Oakland charter school battle rages

Nov 22, 2013 by

Jill Tucker – Oakland is the charter school capital of California. And that might be a problem.

This year, more than a quarter of the city’s 49,000 students are attending one of its nearly 40 alternative public schools, far more per capita than anywhere else in the state.

There is a military charter school, an arts charter, a Montessori charter, one created for American Indians that doesn’t serve any, one for singers and a few dozen centered on sending students to college.

Depending on who’s talking, they’re filling the demands of parents for educational options or devastating an already cash-strapped school district.

In reality, both are true. And that reality is setting up a battle between those wanting to open up even more charters and local critics, first among them school board member Jody London, who say the city doesn’t need and can’t support any more charters.

The high number of charters has left Oakland Unified School District struggling financially to serve the students whose families don’t choose charters. And a disproportionate number of those students are at-risk or disabled and, therefore, more expensive to educate, London said.

Enough is enough

With five more charter applications in front of the school board this fall, London said she has had enough.

Supporters of charter schools are “looking out for their families, for their kids,” she said. But that support doesn’t necessarily extend to the neighbors’ children, perhaps a child with severe disabilities or one most at risk of failing.

“At some point, we have a collective responsibility in this society, in this community to look out for each other,” she added.

Last month, she vowed to vote against any new charters.

Technically, her position is illegal.

By law, school board members can’t vote against a prospective charter based on a negative financial impact to the district. And while other school board members agree with her in theory, they said they feel compelled to comply with the law.

Greater independence

Charter schools, part of California’s public school system for the past 20 years, operate mostly free from the academic, staffing and other restrictions outlined in the state’s Education Code. That flexibility means charter schools, for the most part, can teach what they want how they want. And because few charters are unionized, administrators can more easily hire and fire teachers.

In Oakland, the number of charter schools has surged over the past 10 years – from 14 in 2002 to 38 this year – with 20 charters opening from 2003 to 2009, when the state took over the district after a financial bailout. In Oakland, there are 13,000 students in the more than three dozen charters and an additional 2,500 kids on waiting lists.

More than $75 million in annual state funding has followed city students to the charter schools, a large chunk given that the district’s annual general fund budget is about $400 million.

San Francisco, by comparison, has nearly 58,000 students and 12 charter schools serving about 3,500 students. Across California, 519,000 students are enrolled in 1,130 charter schools.

More in the pipeline

Back in Oakland, parents and charter operators want to open five more of the alternative schools next year.

“As long as there is demand, it’s incumbent on charter schools to fill that demand,” said Ricardo Soto, senior vice president of the California Charter Schools Association. “If you look at the purposes of the charter school act, it was to improve pupil learning and provide vigorous competition with the public school system.”

While state law has restricted the growth of charter schools statewide, with a current maximum of 1,650 schools, there is no limit at the local level.

District officials in Oakland point out that efforts to absorb the financial loss of students to charter schools have been difficult. The enrollment loss is spread across the city’s 90 traditional schools, meaning it’s difficult to cut staff or programs at any one school.

via Oakland charter school battle rages – SFGate.

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