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)

Charter School Lobby Agitates to Prevent the U.S. Department of Education from Improving Regulation of the Federal Charter Schools Program

The U.S. Department of Education has proposed new rules to tighten up the awarding of grants through its own Charter Schools Program. Seems like a good thing, right? So why did the Department’s proposed new rules lead to a big protest rally of charter school supporters from around the country in front of the White House last week?

The NY TimesErica Green explains the proposed rules: “The proposal would add requirements to the application process for grants from the federal Charter Schools Program, which has doled out billions of dollars over nearly 30 years to help open new charter schools or expand existing ones. It sets tighter restrictions on the schools’ relationships with for-profit entities and encourages more collaboration between charters and the districts they operate in. The most controversial part of the plan would require grant applicants to prove demand and community support for their schools, examine the effect they would have on neighboring district-run schools, and demonstrate that they would not exacerbate segregation.”

The proposed rules would not affect the state laws that establish charter schools and the rules under which charter schools operate in 45 states. The new rules would be limited to establishing that federal grants could no longer be awarded to charter schools operated by for-profit Charter Management Organizations, and that to qualify for a federal grant, a charter authorizer would have to show there is a need for the new school.  This is the sort of sensible regulation that ought to have been part of the program when it was established back in 1994.

During the Clinton administration and through the Bush and Obama administrations, charter schools were popular among neoliberal Democrats who saw publicly funded but privately operated charter schools as kind of a nice compromise with the more visceral school privatization advocates like Betsy DeVos.  Now a lot of Democrats, including the Biden administration, have become more aware of poor regulation of charter schools by states and the federal government, graft and corruption in the misuse and sometimes theft of public funds, and the reality that despite their promises, charter schools on the whole have not surpassed public schools in helping students achieve academically.

As Green reports, some of the Democrats who have always been and continue to be strong supporters of charter schools are angry: “The rally came on the heels of several high-profile denouncements of the proposed rules, including opinion pieces by Michael Bloomberg…. and Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado….  Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado joined Republicans in asking the department to revise them.”  But an increasing number of Democrats see the need for better oversight.

Green quotes Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education as a prime supporter of the new rules and Nina Rees, the president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools as a leading opponent of more stringent regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program.  It is important to be very clear about what these organizations are.

Rees’ organization, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is the primary mouthpiece for the charter school sector. It has a 32 person staff and is well funded by philanthropists, charter school authorizers, and operators of charter schools. When the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools sponsors a rally at the White House, the organization can afford to fly in charter school parents from around the country to speak for their schools. But the testimony of satisfied parents passionately defending their experience with particular charter schools is not the whole story.

The Network for Public Education (NPE)—a national, volunteer, good government, public school advocacy organization—has been a primary critic of waste and fraud in the charter school sector’s spending of tax dollars, especially by the for-profit Charter Management Organizations. NPE has also condemned the damage to public school districts by rapid charter school growth. Its members have supported a tiny, four-person, mostly part time staff conducting research about what is really happening in the charter school sector.

Despite that federal law has previously prohibited grants to for-profit charter schools, in a 2021 report, Chartered for Profit, the Network for Public Education exposed that too many nonprofits have been turning over virtually all of their state and federal dollars to a for-profit management company without any oversight of the use of the money: “Despite strict regulations against the disbursement of funds from the federal Charter Schools Program to charter schools operated by for-profit entities, we identified over 440 charter schools operated for profit that received grants totaling approximately $158 million between 2006 and 2017, including Charter Schools Program grants to schools managed with for-profit sweeps contracts.”

In an earlier report, Asleep at the Wheel, the Network for Public Education found that the U.S. Department of Education has not been a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars in its management of the Charter Schools Program. “Based on what we found, we believe it is likely that one billion dollars of federal ‘seed money’ has been wasted on charters that never opened or shut their doors. We were equally dismayed to find that many of the Charter Schools Program-funded charter schools that survived did not fulfill their stated mission, especially in regard to enrolling proportionate numbers of disadvantaged youth. As public dollars are pulled from public schools and a more disadvantaged student body is left behind, the students who attend their neighborhood schools have fewer resources and greater challenges.”

