Oakland has tried and failed several strategies to reduce charter school growth. Here I offer some free consulting (“POP” the sound of OUSD heads exploding) and two practical ways the district can reduce or even stop the growth of charters here.
They won’t be easy, and they aren’t the sloganistic, short term symbolic actions that the partisans will cheer for, but they will work.
Two Antidotes to Charter growth
If you really want to stop charter growth you need to look at why so many charters are in Oakland, and why so many great OUSD staff end up leaving to work for them. Contrary to conspiracy theories, pretty much all of Oakland’s charters are indigenous, and most of the founders and leaders are longtime Oakland educators or locals too. And our big networks, Education for Change, Leadership Public Schools, and Aspire are all led by long time former district staff.
Bad organizations drive out good people. And since the New Small Autonomous Schools days waned, there really hasn’t been a viable pathway for educators to build great new schools within the district.
Grow your own
Oakland SOL, is the latest and last example of the district embracing its own talent and supporting new schools to meet family needs. The district had a gap in its bilingual schools, with more families that wanted a middle school program than seats. So they created a new school to fill that need. Doesn’t seem like rocket science. But it’s the only launch we have seen.
Meanwhile OUSD has some schools that get 5 applications for every spot and others that are half full. To most people that does not make any sense.
Outside of that, we haven’t seen real support for school leaders. And indeed, the district’s own budgeting failures have led mid-year cuts, and its administrative failures included things like recalling paychecks.
These are the types of actions or inaction that drive good people out.
Currently there is no substantial support for new ideas, and leaders within the district, no extra funds to support planning, no human capacity to coach and help in school development, nothing, as far as I can tell. I hope someone can prove me wrong, but I doubt it.
I have spoken to several of Oakland’s recent charter applicants and several new potential schools coming down the pike, most really didn’t care if they were district schools or charters—they wanted to be good public schools that had the conditions to be successful.
A couple of the charters had explicit discussions with OUSD about the options, and were told that the district could not support their model as a district school. Sometimes it was very technical issues—like the school not having a traditional bell schedule, or seat time and how it is counted, in others it was an overall lack of internal capacity.
I approached the district a couple of years back with a vaunted community partner around doing a boarding school that targeted foster youth, and I was told by the district that they would not even know what to do with that, or who I should talk to, and we were better off going charter.
Oakland is a city of hustlers looking for something better, and if the district can’t support that, then charters will.
Which leads to the second reason there are so many charters.
Oakland Unified is a Low Performing District
This is not a judgment, it is a fact. And there are low performing charters too. But until families have high quality neighborhood choices, those that can, will try to choose other schools. And again most families I talk to want a good school where they are treated fairly and could care less about the charter and district labels.
So let’s look at an analysis of the latest test scores
- Compared to the state, Oakland is way overrepresented among the bottom 5% statewide. Oakland has 26 schools in the bottom 5% statewide (representing 21% of 124 Oakland public schools with scores), more than any city other than Los Angeles, which has 31 – which has 10x the number of students compared to Oakland – see this LA Times analysis). This is a big deal because under federal law (ESSA), these are the schools that “have to” be improved.
- The schools in the bottom 5% of absolute performance generally saw little growth. Of the bottom 15 schools in ELA and Math in 2016 (excluding alternative schools), the new results show little movement (modest gains/losses ±3% for most schools, which would be considered “maintaining” or no improvement) in Math. Only two showed significant growth in ELA. Here is a map of these schools, which are primarily in West and East Oakland.
- Even for a large urban district, Oakland is in bottom third. Oakland is the 12th largest district in California (with approx. 73% low-income students). With 35% proficiency in ELA and 28% in Math, Oakland is in the bottom third compared to the top 10 largest districts in both Math and ELA (though Oakland improved slightly more than others).
No Quick Fixes but some Real Ones
The current strategy of the anti-charter crowd has been blaming charters for district woes, while not addressing those woes directly. This does play to the partisans and elicits cheers from some in the crowd. But it does nothing to actually get the district back on track, or provide better opportunities for educators and families.
We need a greater focus on policy, program and outcomes in Oakland rather than the current focus on politics and blame. Until the Board can wrap their head around the real problems, they will never get to real solutions.
So here is some free consulting for y’all. If you actually create better options for staff and families where they can be successful and see a future, you will see a lot less charters.
I charge for a second consultation.