future of schools

The Oakland school board is pushing for more coordination with charter schools, but faces fierce backlash

A student arrives for classes at the Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy, an Aspire charter school, located in the Oakland Unified School District. (Photo by Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images)

How to balance the competing interests of district and charter schools is sparking vigorous debate.

That sentiment could apply to Newark or Indianapolis or Denver. But this month it’s Oakland, California, where school board members just told their superintendent to get to work on a plan to coordinate among all of the publicly funded schools in the city — including how they should enroll students and how many should exist.

It’s one step toward what some call the “portfolio model” of overseeing schools, which advocates are pushing in a growing number of cities.  

How that will work in Oakland is unclear, particularly since the district doesn’t directly control the city’s charter schools. A number of observers say Oakland has too many schools for too few students, leaving district finances stretched too thin — and the key question remains which kinds of schools will go through the painful process of closing. The plan alludes to this issue, but doesn’t explain in detail how it will be addressed.

It’s a victory for GO Public Schools, a local nonprofit that created a campaign called 1Oakland to push for this kind of unified system of overseeing schools and backed the policy that was adopted.

The plan has already faced sharp criticism from teachers unions and others skeptical of charter schools, who say the plan won’t do enough to strengthen traditional public schools. But not all charter advocates are on board with the initiative, either — making it an example of how national divides among charter supporters are playing out locally.

“The whole point of this policy is to unite the community,” said Jody London, one of five board members who backed the policy. “Instead this has become a lightning rod.”

An effort to create more cohesion in a disjointed system

A recent Alameda County grand jury report laid out some of the challenges facing the city’s schools in stark terms. The district has big financial deficits, has too many schools, and is operating in an environment marked by distrust toward the charter sector, according to the analysis.

In the 50,000-student district, over a quarter of students attend charters. Past efforts at greater coordination including a proposed common enrollment system and an “equity pledge” have fizzled.

The Oakland school board on June 27, 2018, the day it voted to approve the “community of schools” plan.

The “failure to support a unified effort at comprehensive reform is marching the district towards state takeover,” the report warned. (The district was taken over — and issued a $100 million loan — by the state in 2003. It still has a fiscal monitor appointed by the California Department of Education and is paying down the loan.)

The plan Oakland’s school board adopted last week nods toward some of these issues. It says the district needs to create “a fiscally sound number” of schools, and calls for more coordination around student enrollment and transportation. That includes efforts to ensure that charters serve similar students, “so that the highest needs students are not concentrated only in [district] schools.”

The policy also calls for stronger “oversight and accountability” of the charter schools the district oversees, and raised the possibility of providing district schools with charter-like autonomy.

The two-page document focused on broad ideas rather than nitty-gritty policies, instructing the district superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell to create a more detailed blueprint by November, which will be voted on in January 2019 after community feedback.

“The goal of this was … to have a public conversation and to bring the board to some consensus on its position on how schools, charter and district, should be in partnership and how they should co-exist,” James Harris, the school board member who introduced the proposal, told Chalkbeat a week before the vote.

Debate about the plan stretched over several months, as the policy went through multiple iterations and even a different name. (Harris said he had gone to a conference put on by the Center on Reinventing Public Education a few years ago where his “biggest takeaway [was] don’t use the word ‘portfolio’ because it’s such a hot button.”)

In some ways, the policy echoes the portfolio model vision, particularly with its emphasis on a single, coherent system of schools. Portfolio advocates typically want schools of all kinds to be held accountable by a central body that replicates successful schools, closes unsuccessful ones, and coordinates functions like enrollment across schools; a system that allows parents to choose from all kinds of schools; and lots of freedom for schools to make decisions about how to operate. Research on this approach is limited and mixed.

Mirella Rangel of GO Public Schools, which is part of a loosely connected network of groups that have supported the portfolio model, says she hopes Oakland’s plan will play out differently than it has in some other cities and pay special attention to the district’s disadvantaged students.

“That history of portfolio management in other cities … we’ve seen it happen to people, be market-driven,” she said.

Plan faces pushback on a number of fronts

The plan has drawn fierce criticism from skeptics of charter schools, who said the plan doesn’t have enough focus on supporting district schools that have lost students and funding to charters.

“We are rejecting a ‘system of schools’ concept and a ‘1 Oakland concept’ because they are euphemisms for an endless campaign to blur in the public’s mind the difference between charter and public schools — and there is a difference,” said Trish Gorham, the head of the local teachers union, at an earlier board meeting.

But in at least one way, the plan concedes one criticism of the charter sector — that charters aren’t serving the same share of needy students as the district. The plan requires the superintendent to determine how the district can push charters to serve similar numbers of special education students, newcomer students, foster students, and English learners.

A report commissioned by GO found that Oakland charters do serve substantially fewer students with disabilities and take many fewer students in the middle of school year than the district.

“I hear a lot of people who say, ‘That’s wrong,’” said Mirella Rangel of GO. “We’re actually trying to get the practices to change.”

Not everyone believes charters are open to changing.

“There is nothing stopping charter schools today from stopping the selective recruitment practices,” board member Shanthi Gonzales, who voted against the plan, said in an interview. “They want resources that they don’t have access to now, and I don’t believe they actually want to change anything.”

A common enrollment system for district and charters is used in some cities to address this issue. Common enrollment was also part of the 1Oakland campaign. But Both Rangel and Harris downplayed this possibility, which was proposed a few years ago by Oakland’s previous superintendent, Antwan Wilson, but faced blowback and was never implemented.

Another issue dividing Oakland schools observers: potential school closures.

Fiscal mismanagement, declining enrollment, the expansion of charter schools, and the creation of intentionally small schools with money from the Gates Foundation beginning nearly two decades ago has left the district in dire financial straits.

“Each of the last five superintendents has acknowledged that the district is operating too many schools, yet each has failed to convince the school board to make the difficult decisions in the face of community backlash,” said the grand jury report.

But which schools need to close?

“Some aspects of closures or consolidation need to happen in both sectors,” Rangel said. “I want to reiterate both.”

Critics fear traditional public schools will bear the brunt of that burden, though. That’s in part because it’s hard for the district to close charters: Though the district authorizes most of the city’s charter schools, charters may appeal a closure decision to the county and the state, which can overrule district decisions.

“You can’t close charter schools, so we know this policy will only apply to public schools,” Mike Hutchinson, founder of Oakland Public Education Network and a former school board candidate, told board members at a previous hearing.

Meanwhile, some charter school supporters are skeptical of GO’s efforts, too.

An initial draft of its 1Oakland plan proposed a two-year pause on new schools, including charters. That prompted a March email to local charter leaders criticizing the plan, on this and other fronts, from a California Charter Schools Association official.

“1Oakland’s ask drastically misses the point,” Max Daigh, a CCSA regional director, wrote.

The California Charter Schools Association stayed neutral on the policy Oakland’s board passed, even though CCSA and GO have been allies, working together to influence past school board races.

The groups say they maintain a strong working relationship, but their disagreement illustrates the difficult road ahead for a plan that hinges on coordination.

As to whether the CCSA and GO will partner again on the upcoming November school board election, “It’s not clear at this point,” said Rangel. “It’s definitely much more murky [and] complicated this year.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”