Does Oakland Have Too Many Schools?

For the number of students, Oakland has a lot of schools.  When you look at similar California districts, Oakland has roughly twice as many schools per student, with the lowest average number of students per school, according to research provided to me by Director London, who has repeatedly raised this issue.

This is a complex question that will take more than one stab to answer, but we are going to try.  And it matters.

But before we dig into things like optimal school sizes, the purported benefits of small schools, and the actual economics of specific school sites in Oakland, we need to clarify what we mean and why it matters.

Why the Number of Schools Matter

Oakland has limited resources and needs the most educationally efficient school organization it can get.  I know someone is going to say this is part of some capitalist agenda funded by a billionaire boys club.  To which I would remind them of the great times we had under the State takeover when we needed to borrow money.  Remember that?

Randy Ward and that other lady?  Look it up, and if you don’t know you better ask somebody.

If we can’t pay our bills we won’t be running our own shop.  So efficiency matters, if you don’t think so, please stop reading and don’t comment or email me on this topic.

What do we really mean by too many schools?

Director London explained that our number of schools creates inefficiency in administration and infrastructure, as well as making it difficult to strategically plan program locations:

Let’s look at the numbers; Oakland currently has 11,776 students in 40 charter schools, 36,392 students in 86 district-run schools, and 48, 168 students overall in 126 schools, with 17,572 resident students who don’t attend a district or charter school (which is a whole nuther story).  As stated by Director London,

in every category Oakland is operating nearly twice the number of schools as similarly sized           districts. This has a carrying cost in terms of money spent on administration and other                infrastructure.  It also makes it difficult to figure out where to locate all the programs,                something the charter sector doesn’t really talk about except when they complain that they are         being offered shared sites or spaces across several sites.

Here’s the data table she provided, where I calculated average school size, this does not include charters (because I didn’t have the data for other districts).  Oakland is the outlier, with the smallest number of students per school (430), and significantly below similarly sized districts.

Berkeley 9,400 19 495
Alameda 10,000 15 667
Santa Rosa 11,000 20 550
Carlsbad 11,000 15 733
Gilroy 11,000 15 733
Upland 11,000 14 786
Twin Rivers 28,000 40 700
San Jose Unified 32,000 42 762
Fremont 34,000 42 810
Oakland 37,000 86 430
Clovis 41,000 45 911
Sacramento 43,000 75 573
San Juan 46,000 60 767


Does Size Matter? Yes to a Point.

There is significant contested research here, so I admit to making decisions about what to include and not include.  And there are two types of efficiency discussed—(1) dollars and cents, the pure costs per students served and (2) return on investment judged by student learning. So even where a school costs more it still may be worth it because students learn significantly more.

If some experts want to weigh in that’s great.  But I have some summaries below.

The NEA’s research brief defines “small” as being between 600-900 students, and also (rightly in my opinion) potentially includes schools within schools—where larger schools are subdivided and feel “small” to students.  And there is no magic, to size.  It is used as a proxy for personalization and a set of structures within schools to care for students and grow healthy relationships.

Below is an excerpt from a research summary, where they specifically found that schools under 400 students had significantly higher per student costs,

“Conventional wisdom theorizes that larger schools must be more cost efficient to operate than                smaller schools, since larger schools have greater economies of scale. The research on the relationship between school size and efficiency is not conclusive, but evidence suggests that school operating efficiency is actually U-shaped. Very small schools do experience greater inefficiencies, but as schools grow larger, their efficiency advantage is diminished by the increasing costs of administration and of the need for greater coordination across a larger, more complex school organization (Stiefel, Berne, Iatorola, and Frutcher, 2000; Walberg & Walberg, 1994).

Meanwhile, some research suggests that smaller school operations may be more efficient when student performance is taken into consideration. Stiefel et al. (2000) found that, compared to smaller schools, larger schools are less efficient at producing student academic outcomes. This results in larger schools having lower returns on investment than smaller schools.”

Oakland is Undoubtedly an Outlier

Oakland with an average school size of 430, has a lot of schools below that 400 student threshold, and likely a significant majority below the NEA’s definition of “small” at 600-900 students.

It is very likely that the system in OUSD  is economically inefficient.  Again, I will need to do the numbers, delving into individual school budgets, looking at revenues and enrollment and subtracting costs, to really answer this question.

And not all schools are created economically equal.

A comprehensive high school at 40% of capacity, with football team, is likely a very different economic proposition than a similarly sized elementary schools that fills the building to capacity.  And, as stated, we haven’t looked yet at the potential learning benefits from small schools, which might justify the cost.

I will also continue to repeat the need for OUSD to have more Tk-8, 6-12 and tk-12 schools, which might feel small while filling buildings and helping students.  Successes at Coliseum College Preparatory Academy and Life Academy—both 6-12s should signal that there is potential in this model.


Oakland is an outlier in the number of schools and their small size

There is significant research that would indicate that the number of schools is economically inefficient, that even by the standards of “small” schools that Oakland has many very small schools

Next Steps

Is there evidence that learning benefits of smaller schools outweighs the economic costs, if so at what point?

What is average school size in comparable high performing Districts?

Looking at the actual economics of some Oakland schools, to understand where these presumed inefficiencies lie

What is the facility capacity in Oakland, and to what extent do unfilled facilities play in economic inefficiency?

Open to other questions to look at, and much more to come.

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What do you think?

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