Declining enrollment in Oakland Unified is a current fact. The District was 1000 or so students below estimates this year and projects to lose several hundred more students next year. Declining enrollment means declining revenue, and declining revenue usually means declining programs. There are a couple of ways out of this conundrum, and also some false paths that are likely to exacerbate it.
Declining enrollment is a current fact
Here is the slide from the Superintendent’s report for 2/8/17
OUSD lost roughly 300 students last year and predicts to lose another 251 next year. While declining enrollment account for minority of the budget deficit at roughly $5 million, it is a structural trend that needs addressing.
Different paths ahead- don’t turn back on progress
We can’t stick our heads in the sand. Or hope for some imagined possibility that won’t come. And we need to get smart as a district and ultimately better meet the needs of families and the programs they want. There are hopeful signs, one being the development of the District’s Strategic Regional Analysis (SRA) which looks at the demographic data and trends and use it to plan schools and needs. While that should not be innovative—it is.
The District is doing some good things to develop responsive programs and meet student needs and demands of Oakland families. When I see schools like SOL being approved, a stand-alone dual language middle school, which filled a gap in our dual language pipeline, or Thrival Academies, which operated in partnership with MetWest, and sent kids to Thailand for study abroad. Or the downward expansion of successful schools like LIFE Academy to a middle school. Those are the types of programs that will keep students in OUSD.
The stupidest thing OUSD could do would be to squelch innovation.
Similarly, looking at the implementation of new models like Teach to One in Roosevelt, or the highly demanded career pathways schools like MetWest and (again) LIFE Academy. These latter schools get many more applications than they can serve. We need to see if there are ways that it makes sense to expand, and bring these programs to more students.
Ultimately, the District needs to take a harder lens to which programs are successful and/or highly demanded. And conversely it needs to look at programs that aren’t as successful and are under-enrolled.
Why families leave
And we do have some data on why families leave, again from the Superintendent’s report,
Over a quarter of those that leave OUSD are displeased with offerings, another 10% left for innovative programs outside OUSD. So that’s over a third of the total.
Bringing kids back in a dynamic environment
While OUSD projects losing 250 students next year, there are roughly 28,000 more school aged kids that they can try to attract that attend either a charter or presumably private school, or go out of district. Which is actually a pretty deep pool.
But the District needs to actually attract them. Meanwhile, there are still several charter schools that will continue to expand as they add grades. And there likely will continue to be more charters coming on line.
The new “welcome center” and improved OUSD enrollment processes should help here, and I have totally supported everything I have heard from the staff of the enrollment office. But, at the same time, the charters also created a common application which will simplify application processes for families and will likely draw more families into the charter mix. All this is to say that in the first year of these two parallel systems, there is even more uncertainty for district and charter schools and OUSD, even if families are better served.
The false choice of a charter ban
I know some people don’t like it, but there is a statewide charter law, that allows public charters schools to apply to the district, then the county and then the state if they are turned down. And the law says that they “shall” be approved if the charter application meets a set of standards. So folks can lobby their elected leaders in Sacramento, but as long as that law stands, there will be more charters.
If OUSD rejects strong charter applications, they will just be approved at a higher level, and OUSD will have even less leverage. This is the current reality. So deriding every charter or pushing the OUSD board to vote no on strong charters won’t work. Any strategy that blames charters without some viable alternate strategy is just blowing hot air. Which we have more than enough of.
The Way Forward
While OUSD is definitely facing challenges, academically many things are moving in the right direction. Slowly and unevenly, but in the right direction. And there are real bright spots and models of quality within the District, and also good calculated risks on new schools and innovative programs.
The current enrollment issues can create a crisis or an opportunity. OUSD can ask our families what they want and need in the schools and work continuously to better provide it, taking a much harder look at what is working and what isn’t. Eventually making some hard decisions after public engagement. Or we can just keep on the historical path. Basically doing more of the same, cutting the funding in the areas that have the weakest political constituencies or may be newer and not yet established, hoping that somehow the ship will right itself.
We are in a new educational paradigm. Parents increasingly have choices between free public schools. That is not going to decrease and probably will only increase. For OUSD to thrive it needs to continue to adapt and adjust. There are several real examples of this happening right now that I cited. And the change of mindset has been slowly happening.
But despite the challenges, this is no time to slow down, the ground is moving beneath us, and if we don’t pick up the pace, and reexamine our strategies, we will continue to stumble.