Public School Closures in Oakland: Another Example of Failed School Reform and Charter School Expansion

I am grateful that last Sunday the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson recounted the long, sad story of the school closings in California’s Oakland Unified School District. Oakland has universal school choice, and this fall, students in two of Oakland’s now shuttered public schools had to find new schools elsewhere in the school district—with five additional public schools to be closed at the end of the current school year.  As Wilson explains: “The district has… been whiplashed over the years, by education trends and population changes, leaving many schools under annual threat of school closure.”

We have been watching this story develop for years.  Wilson reports: “By 2003, with the district facing a roughly $35 million budget deficit, the state Department of Education took over the operation of Oakland’s public schools, laying off hundreds of teachers and eventually shuttering more than two dozen schools. The state’s day-to-day management ended six years later, but the education department still has what is effectively veto power over fiscal decisions.  At the time of the takeover, the state extended the district a $100 million line of credit, which has yet to be paid off entirely. The district’s uncertain finances and poor performance also opened the door for experimentation from wealthy, mostly White philanthropists with no ties to Oakland. One initiative was the ‘small schools’ movement, financed in large part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The idea was to break up big campuses into more intimate places for learning. The money—about $25 million before it ran out—helped open about two dozen schools. But the state administrator at the time closed 14 others over several years.”

Wilson continues: “More lasting was the charter school movement. At the time, billionaires Mike Bloomberg and the late Eli Broad spent tens of millions of dollars promoting charter schools nationally, including large sums in Oakland… But in a state that funds districts by student, every pupil who enrolled in a charter school meant money lost to the broader public education system.”

Gentrification is also implicated.  Today’s school closings—two this year and five before school begins next school year are all located in poorer African American neighborhoods. Wilson explains: “Here in Oakland… the school discussion implicates race…. White gentrification hovers over the East Bay…. The traditional dividing line—Interstate 580—splits wealthy Oakland hills from the struggling ‘flatlands’ where Parker and other affected schools are located.”

All of these problems have been visible for years. Jerry Brown was Mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007 and he served as Governor of California from 2011 to 2019. Brown remains an unabashed supporter of charter schools. In fact he started two charter schools himself. Here is EdSource‘s Luis Freedberg: “Brown is unique among California’s governors—and probably governors anywhere—in that he is the founder of two charter schools, the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School for the Arts.  He told us he has raised ‘millions and millions of dollars’ to start them and keep them going.” EdSource asked Brown if charter schools don’t pose a funding problem for a school district’s public schools. Freedberg recounts Brown’s answer: “Brown opposes that notion, even in places like Los Angeles and Oakland, which in his words have ‘so many charter schools, and they don’t have enough funds.’ He acknowledged that is a ‘troublesome problem.’ Nonetheless, he said, ‘because I think charter schools are challenging, I’ve resisted more onerous rules that quite frankly are designed to reduce charter schools in the guise of making them more accountable.'”

So how much fiscal pressure do charter schools pose for the public school districts where they are located?  In a huge, 2018, study for In the Public Interest, economist Gordon Lafer documents the annual $57.3 million loss of public school funding to the charter schools in the Oakland Unified School District: “(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.” “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” Lafer describes the consequences of marketplace school choice in the Oakland Unified School District: “You have a system where the neediest and most expensive kids to educate are concentrated in traditional public schools.”

California blogger Tom Ultican has documented the investment and influence of wealthy philanthropists promoting the expansion of charter schools in Oakland: “The map of charter schools in Oakland and proposed school closings shows that both are… in the minority dominated flats (the low lying area between the bay and the hills).  With all of these closings, residents in the flats may no longer have a traditional public school serving their community.  Much of this can be laid at the door step of the six billionaire ‘education reformers’ living across the bay—Reed Hastings (Netflix), Arthur Rock (Intel), Carrie Walton Penner (Walmart), Laurene Powell Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Doris Fisher (The Gap).  Reed Hastings established America’s first charter management organization (CMO) in Oakland. There are now six Aspire charter schools serving Oakland families.”  Ultican adds: “Along with these billionaires, New Yorker Michael Bloomberg and Tulsa billionaire Stacey Shusterman have joined in the spending to sway Oakland’s school board elections.”

It is not as though nobody has investigated the impact of widespread public school closings on the neighborhoods where safe and long treasured institutions are shut down.  In Chicago, Rahm Emanuel’s administration closed 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year. Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 school reform project had driven a decade-long explosion in the number of charter schools. An important difference, however, is that in Chicago the school district did try to protect the students whose neighborhood public schools were closing by designating specific welcoming schools.  In Oakland, families are left to find their own schools due to universal school choice.

Despite Chicago’s efforts to manage the school closures, however, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.” “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

In a profound 2018 book,  Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of school closures across Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood—the meaning for teachers, grandparents, and students.  Ewing contrasts their love for storied community institutions with the technocratic arguments of school district officials: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”  Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-159)

2 thoughts on “Public School Closures in Oakland: Another Example of Failed School Reform and Charter School Expansion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s