News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

November 02, 2020

Charter schools threaten the future of education in Oakland. It’s time to stop them.

By Andrea Passwater

In 1993, the first charter in Oakland opened in Fruitvale. These were the early days of the charter school promise, and new schools swung open their doors to great media fanfare: Charter schools would innovate! They would bring change! Had today’s tech industry slang been in use in the 90s, they might have even said charter schools were primed and ready to disrupt public education!

And disrupt public education they have—but not for the better.

Though charters sailed in on a promise to “fix” education in America, it is unclear what exactly was so wrong with it in the first place. When the first charter opened, the US was one of the top countries in the world for education. Today, it is far below the top 10. A Stanford study from 2009, the most robust study on charters to date, showed that charter students perform either worse or no better than their public school counterparts.

Yet, new privatized charters continue to open across the country, devastating the public school ecosystem. They take state funding earmarked for education, leaving public schools with less money every year. And the public cannot vote for charter school board members during elections, taking away peoples’ power to have a voice in their children’s education.

As charters expand unchecked, they squeeze public schools dry and leave families with nowhere else to turn. A quarter of Oakland students currently attend charter schools—one of the highest rates in the nation.

We are at a critical decision point for Oakland’s future. The time to put a moratorium on new charters, and to save public education in Oakland, is now.

Charters are privatized, yet take public funds

For every student who leaves a public school to go to a charter, a portion of state education funding goes with them. On paper, this seems to work out: if each student gets a set amount of state funds, why does it matter whether that money goes to a public school or a privatized one? But in practice, charters are inequitable; they take the same state resources while providing less.

Across the US, charters have been accused of “cherry-picking” applicants who are already high-performing students or otherwise require fewer resources to teach. While overt screening of students is illegal, there are many ways to skirt the law. Charters often require complicated applications with essay requirements, and demand that parents drop them off in person during the workday, which weeds out families who cannot take time off. 

Whether due to application filtering or other phenomena, the divide in Oakland is clear. Less than 7.5% of charter school students are differently-abled, compared to 13.5% of public school students. State law requires schools to provide customized curricula and individualized support for any student with special learning needs, which costs twice as much money per student to do. Since far fewer students with special needs attend charters, this cost falls largely on Oakland’s public schools. And the few special needs students who do attend charters in Oakland routinely accuse their schools of failing to provide the individualized education plans and accommodations that they need to learn equitably.

Charters also disrupt the economies of scale that public school systems rely on. Regardless of attendance, each public school pays a fixed cost for building and grounds upkeep, as well as salaries for teachers, nurses, and janitors. As students trade charter schools for public ones, per-student funding goes down but these fixed costs remain—and the city must spend a higher proportion of its allocated funding on those fixed costs, leaving less for students.

Over time, diminished public school funding creates a vicious cycle. Public schools get worse, so students leave. Because more students leave, schools lose funding, and again get worse. Eventually, public schools close and charters swoop in to take their place—until public schools are all but eliminated. Robin Lake, Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, refers to this phenomenon as a “slow death spiral” of public schools caused by charter expansion. A similar takeover has already happened in New Orleans, where today less than 8% of students attend public schools.

Racial and economic inequality in charter school education

The promises of public education are open attendance, free and equal education, and the ability of students to learn in the neighborhood where they live, among their peers.

But since 2012, over a dozen schools across Oakland, including Kaiser Elementary and Santa Fe Elementary, have been ordered to shut their doors for good, with communities of color in East and West Oakland hit the hardest. The School Board has announced plans to close at least another dozen schools in 2021 under its “Blueprint for Quality Schools” plan, on the grounds that Oakland has “too many schools.”

However, almost all of the schools closed to date have reopened as charters within a few years—the same campus and building, with different teachers and private management. It would seem, then, that the problem is not the quantity of schools at all. It is simply a transfer of power from a public good to a private service. And this transfer of ownership from the city to a privatized entity comes with serious consequences: disruption to neighborhoods, student displacement, and lost public buildings the city may never get back.

Most of the time, students who are displaced from their neighborhood school do not attend the charter that reopens there. According to data from the California Department of Education, charters in East and West Oakland neighborhoods serve 62% fewer students of color than the public schools that once stood in their place. We must call this admissions bias exactly what it is: segregation.

The people can’t vote for charter school boards

The danger of charter schools goes beyond application filtering and sucking up public funding—they threaten people’s power to have a democratic say in their children’s education and future. Public schools are held accountable to voters via school board elections. But although charters take public tax money, it is their shareholders—not parents or community members—who vote for a charter school board of directors. The people have little voice in the books charters choose to teach from, the disciplinary policies they enact, or the way they spend their funds from the state.

With State and City budgets squeezed by the coronavirus and economic crisis, public education in Oakland is in jeopardy. We must protect it. It is time for a charter moratorium and re-investment in public education. Education should be free and equal for all.