Jeff Bryant, in Educational Opportunity Network, reports on charters across the nation. Sure some do well. Some do not. I picked up on one of his examples…Oakland, California where I was born. It’s a community where high in the hills wealthy people live. It’s beautiful up there looking over San Francisco Bay. Down below I think of the mud flats of the bay. People used to make weirdly beautiful scrap wood sculptures. People in Oakland have a very different sense of place depending upon where they live. Yet, I remember a phrase that was oft heard: Out of the mud grows a lotus.
In Jeff’s article, I found references to two reports on Oakland charters that are among the best I have read. One is an Alameda Grand Jury report on charters. The other is cited in EdSource.
Oakland schools authorize 36 charters and one is authorized by Alameda County. This is at least one fourth of the county public schools. According to the 2015-16 Alameda Grand Jury report, charters were intended to be educational laboratories where new methods could be tested. The focus shifted when the State of California took over the school system in the 90s, and schools with sub par test results were identified. Charters proliferated, not as much as in Florida, but in a more concentrated way.
The Grand Jury report found that some charters have as many as 55 more days than the public schools. The other advantage was that skills not seniority were the basis of hiring teachers. Teachers earned the same salaries in district and in charters, but many in charters worked more days.
There are costs, however, for this flexibility. The lack of oversight is one. Charters there (as elsewhere) serve fewer students with disabilities, and those they do serve have less severe and less expensive problems. There is also no reporting or tracking to monitor potential wrongful expulsion or dismissal of ‘less desirable’ students who are counseled out for misbehavior of low achievement. There is no mechanism for district oversight of charters, no planning for charter growth, no ensuring of safety standards.
In Oakland as elsewhere, charters have an impact on communities. They attract students which makes some public schools under enrolled. Charters are privately owned, and facilities cost money. So they want the space in public schools they created. In Oakland, they would pay $4.73 per square foot of space. It means very different schools in the same building with the district picking up most of the cost. How are these schools different?
About one half of charter students score below the district average on state assessments. But according to these reports, even these charters ‘cream’ their students which makes them look better but does not make them academically better. Moreover, higher performing students tend to transition from district run schools to charters and lower performing students transition from charters to district run schools.
In the other half of charter students, according to the EdSource, about 40% of charter students have higher achievement levels before they enter the charter school; thus higher test scores reflect not what was learned in the charter school but the achievement levels of the students who enrolled initially. Charters are also more segregated into silos than are district schools. Is choice just making a bad situation worse for struggling students?
There is one take away from all of this that is not addressed and should be. In Oakland, there is an independent committee that reports to the citizens of the city on the district and charter schools. They cover the issues and the consequences of the choices people are making in their own city. They have a Grand Jury investigation of equity. They are pointing out that charters just formalize what is occurring in communities when lower achieving children are segregated from those children who have ‘learned how to learn’. Segregation takes many forms, none of them are cost free.
We are all asking: What Do We Do? First of all, challenge the myth that choice has no bad consequences. It is about money and comes down to who owns the real estate; it does not improve academic achievement, and it does increase all forms of segregation. It tells us, however, to look at how much time our schools spend on instruction and what kind of instruction children receive. Are we as citizens asking the right questions about our schools? Therein always lies the rub.