwork, and writing on gun-related violence in Oakland. The exhibit was the culmination of a year of research and creative production exploring the causes, consequences, and potential solutions of gun violence in their community and beyond.

Student ambassadors spread across the spacious gallery, leading visitors through the exhibit’s many stations: research and data, history of the 2nd amendment, narratives, art campaigns, potential solutions, and participant response. Student speakers moved between English and Spanish, sharing statistics and personal stories about gun violence with one goal: to educate others and move them to action.

Privileged Oakland 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 some Oakland 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 protests and a teach in 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 teach in 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 privilege 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 live in privileged parts of Oakland, 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.

The Spook Who Sat by the Charter School Door

I am the fly in the school reform buttermilk. An outsider, now marginally on the inside, trying to plot the revolution. 

Young, gifted and Black, I founded a charter school support organization in Oakland at the dawn of the movement in the ’90s, followed Katrina into New Orleans to help resuscitate the (charter) schools, and then was CEO of a $41 million dollar public-private partnership to spur charters in New York City, with Chancellor Joel Klein on my board.

I sat in the boardrooms, and the meetings before the meeting where everything was really decided, and often was there when folks negotiated the futures of these communities in bigger or smaller ways. And I can say, as usually the only brother in the room, that school reformers—and I’m talking about the “deformers” here—can be a little scary. Well, sometimes a lot scary.

I apologize in advance to the good, well-meaning folks who are actually trying to understand and empathize with our kids and families. I love many of y’all—but you gotta admit there are some real pieces of work in the room, too.

Colonial Reformers

Many, many folks have an “other people’s children” problem. They support and applaud the creation of schools that they would never send their own children to. “No excuses” schools where students eat silent lunches and walk in silent halls, where trauma is disciplined into submission or exit.

These schools are usually led by some young, relatively inexperienced hotshot, who has learned a lot in school or in some prep program, but knows very little. But he’s great, they love him.

The natives, not so much. For instance, the veteran Latina educator and school leader, who has a doctorate and decades of experience, starts one of the highest achieving schools in the South Bronx, in the shadow of one of its dropout factories. She’s lived there her whole life and fought and worked in the community. They’ll say, “She’s crazy.” No money for her. These “deformers” might even undermine her behind her back.

I can’t count how many times people of color were called “crazy” for the dreams they have for our kids and their willingness to fight bareknuckled for them, while White folks are called “ambitious” and given money to achieve the same thing. 

And sometimes these people are just racist. One of these Thurston Howell-types (anybody else watch Gilligan’s Island?) walked into a discussion I was having about a weak charter leader. I was running through a number of data points. First question from him: “Is she Black?” No, she isn’t. But why is that the assumption?

And keep in mind, these are the deciders—the authorizers in some cases, the funders in others.

There Are No “Sides” When Kids Lose

Then there are those that cheer or snicker when “the other side” fails. Too many people delighted at the stumbling of a charter school founded by the New York City teachers union. But it was serving kids in East New York, where kids need to be served better. Do you really want to see that school fail?

When you are the spook, there is nothing funny, nothing to be self-congratulatory about, not another “side.” Kids are failing and being failed. When you are the spook, those are your kids.

But to many of them, it’s just another point on the political scoreboard. Something to throw at the union in an adult mudfight. And that’s all it is, because their kids will never go to these schools. They can’t imagine themselves or their kids living where these children and families are.

The Choice Is There Is No Choice

It’s not easy being the spook.

Maybe you know the Black nationalist novel from the ’60s (or the movie it inspired), “The Spook Who Sat by the Door”? The main character is a “spook”—another word for a spy in the CIA. But there’s a deeper political message. The real meaning of “spook” is an old racial slur for Blacks. The early response to affirmative action was to force your token Black employee to sit right by the door, giving the appearance of a “diverse workplace” that still operated on the same system of White privilege and oppression that this country was founded on.

Sometimes I feel like that spook. Sitting in these funders’ boardrooms and closed-door meetings, sometimes I wonder if they’ve positioned me right by the proverbial door, to add some legitimacy to an enterprise that—for the worst of these “deformers,” for the colonial reformers—isn’t really isn’t about empowering communities of color at all.

Late at night I often wonder whether we can dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. Whether being the spook inside is better than being the agitator outside. Whether trying to build institutions and children in the space the system affords us will ever work.

But spooks don’t have too many choices. We see the daily toll taken on youth and the price of inaction. And we’re joined by many other reformers—White, Black and Brown—who are here to do the work, and really believe in the schools we’re building.

