Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSource
Oakland Unified teachers crowded the street in front of MetWest High School near La Escuelita Elementary School on Feb. 27, where the school board meeting was scheduled to take place.

In a recent presentation to a task force convened at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request to recommend reforms of California’s charter school laws, officials from Oakland Unified, led by board president Aimee Eng, alleged that rising charter enrollment has caused layoffs and reductions in essential services for district students.

Headshot of Robin Lake

Robin Lake

However, the district’s own data and independent financial audits tell a different story. This is a critical question to get right and the stakes are high for students most in need of strong public schools.

Here are some inconvenient truths from Oakland Unified’s own history and data:

Oakland’s financial troubles are rooted in practices in place before charter schools existed. Oakland’s financial crisis surged to prominence in 2003, when district officials requested the largest public school bailout in California history. The cause: overspending and an “antiquated” bookkeeping system that let financial problems quietly escalate. An emergency $100 million loan kept the district out of bankruptcy and a state appointed administrator assumed control. Charter schools had only recently entered the public lexicon and roughly 2,600 Oakland students (out of more than 52,000 students in the district) attended a charter school.

headshot of Ashley Jochim

Ashley Jochim

Mismanagement continued well past state intervention. Six years after the state stepped in, Oakland Unified emerged from receivership not much better off, with $89 million in debt and an $18 million budget gap. As one school board member said on the eve of the return to local control, “We’re creeping back to a very dangerous financial situation. We are going to be right up against the edge of a cliff.”

That was 10 years ago. Where do things stand today? Not much better. In May 2018, California’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) reported Oakland Unified’s “highly unusual” accounting hid budget problems and hindered “an honest and open assessment of the district’s current financial condition.” The news came as the district faced escalating projected shortfalls, rising to $60 million by 2020, despite years of cuts. The cause: unsustainable spending.

None of this was surprising though. For more than a decade, the Alameda County Office of Education has not been able to certify that the district can meet its financial obligations and the growing stack of financial audits hasn’t changed that basic fact. As of March 2019, the district met only one of 23 of its own recommendations in its Fiscal Vitality Plan.

All of this is true despite growing revenues. The district serves 15,000 fewer students today than it did when it entered fiscal distress in 2002, yet its budget is 28 percent larger. On a per-student basis, the district has more money than it had before charter schools came along.

What has changed, if not less money? The district now spends more money, proportionately, on central office and other non-instructional costs. The costs of state pensions, health care and negotiated labor agreements, special education and English learners have all risen dramatically, but the state funding formula does not fully account for these costs.

Enrollment shifts to charter schools have exacerbated the district’s fiscal challenges but, according to FCMAT, are just one of many factors. Oakland has lost kids to surrounding districts and private schools for decades. Recently, district enrollment has actually been stable despite charter growth. What charter schools have done is expand public school options for low-income families and rigorous studies show students are learning more as a result.

In a recent commentary, Oakland Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell wrote that it is the district’s responsibility to reduce costs and it is the state’s responsibility to fully fund education, including for students with special needs. She didn’t mention charter schools.

Given these facts, any attempt to pin Oakland’s financial troubles on charter schools is either misinformed or politically motivated. Charter schools did not cause Oakland’s problems and preventing more students from choosing charter schools will not fix them.

Our center, based at the University of Washington, has suggested paths forward for cities like Oakland and has urged charter schools to help find a solution. A joint state, district and charter agreement could help the district thrive as it addresses longstanding financial challenges.

Charter schools and the state might, for example, pay into a debt reduction fund if the district made strides reducing costs and increasing financial transparency. Charter schools could also collaborate with the district to project their need for space in school facilities in a way that eases budgetary headaches for both sectors.

There are ways to ensure that district and charter schools can flourish together, both academically and financially. This will require new investments from the state and a commitment by both sectors to recognize their shared interests. But that can’t happen if board members continue to peddle misinformation and the state continues to buy it.

