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.”

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.