As it anxiously awaited a vote that would determine if five schools would close, the crowd at Oakland school board’s meeting on October 26 watched as representatives from three of the city’s public elementary schools –ASCEND, Learning Without Limits, and Lazear—presented petitions to convert to charter schools. Closing the five schools, by the school district’s estimate, would save about $2 million. But if these three schools become charters, the district could lose as many as 1000 students from its rolls.
That could pull more than $2 million out of the Oakland Unified School District’s budget–the same amount that it is supposed to save from the controversial closures and mergers it approved last month.
“We’ve got to stay in this together,” Oakland school superintendant Tony Smith urged the audience at that meeting. But board member Noel Gallo, who represents the area that includes all three schools, said he understood the frustration driving the charter requests. “I support charters because they represent options,” Gallo said. “You can’t wait for OUSD to get it together for another year, another 5 years.”
Even as they enter their third decade, charter schools remain controversial in Oakland. Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association (OEA), the district’s teachers’ union, calls charters “a real drain on the district’s resources.” And as Gerlen Anderson, the grandmother of a Lakeview student, put it: “The more charters you keep adding, the more public schools are disappearing.”
In opposite ways, the decisions of Lazear, ASCEND and Learning Without Limits to convert into charters were all propelled by the closures decisions this fall. Lazear’s parents and teachers, who strongly protested the school’s closure, want to keep Lazear intact any way they can. They considered converting into a charter school just recently, when it became clear their school was going to close. “We are willing to be a part of the Oakland Unified School District,” former Lazear principal Clementina Duron, who is now a school volunteer spearheading the charter conversion, told board members. “But if not, Lazear parents have written up a charter, and we are presenting it tonight.”
The proximity of these schools means their fates are all interrelated. If Lazear stays closed, its 273 students must enroll somewhere else. If just one school, like ASCEND, succeeded in becoming a charter school, it would put extra pressure on Learning Without Limits to accept students from the closed Lazear. The same would be true if the opposite occurred.principal Larissa Adam and Learning Without Limits principal Leo Fuchs have a different problem: they are both worried, they said, about changes to their own schools if they are forced to take in too many students from the five closed schools. It’s not that the principals don’t want to welcome new students, they said—but they want to keep the small class sizes they believe have been a major contribution to their students’ success. “We’re a school that really depends on the power of relationships between adults and children,” said Leo Fuchs, principal at Learning Without Limits. Both principals from ASCEND and Learning Without Limits worry that as OUSD continues making cuts and closing schools, certain ‘autonomies’ they have had, like control over budgeting, staffing and curriculum, will disappear.
Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, are able to maintain their class sizes because they have greater control over their budgets. A charter school’s directors can decide to allow 24 students in their 4th grade, as opposed to 30, by looking elsewhere in their budget for the money they would have received from the government for those six extra students. Charters often have outside funding from philanthropists, or networks of donations, that public schools do not. ASCEND and Learning Without Limits have been able to keep their classroom sizes small in the past, because they were created as small schools—intentionally kept smaller than regular schools
Although charter schools are public, in the sense that they’re supported by public funds and don’t charge tuition, they operate apart from the rules and budgets of their local public school districts. In most cases, they are run by private education corporations, some non-profit and some for-profit. In rare cases, schools may operate on their own, as Lazear’s petition proposes. The charter plans for ASCEND and Learning Without Limits call for them to be run by Education for Change, a nonprofit corporation that manages three other charter schools in Oakland: Cox, World, and Achieve Academies.
Charter schools receive the bulk of their funding from the same sources as traditional public schools: the California Lottery, property taxes, state education aid programs, and the federal government. The biggest portion of money comes from the state funding based on schools’ enrollment numbers, or Average Daily Attendance (ADA). ADA numbers are vital for every public school district, because each student in California public schools brings the district a set rate of money per year. OUSD has struggled in the past ten years, as its enrollment has gone from 54,863 in the 2000-2001 school year to 46,584 in the 2010-2011 school year.
The current enrollments at Learning Without Limits, ASCEND and Lazear add up to about 1000 students. The ADA is currently about $5200 per year per enrolled student, so that means those three schools’ kids account for about $5 million of annual state funding for Oakland’s schools. Troy Flint explains that after factoring savings from expenditures on these 1000 potential students, about $2.4 million would be pulled from OUSD’s budget. If all three convert to charters, the state would use OUSD as a “pass- through” to distribute the three schools’ public funding — but OUSD would not manage the money for them, as it does now. The charters, and their management companies, would control the schools’ budgets. Any money that might have gone into OUSD administrative and overhead costs, from that state ADA funding, would now go instead to the management companies of the charter schools.
Betty Olson-Jones says she also worries about what the absence of union representation could do for students and teachers at charters. The teachers’ union and OUSD agree on guidelines for the district, from classroom sizes to teaching hours. Charter schools are able to operate outside these guidelines. Though principals like Larissa Adam and Leo Fuchs concentrate on the positive aspects of this freedom — control over curriculum and class size, for example — Olson-Jones says not having union representation could mean that things like teaching hours are unregulated.
She describes long teachers’ hours at KIPP, a nationwide charter school organization, and says this can lead to teacher burnout, which is not good for teachers or students. Though both Fuchs and Adam have said their teachers want to be unionized at a charter, they would need the approval of their charter company, Education for Change. So far, the three Oakland schools Education for Change manages are not unionized.