•••

Robin Lake is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell. Ashley Jochim is a senior research analyst at the center.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the authors. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. SD Parent 4 months ago4 months ago

    The facts in this report are not surprising. School districts in San Diego County are having the same problems with budgeting irregularities and concern over possible fraud (e.g. Sweetwater Union High School District and San Ysidro Elementary School District), and districts across the state are feeling the impacts of the increased pension costs. What's most astounding are the attacks on this article, the authors, and EdSource by folks who don't want to believe … Read More

    The facts in this report are not surprising. School districts in San Diego County are having the same problems with budgeting irregularities and concern over possible fraud (e.g. Sweetwater Union High School District and San Ysidro Elementary School District), and districts across the state are feeling the impacts of the increased pension costs.
    What’s most astounding are the attacks on this article, the authors, and EdSource by folks who don’t want to believe facts contrary to their personal opinions. It reminds me of the actions of a certain person in the White House…

  2. Dk 4 months ago4 months ago

    Thanks for the info. I now know that EdSource is happy to publish hack jobs from charter school flacks.

    Replies

    • CarolineSF 4 months ago4 months ago

      It’s legit to publish opinion commentaries. It’s (spectacularly) not legit to misrepresent advocacy as scholarly research and opinion commentaries as news reports.

  3. CarolineSF 4 months ago4 months ago

    Also, this headline (the deck) is misleading:

    *Charter schools did not cause Oakland’s problems and preventing more students from choosing charter schools will not fix them, researchers say.*

    These co-authors are professional charter school advocates, paid to promote charter schools. “Researchers” implies scholarly impartiality. And this is an opinion piece, not a news report on “research” as the headline implies. Misleading readers hurts credibility.

  4. Jim Mordecai 4 months ago4 months ago

    Center for Reinventing Public Education is misnamed. It should be the Center for Privatizing Public Education. Both members of the Center's privatizing public education Washington State think tank, author Ashley Jochim, and the Center's head Robin Lake, promote and defend charter schools. Ms. Jochim got it correct that charter schools are one, but not the only factor, that is a drain on the Oakland Public School budget. Ms. Jockim research was … Read More

    Center for Reinventing Public Education is misnamed. It should be the Center for Privatizing Public Education. Both members of the Center’s privatizing public education Washington State think tank, author Ashley Jochim, and the Center’s head Robin Lake, promote and defend charter schools. Ms. Jochim got it correct that charter schools are one, but not the only factor, that is a drain on the Oakland Public School budget.

    Ms. Jockim research was incomplete on the debt of the Oakland Public School District implying that the debt was $100,000,000. The 100 million was the credit line that was mismanaged that the Oakland School Board is still paying back when at most $40 million, not $100 million was needed.

    In addition, the Eli Broad Institute trained State Administrator Randy Ward started with one charter school and made a motion and second his motion to covert two elementary schools with thousands of students to charter school status. And, the State Administrator (Dictator) put his Assistant Superintendent on leave to become administrator of the two charter schools he just signed over to charter school status. Ironic that converting two schools to charter school status it took signatures of 50% plus 1 of the permanent facility. But, that action met that the parents didn’t have a choice or a vote. The decision was between the teachers at the school and their administrators that worked for a State Administrator Randy Ward that wanted his administrators to achieve the 50% of teacher signatures. The building came with the conversion to charter school status and this was a loss to the District that the author/researcher Ms. Jochim didn’t cover. Nor did she cover the loss of control over District property with Prop 39 co-locations.

  5. CarolineSF 4 months ago4 months ago

    Oakland has been warmly welcoming to charters and other education "reform" policies for the entire history of those policies. So the fact that OUSD continues to have significant problems should cause the charter/"reform" sector to seriously reconsider the effectiveness and impact of their favored policies – assuming that those in the charter/"reform" sector are sincerely concerned about what's effective in education and about the best interests and well-being of children and schools. Read More

    Oakland has been warmly welcoming to charters and other education “reform” policies for the entire history of those policies. So the fact that OUSD continues to have significant problems should cause the charter/”reform” sector to seriously reconsider the effectiveness and impact of their favored policies – assuming that those in the charter/”reform” sector are sincerely concerned about what’s effective in education and about the best interests and well-being of children and schools.