Charter schools are not to blame for Oakland Unified’s financial woes

Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSourceOakland Unified teachers and their supporters formed a picket line surrounding La Escuelita Elementary School on Feb. 27, preventing a school board meeting from taking place.Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSourceOakland Unified teachers and their supporters formed a picket line surrounding La Escuelita Elementary School on Feb. 27, preventing a school board meeting from taking place.Eric PremackFebruary 28, 2019In his report on the Oakland teachers’ labor dispute, the chair of the fact-finding panel asserts that shortcomings in the state’s education funding formulas make it difficult to resolve the dispute (now a full-on strike).
Eric PremackNajeeb Khoury channels arguments used by anti-charter activists, claiming that the “current system creates an unlevel playing field for traditional public schools and undermines those districts serving the very same disadvantaged children that charter advocates seek to aid.” A recent EdSource article extensively cites the report.
Actual facts paint a very different picture.
The fact-finding report first alleges that charter schools are enrolling so many low-income, high-need students that they reduce the concentration of such students in the Oakland Unified School District schools. Since the state’s funding formulas provide substantial extra funding to districts serving high concentrations (in excess of 55 percent) of such students, charter schools allegedly reduce the district’s funding at an “alarming rate” according to the report.
Let’s look at the actual facts. The California Department of Education’s 2017-18 data (the most recent data posted) show that charter schools in Oakland serve slightly lower proportions of low-income, high needs students than the district (77 versus 78 percent). Thus, Oakland’s charter schools actually slightly increase the proportion of high-needs students in the district along with the corresponding concentration-related funding the district receives under the state’s funding formulas.
It’s also worth noting that state funding formulas cap the amount of concentration-driven funding that charter schools may receive based on the lower of (1) a charter school’s own concentration of high-need students or (2) the district’s concentration. This is one of several significant ways in which state funding formulas ensure the playing field is tilted against charter schools, not in their favor.
The fact-finding report also alleges that charter schools saddle districts with so-called “legacy” costs, but offers no actual facts regarding such costs. The EdSource article and others have cited facilities maintenance, administrative overhead and pension costs as examples of legacy costs.
The fact-finding report did not mention that voters in Oakland have approved over $900 million dollars of school facilities bonds in recent years and that charter schools have no corresponding authority to tax property owners to pay for such bonds — again tilting the table in favor of the district and against charter schools.
While the Education Code requires school districts to share their facilities with charter schools on a “rent free” basis (plus maintenance costs), Oakland Unified has often flagrantly ignored these laws such that most of the charter schools in the district must obtain their own facilities, notwithstanding the many vacant classrooms throughout the district. The charter schools that do occupy district-owned facilities generally pay a pro-rata share of facilities maintenance, utilities and custodial/janitorial costs. These costs are levied based on Oakland Unified’s own computations.
It is also worth noting that most Oakland charter schools also participate in CalSTRS (the state teachers retirement system) and they pay exactly the same rates (currently a staggering 16 percent of payroll and set to increase to over 18 percent).
It is also incorrect to deem administrative costs to be “legacy costs.” By definition, “legacy costs” are those costs stemming from prior decisions that cannot be reduced today. Irresponsibly-high administrative costs hardly meet this definition and are instead a result of dysfunctional leadership. Instead of seeking to blame charter schools for false “legacy” costs, fact-finders should pin the blame where it belongs; on Oakland Unified’s dysfunctional board and administrative staff.
This dysfunction long predates the emergence of charter schools, continues today and is well-documented in the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team’s 2017 report finding that “leadership breakdown at the governing board and superintendent levels, including the board’s inadequate attention to signs of fiscal distress” are the actual root cause of Oakland Unified’s financial troubles.
Facts matter. If fact-finders and public education advocates really want to increase funding for teachers and improve outcomes for students, they’re going to have to stop scapegoating charter schools and begin to honestly identify the real issues plaguing California’s school districts.
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Eric Premack is executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center, which provides leadership development, advocacy and technical assistance on charter school issues.
The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. 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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