And public money for charters may not be used to pay off OUSD’s ongoing debt to the state. Because of massive loans incurred during the state takeover in 2003, the district must pay the state $6 million every year until 2023. This money must come from cuts to its already dwindling budget. So the debt, Olson-Jones says, “falls squarely on the shoulders of the remaining students.”
One of the benefits (in some opinions), and detriments (in others) of this structure is that a school like ASCEND, for example, would no longer suffer cuts based on the districts’ ongoing debt to the state because of the state takeover in 2003. Last spring, more than half the ASCEND teachers and 16 of the 17 of Learning Without Limits teachers received layoff notices because of budgeting issues within OUSD. In the end, the district didn’t lay off any teachers, but the uncertainty and lack of control alarmed principals from both schools.
“Obviously we don’t want to lose revenue,” says OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint, “But the greater concern is that certain schools feel the need to defect from the district.”
And OUSD’s bigger concern, Flint says, “is whether these schools are canaries in the coal mine, and if more schools will do the same.”
The school board will hold a special meeting November 21 about the petitions for these three charter school conversions, four charter renewals, and one brand new charter school. They will vote January 11 whether to accept the schools’ petitions. OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint said board members base their charter school proposal votes on “a myriad of reasons,” like creating redundancy in the district’s offerings. In the past board members have also expressed concern that potential charters might try to select high-performing students instead of having truly open admissions, as public schools must. Some board members believe charter schools hurt the sustainability of the district, and they may take finances into account when they vote in January. They do not have to justify their votes.
The board will also have to consider whether these schools will be allowed to keep their buildings, and how that would work financially.
Clementina Duron, even though she started as a public school principal, is not new to charters. Duron spearheaded Oakland’s first charter, then called Jingletown Charter School, shortly after California first adopted legislation to permit the schools in 1992. With much resistance from the district, Duron and a group of Lazear parents opened the school—still in existence and now called Oakland Charter Academy—on their own. At the time Lazear parents were unhappy with the existing middle schools in their neighborhood. They thought the schools were too big and dangerous, and lacked the bilingual education Lazear had provided. They formed Jingletown to fill this perceived void.
Now, as Lazear parents are losing their elementary school, they have turned to the experienced Duron for help. “These parents are from a culture where you never say no to people,” Duron said. “It’s a ‘sí se puede’ attitude. They said, ‘If they’re going to close our school, what else can we do?’”
They plan to retain the same students they have now, while at the same time expanding their current K-5 structure into a pre-K through through 8th grade school. Lazear’s current principal, Kareem Weaver, would remain as the charter’s principal, as would the current teachers and staff. The school’s proposed new name is Math, Science & Technology Bilingual Academy, reflecting the organizers’ intent to focus on bilingual education.
Even before they began worrying about absorbing students from closing schools, the principals from both Learning Without Limits and ASCEND have had concerns about maintaining the “small schools” autonomy they once had, but have seen dwindle, over the years. Both schools are products of Oakland’s small schools movement that began in 2000, when OUSD approved a New Small Autonomous Schools policy, created by parents and community groups.
The policy focused on creating schools with fewer than 400 students in Oakland’s “flatlands,” mostly in black and Latino neighborhoods, to provide more individualized attention to students. These schools also offered extra control over matters like curriculum, staffing, scheduling and budgets. At the time, private sources like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were supporting small schools like these throughout the country. That outside funding has since stopped.
OUSD’s decision to support small schools was, in some ways, an attempt to prevent schools from leaving the district. When Oakland’s small schools started up, they operated like charters, except that they were run publicly instead of privately. Many of these schools, like ASCEND and Learning Without Limits, have been successful in raising students’ test scores over the past ten years. But though some people point to the small schools movement as a key factor in the district’s improvement, superintendant Smith has said repeatedly this fall that OUSD now runs more schools than it can afford—101 for about 38,000 students.
The problem now is that the principals and staff at schools like Learning Without Limits and ASCEND, one of the city’s first small schools, don’t want to stop being small schools. And, if the district won’t work with them, they’re willing to leave it.
“Over time, our community—our staff and parent leadership committee—began talking about what they needed to better serve the kids,” ASCEND principal Adam said last week. In September, ASCEND’s teachers voted to ask for charter conversion. They decided, Adam said, that this was “the best way to secure the conditions they wanted for the long term.”
Adam said she understands the criticism of charter schools—the idea, as Betty Olson-Jones says, that “you’re basically saying, ‘I’m going to take care of my own corner of the world.’” ASCEND leaving the school district would mean that Lazear students, should they have to search for a new school, would probably not be able to attend the new charter version, classroom-size-capped ASCEND. It would also mean that all the remaining OUSD schools would bear the brunt of the budget and debt problems, because even if OUSD has fewer students and a smaller revenue, the district’s debt to the state remains the same.
But Adam argued that ASCEND’s conversion process has directed OUSD’s attention to a set of concerns shared by many schools. “We really believe that converting to a charter school is part of a move to make greater changes,” she said. “We want to inspire the leadership in our city to see that the conditions we are seeking for our school, we are seeking for all schools.” Adam said ASCEND has tried to negotiate with OUSD over the years for the control her school once had, but with only limited success.
Fuchs, Adam and Duron have all said that if the district could meet their needs — or, in Lazear’s case, keep their school open — they would remain in the district. But it seems unlikely that OUSD, in its current financial state, could grant all of their requests.
“The issues that they have presented are not unknown to us,” Flint says. “But they touch on some deep structural problems that aren’t going to be resolved overnight.”