Last week the Oakland Unified school district voted to close five elementary schools as part of a restructuring plan as the district grapples with a huge budget deficit caused in part by too many schools and not enough students. In the past six years student achievement in Oakland Unified has improved faster than any urban district in California. The district has operated through a charter-like school-choice process called “Options” where a student can enroll in any school in the district and the “money follows the child” to that school. Yet from a parent’s perspective this charter-like process has not been enough. The district continues to bleed students to charter schools. In 2010, more than 21 percent of Oakland kids were enrolled in charter schools.
The Oakland story is a case in point for the monumental shift in education governance taking place across the United States. For Oakland the school closures come on top of the previous news that the faculty at two other high-performing district elementary schools has voted to split from the district and become charter schools. As The San Jose Mercury News reports, the faculty has “voted to break away from the district and convert their schools into independently run charters, a move that could cost Oakland Unified more than $4 million. Teachers and principals at ASCEND and Learning Without Limits say that as charter schools, they will have far more control over who they hire, what they teach and how, and how they spend their money.”
The growth of charter schools in Oakland reflects a national trend. There are more than 5,000 charter schools enrolling two million children and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that six school districts have at least 30 percent of their public school students enrolled in public charter schools. Additionally, 18 school districts have 20 percent or more of their public school students enrolled in charter schools and nearly 100 districts now have at least 10 percent of public school students in charter schools.
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The majority of charter schools have started in urban areas with long histories of trapping kids in failing schools and reflect the story line told in the documentary Waiting For Superman, where desperate disadvantaged children vie for their spot in the local charter school. In addition, there has been a larger trend towards low-performing schools being restructured as charter schools, as in the Detroit proposal to convert 41 schools to charters to offer kids higher-quality education and save the school district money. And New Orleans, where 80 percent of kids are now enrolled in charter schools, stands alone as a city that successfully built a charter school Mecca out of the ruins of disaster where the money now follows the kids to any school in the city. In all of these cases the charter school growth has the “hostile takeover” flavor of kids fleeing a failing public school system.
Ascend and Learning Without Limits flip that trend. These high-quality public schools want the charter advantage for themselves. They want relief from collective bargaining, from central office mandates, and most significantly from the huge school district debts that leave less money for the students. And these Oakland schools are not alone. For example, in March 2011, the Los Angeles school board approved the charter petition of El Camino Real high school, which holds the national record for U.S. Academic Decathlon championships and maintains top test scores in the district. This reflects an ongoing trend of Los Angeles schools opting for freedom from district regulations by shifting to charter status. In fact, at 80,000 students, Los Angeles boasts the most charter students of any district in the nation. After the school board vote, former Superintendent Ramon Cortines told the Associated Press that he expects the conversion trend to continue and foresees the day when the district's enrollment of 650,000 will plummet to 400,000.
Even when school districts try to give their schools charter-like advantages they remain constrained by collective bargaining rules and huge financial obligations. For example, Oakland schools are still subject to the destructive personnel churn because of the district’s massive financial deficit that causes teacher layoffs based on seniority. This puts these autonomous schools at risk precisely when they’re building their staff to support school improvement. In 2011, 60 percent of Ascend teachers received layoff notices, while and at Learning Without Limits all but one of the 17 teachers received layoff notices. While many of those teachers ultimately kept their jobs, these schools are not willing to live under such ongoing risk based on the district’s dire financial condition.
The bottom line is that charter schools give school leaders, teachers, and parents much more control over staffing and finances while also freeing them from the economic consequences of belonging to a district that has been in financial distress for decades. A school district may become financially bankrupt, but individual schools can live on through the charter school process. It raises the question: As a nation, should we continue to support large school districts at the expense of individual schools and students? Oakland school district spokesman Troy Flint speaks the truth to power when he says that “ASCEND is a canary in the coal mine, and that fact has shaken people, that's no question.”
Lisa Snell is director of education policy at the Reason Foundation.