Research from the Network for Public Education has been replicated by other researchers. In a report for In the Public Interest, economist Gordon Lafer showed how charter schools in just one school district, Oakland, California, suck $57.3 million every year out of the public schools that serve the majority of Oakland’s children and adolescents.  Amazingly, in a series of biennial reports, the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General has condemned the Department’s Office for Innovation and Improvement for poor oversight of the Charter Schools Program.  And in 2021, Wagma Mommandi and Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center, published a book, School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape Enrollment, showing all the ways charter school operators select their students and leave behind in public schools the students who are most likely to need additional expensive additional services—including disabled students and English language learners.

I live in Ohio, where the charter school sector has been out of control for over two decades. When the U.S. Department of Education published its proposed new rules and asked for public comment, I was moved by the comment submitted on behalf of Policy Matters Ohio by Piet Van Lier, who strongly endorses the proposed rule that would ban federal grants to nonprofit charter schools managed by for-profit management companies: “More than 10 years ago Policy Matters began tracking abuses by for-profit management companies operating schools in Ohio. We documented abuses by Imagine Schools, which had a poor record of performance in our state and a business model driven by elaborate school real estate transactions, high management and operations fees paid by nonprofit schools to the corporation, overlapping business relationships, low spending on classroom instruction, and tight control of school finances and business relationships.”

Van Lier continues: “Our subsequent research found additional problematic practices by management corporations including: hand-picking board members of charter schools that are by law responsible for school operations; preventing schools from hiring their own independent attorneys, accountants, and auditors; binding schools to them contractually and financially, making it impossible to seek new management; controlling school revenue from public sources; claiming ownership of school equipment purchased with public funds; and loaning money to schools well above market rates. We also documented the practice of management corporations pretending to comply with Ohio law mandating school closure for poor academic performance by simply changing the names of schools and re-opening them in the same location with largely the same staff. These practices continue today.”

Policy Matters also endorses the need for charter school startups to conduct an impact study and demonstrate the need for the new school: “Examples abound… of charter schools opening simply because they have access to a building and want the public funding that will flow to the school, even if they cannot meet enrollment targets and have no evidence that they have talked to families and other stakeholders in the community about what kinds of schools are needed. Requiring schools and operators to demonstrate community need and interest in their models is simply good policy and will prevent the over-saturation of charter schools many urban areas already face.”

We should certainly not be surprised when the charter school lobby, represented by the National Association of Public Charter Schools, sponsors a rally to protest more stringent rules to block the flow of federal funds to charter schools.  We must also hope that staff in the U.S. Department of Education carefully read the thousands of comments thanking the Department for proposing new regulations to end the flow of federal dollars to for-profit management companies and to require charter school sponsors to consider the needs of the communities where they propose to locate new charter schools.

Another School District Closes Public Schools in Response to the Long Damage of Corporate School Reform and Privatization

In its newsletter last week the National Education Policy Center shows how last month’s announcement of upcoming school closures in Oakland, California is merely the latest in a series of public school closures as a consequence of the wave of privatization and experiments with school reform across the states:

“It’s happening again. Another urban school district, this time Oakland Unified in California, has voted to close schools that serve a disproportionate number of students of color from low-income families. Two schools will close this year, and five more next year…. Black students comprise 23 percent of the Oakland school district, but 43 percent of the students in the schools slated for closure. Oakland is the latest in a growing collection of urban school districts that have decided in recent years to close schools that disproportionately enroll students of color and students from low-income families. Other examples include Chicago, which closed or radically reconstituted roughly 200 schools between 2002 and 2018, St. Paul Minnesota, which approved six school closures in December, and Baltimore City, where board members decided in January to shutter three schools. ‘Closures tend to differentially affect low-income communities and communities of color that are politically disempowered, and closures may work against the demand of local actors for more investment in their local institutions,’ according to a NEPC brief authored in 2017 by Gail Sunderman of the University of Maryland along with Erin Coughlan and Rick Mintrop of U.C. Berkeley.”

