Jan Resseger writes here about the cause of Oakland’s fiscal crisis: the expansion and encroachment of charter schools.

This context is important as background to understand the teachers’ strike.

She writes:

Like Los Angeles, Oakland’s financial crisis is related to California’s embrace of charter schools and the school district’s adoption of a portfolio school reform governance plan by which the district manages traditional public and charter schools as though they are investments in a stock portfolio. The idea is to establish competition—launching new schools all the time and closing low scoring schools and schools that become under-enrolled.  It is imagined that competition will drive school improvement, but that has not been the result anyplace where this scheme has been tried.

To better understand the issues underlying why Oakland’s teachers are on strike, it is worth examining Lafer’s in-depth profile of the Oakland Unified School District.

Lafer’s report explores the Oakland Unified School District as an exemplar of a California-wide and nationwide problem: Uncontrolled charter school expansion undermines the financial viability of the surrounding public schools. “In every case, the revenue that school districts have lost is far greater than the expenses saved by students transferring to charter schools.  The difference—the net loss of revenues that cannot be made up by cutting expenses associated with those students—totals tens of millions of dollars each year, in every district.” “California boasts the largest charter school sector in the United States, with nearly 1,300 charter schools serving 620,000 students, or 10 percent of the state’s total student body.”

“(W)ith a combined district and charter student population of over 52,000 in 2016-17—(Oakland) boasts the highest concentration of charter schools in the state, with 30 percent of pupils attending charter schools.” “By 2016-17, charter schools were costing OUSD a total of $57.3 million per year—a sum several times larger than the entire deficit that shook the system in the fall of 2017.  Put another way, the expansion of charter schools meant that there was $1,500 less funding available per year for each child in a traditional Oakland public school.”

Lafer identifies two problems at the heart of California’s enabling legislation for charter schools. First, a local school board has no control over whether charters can expand in the district: “Even when districts determine that there are already enough schools for all students in the community—or even if a charter operator petitions to open up next door to an existing neighborhood school—it is illegal for the district to deny that school’s application on the grounds that it constitutes a waste of public dollars. By law, as long as charter operators submit the required number of signatures, assurances against discrimination, and descriptions of their plans and program, school districts may only deny charter petitions for one of two substantive reasons: if ‘the charter school presents an unsound educational program,’ or ‘the petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition’”

The second problem, Lafer explains, is particularly serious as it impacts Oakland Unified School District: “While charter schools are required by law to accept any student who applies, in reality they exercise recruitment, admission, and expulsion policies that often screen out the students who would be the neediest and most expensive to serve—who then turn to district schools.  As a result, traditional public schools end up with the highest-need students but without the resources to serve them.  In Oakland, this can be seen in the distribution of both special education students and unaccompanied minor children who arrive in the district after entering the U.S. without their families.”

The problem is made worse because California does not allocate state funding based on the number of disabled students who require special services: “Special education funding is apportioned in equal shares for every student attending school, irrespective of the number of enrolled students with disabilities. Even in districts without charter schools, special education is an underfunded mandate, in that the dedicated funding for this purpose is insufficient to meet the needs that school systems are legally required to serve.”

Lafer reports that in 2015-16, Oakland’s charter schools served merely 19 percent of Oakland Unified School District’s students with special education needs: “The imbalance is yet more extreme in the most serious categories of special need.  Of the total number of emotionally disturbed students attending either charter or traditional public schools in Oakland, charter schools served only 15 percent.  They served only eight percent of all autistic students, and just two percent of students with multiple disabilities… Thus, charter schools are funded for a presumed level of need which is higher than the number of students with disabilities they actually enroll, while the district serves the highest-need students without the funding they require.”

The bottom line is that it is wasteful and inefficient to run two separate school systems, both funded by the public.

It is especially sad that Governor Jerry Brown, a progressive in so many ways, was blind to the depredations of the charter industry. He opened two charter schools where he was mayor of Oakland and never admitted that he was wrong.