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Crosscurrents logo 2021

The price of autonomy for Oakland Unified School District

At 8 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, about 400 students stand at attention. They’re outside the Fruitvale Oakland elementary school, Learning Without Limits (LWL). They recite the following vision statement, as they do every day upon arrival: “We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us as we grow into leaders who are passionate and care about making our world better. We are equipped with skills and knowledge, filled with curiosity and we know that even when we face challenges, we will achieve!”

Students disperse and their chatter turns into a dull roar as parents herd them into the school’s colorful hallways. One of those parents is Kathy Cash. She says her involvement started out small. “I started out helping out in my daughter’s classroom. I volunteer a few hours. And then I help out with parent volunteers that need help translating English to Spanish,” she says.

Now, Cash is the president of the school’s newly founded parents organization. She was one of the most vocal parents for turning the school into a charter. The petition was granted in March, after about a year of lobbying.

Cash is looking forward to the school going charter. She says it will offer teachers more autonomy, and it will give parents an even bigger say in what goes on inside classrooms. “We have the choice of electing the teachers that we want for our kids along with the principal. We can feel free to actually say well this works, this doesn’t and then have a curriculum built around the things that we actually say.”

Increased autonomy is just one half of the traditional versus charter school debate, which for LWL, began on March 15, 2011.

Sixteen out of LWL’s seventeen teachers received notices of potential layoffs that day. Concerned for the future of the school, parents and staff started discussing their options. The conversation quickly turned to going charter. Leo Fuchs, principal of Learning Without Limits, says a charter would offer the school freedom in four areas. “Charter schools have more control over their own budgets. We’ll have more freedom to make decisions about our curriculum and instructions,” explains Fuchs.

The school would also control the length of the school day and the school year. But Fuchs says there was one main reason the school wanted to go charter: “We’ll have more freedom to make decisions about our staffing.”

These four points of control are known in the public education world as “the four autonomies.” Parents and teachers agreed: these autonomies were what the school needed. A charter was the way to go. All they had to do was go to the school district for approval. So when November came, they presented their petition to the school board. It was denied.

“The downturn in revenues for the state has put all school districts in a really difficult position,” says Jody London, Oakland School Board president. For her, denying LWL the charter had everything to do with the bottom line. States give money to districts based on student attendance, but when a school becomes a charter, that state money goes directly to the school and the district loses out.

London says when LWL and Ascend first came to the board with a petition the cost was more than the district could bear. “We don’t know exactly how the numbers will work out, but initial estimates were that we would have a financial hit of about $850,000,” says London.

That’s just for those two charters. When you consider the 34 charters already in Oakland, that’s a lot of money – especially for a district chronically in debt. Back in 2003, the Oakland Unified School District’s $35 million budget deficit landed the district under the state's control. London says what followed was a six-year-long budget debacle during which the deficit ballooned to $100 million. The district regained local control in 2009 and has since been working to balance its budget.

“So right now in Oakland we have 101 schools for 38,000 students,” says London. That number doesn’t include charters. “Most districts our size have between 50 and 60 schools. So the board voted in October to consolidate seven schools and close five… As a result of that and some other financial management tools, we think we will have resolved the structural deficit, which is huge.”

For now, OUSD is still in debt to the state. It owes $6 million a year until 2026 and needs every dollar it can save. But over the last decade, the number of charter schools in the district has nearly doubled, and charters don’t help pay down the debt.

One of those schools is Ernestine C. Reems Academy of Technology and Art, which  was established in 1999. One in a row of small schools on MacArthur Boulevard, E.C. Reems has just over 300 students.

Principal Lisa Blair says when she arrived 13 years ago, students were coming in with extremely low test scores. “We found that they were anywhere from about four to six grades below in their reading and in their math.” Since then, scores have improved, but have yet to reach the state’s benchmarks. “The goal is to reach 800, which is safe water, and 1000, which is the max. We’re currently at about 720. We’ve had a couple of dips over the years.”

Early charter supporters thought more freedoms would help improve standardized test scores. But UC Berkeley Education Professor Janelle Scott says it doesn’t always play out that way. She says some charters do improve scores, but many remain the same, and at some, scores even drop. “So that situation has raised questions, especially in the last five to ten years, of well, then what are they good for?”

Scott says the reasoning she hears goes beyond test scores. “You’ll hear parents say, ‘We know the school is not performing according to the official indicators, but it’s a good place for my kid, she’s happy, right? She used to hate going to school but she loves it now. That should matter.’”

Unfortunately, those aren’t measurable results. Board President Jody London says OUSD also needs concrete measures to determine if a school is worth the cost. London reads some standards for a charter: “Are they improving student achievement? Is there strong leadership? Do they have a focus on continuous improvement? Is there responsible governance, fiscal accountability?”

After the board rejected the charters for LWL and Ascend, the schools appealed. By March, they managed to work out a compromise with the district. London explains the terms of the deal, which were essential to the charter going through.

“We ended up crafting a deal with these schools where they are charter schools, but the only thing they are working with charter management on is the hiring,” explains London. “They continue to take food service from us. They are leasing the buildings they are in, which are beautiful buildings.”

In addition to buying those and a few other services back from the district, the schools are taking one unprecedented step in Oakland’s charter movement. “They are going to continue to help us pay back that $100 million to the state,” says London.

“Oakland gets a bad rap,” says Berkeley Professor Janelle Scott. “I think that there’s a perception that, not just the schools, but the city of Oakland is undesirable. I think Oakland has incredible potential. There are wonderful schools with wonderful teachers and committed families.”

No matter how committed Oakland’s teachers and families are, they’re still saddled with a multi-million dollar debt, at least for the next decade. With continued cooperation, Oakland’s schools and district will, at the very least, remain partners.