The Mercury News reported on the Oakland school board’s February 8 decision:; “The Oakland Unified school district will close seven schools, merge two others and cut grades from two more over the next two years, the district board of directors decided in a meeting that stretched for nearly nine hours Tuesday into early Wednesday morning. The vote came after district officials, under pressure from the state and county to create a long-term plan for financial success, presented to the board last week a plan to close, merge, or reduce 16 schools, starting at the end of this school year.”

How has the Oakland Unified School District found itself in such a financial mess that public school closures are being proposed as a solution?  The district was part of an early experiment with small schools, part of a Gates Foundation project that broke up large high schools into small schools. It was an experiment so expensive and unworkable that the Gates Foundation eventually gave it up.  Janelle Scott, a professor at the Graduate School of Education of the University of California at Berkeley identifies “the multiple determinants of the deficit, which include the intentional creation of small schools that are now slated for closure and the cost of charter schools.”

The California blogger Tom Ultican identifies state takeover as another factor: “Twenty years ago, the state took over OUSD claiming a financial crisis…. Then like now, the Bakersfield non-profit FCMAT was brought in to supervise. The state went on to appoint a series of administrators to run the district.”

California’s EdSource provides more details about the state takeover: “In 2003, the district went into state receivership after receiving a $100 million bailout in order to balance its budget amid a massive shortfall…. Though the district still has not fully paid off the loan, control was given back to the district about five years later. The state appointed a trustee with veto authority over the district’s financial decisions…. For years, Oakland city and state representatives have called on the state to forgive the remainder of the loan to no avail.”

What is always mentioned, but rarely detailed in the news reports about today’s school closures in Oakland is the role of the unregulated explosion of charter schools in the district.  Before he became California’s governor and, when he was mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown himself founded two charter schools in the city.

No account of Oakland’s financial troubles so clearly exposes the fiscal damage wrought by the out-of-control expansion of charter schools in Oakland as Gordon Lafer’s Breaking Point report for In the Public Interest: “In a first-of-its kind analysis, this report reveals that neighborhood public school students in three California school districts are bearing the cost of the unchecked expansion of privately managed charter schools. In 2016-17, charter schools cost the Oakland Unified School district $57.3 million…. The California Charter School Act currently doesn’t allow school boards to consider how a proposed charter school may impact a district’s educational programs or fiscal health when weighing new charter applications. However, when a student leaves a neighborhood school for a charter school, all the funding for that student leaves with them, while the costs do not.”

In Oakland, charter school expansion and other factors have gone so far as to drain the enrollment in several public schools. By now, policymakers very likely imagine that it is easier to close the schools than to figure out a way to build back enrollment in the neighborhood schools in the poorest part of the city.  As in Chicago in 2013, when the school district closed 50 schools in primarily African American neighborhoods, schools being closed are identified as under-enrolled, and school closures are seen the right solution for a mathematical problem.

But in Chicago, when the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research studied what happened after the school closures, here is what the researchers discovered: “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.” “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning.”

Oakland residents and educators are pushing back against the school district’s decision to close public schools in African American neighborhoods. The Schott Foundation compares what is happening right now in Oakland to what happened in Chicago: “The struggle against school closures in Oakland is part of a nationwide tapestry of community movements that have resisted privatization budget cuts, and built community schools in their place. Oakland’s most compelling analog would likely be the 2015 fight to save Dyett High School in Chicago. Dyett was the last open-enrollment public school in Chicago’s historically Black neighborhood of Bronzeville… In addition to an overwhelming response from the community, parents undertook what would become a 34-day hunger strike, which ended with the announcement of Dyett’s reopening.”

In the conclusion of Ghosts in the Schoolyard, her powerful 2018 book that explores the meaning of Chicago’s 2013 school closures for the neighborhoods those schools had served, University of Chicago sociologist, Eve Ewing suggests that policymakers consider deeper human questions when they set out to right-size a school district in the midst of a long financial crisis: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closures 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… 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, p.159)