In a rigged system where few even get near the door, I am picking up what tools I can, and hope to unbolt the foundations while a smarter and better army of young architects and carpenters develop.

Maybe those who inherit it can finish the job of remaking this system into something better.

 

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Here’s the Test for Charter Schools Under DeVos and Trump

As school choice advocate Betsy Devos assumes the role of secretary of education, charter school camps have formed for and against her. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools supported her, while the coalition of independent charter schools in New York City (representing over 100 schools) opposed her. And in California, while school leaders have almost universally opposed her, the state’s charter school association is sending somewhat mixed messages.

This should not be a surprise. As I’ve said before, there is no unified charter movement. There are simply many different actors who see charter schools and the autonomy they promise as a means to an end. In the big charter tent you have liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. But as I will argue, the sector still has some interests, and this nomination offers immense risk and potential opportunity.

Support for Choice in the Community

Any credible poll will show that Black, Brown, and low income families support charter schools. Many communities of color also have long histories of alternative and private schooling in the face of segregated, subpar or no public options. And a likely increase in support for charter schools and school choice from the federal government through Betsy DeVos might help free underserved communities from sometimes weak neighborhood options.

Charter schools can be our FUBU schools (FUBU stands for “For Us, By Us”—a hip hop brand from the 90s), empowering communities to control local schools and deliver high quality, culturally responsive programs to our children. It’s not that simple, and it is incredibly hard work, but many of us have been frustrated by the lack of responsiveness of the traditional public schools and wanted to do something different. Given the devil and the deep blue sea—we jumped.

Choosers and Losers

School choice is not a panacea. Choice by itself doesn’t necessarily improve quality or equity and may make things worse. There are choosers and “losers”—those who don’t choose. And the schools themselves may also start to pick and choose students, sometimes taking the “easy” ones and passing the more challenging kids on.

The federal government has a crucial role in setting some basic ground rules for equity and enforcing them. And because I don’t think we can trust local jurisdictions, those rules need to bend toward justice. Things like charter school admissions, charter authorizer behavior, as well as rules of the game in serving students with special needs or treating “minorities” with equal concern and respect. All of this can be influenced by federal spending and rulemaking.

And the secretary of education needs to be the secretary of all schools, given the reality that 47 of the roughly 55 million students in the U.S. go to traditional public schools, with 3 million in charters and over 5 million in private schools. Nothing D.C. does will change those ratios significantly. So the focus needs to be on that largest sector, and remembering the intent that charters would act as laboratories to feed practices into the traditional schools.

Evaluating the Secretary’s Reign-Quality, Equity, and Transparency

If, under this new administration, those of us who support charter schools sell our principles or forget who our master is, that stain will outlast any education secretary.

A rush to create more schools for more schools’ sake is an unwise one. Charters promise a set of academic and non-academic outcomes, and accountability is essential. Just opening the floodgates to more schools will likely reduce quality. And it won’t help families. (That seems to be the Detroit story, from my admittedly limited knowledge.)

Equity has to be at the forefront of accountability, for the sector to be credible and ethical. Charter schools have had some historical challenges in serving all students. This is a critique that hits some times and misses at others, but is equally applicable to the traditional public zoned schools or gifted-and-talented programs and specialized high schools. Authorizers and the public need to look hard at who is being served and who isn’t and why, with consequences for offenders.

Charter schools are public schools and need to be transparent with the public’s money and authority. I get that not all charters act like public schools, but they are and they should. And to build and maintain public confidence, we need to be transparent, and allow for public analysis.

The Charter School Final Exam

A school cannot serve two masters, to butcher a phrase. In this new administration, the charter sector faces new challenges and opportunities. But the real question that each school must answer is, “who is our master?”

In a time when many Black and Brown children and families are anxious, and immigration raids at schools are a real possibility, many schools and districts nationwide are declaring themselves “sanctuaries” that will defy the feds and won’t cooperate with ICE.

If that master comes calling, will the charters pick up the phone, or barricade the doors?

Charter schools were here before DeVos and will be here after her. The communities that charters draw their lifeblood from are here even longer, and communities have long memories. Charters sometimes are accused of not being of the community. If they want to assure their roots in the community, they need to pass this final test, and answer resolutely as to who their master is, lest short term gain turn to long term ruin.

 
This piece is adapted from one that ran in the Amsterdam News as Betsy DeVos’ Charter School Test on February 9, 2017.