Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education

Does Oakland Have Too Many Schools?

We are hearing this question more and more as OUSD gears up for budget cuts and likely consolidations of schools (combining multiple schools on the same campus into one school such as Manzanita SEED and Manzanita Community School).

Here we post a potent analysis of this question by an OUSD parent, Jane Nylund.

Does Oakland Have Too Many Schools?

By Jane Nylund, OUSD parent

I read with interest the recent blog from Educate78 addressing the issue of number of schools in Oakland, along with the issues of enrollment.  I think it is important for those who use blogs like this as their only information source to read between the lines and understand the context of what they are being told. To ask not only what is said and reported, but also what is not said and not reported.  Facts should only be treated as such when the context for these facts is also provided.

So, here is the text at the very end of the blog, most of which I agree with. (Quality levels? What does that mean? Like buying a car? Add-on features? Rust-proofing?)
Does Oakland have too many schools” over-simplifies the challenge. Instead, we need to ask what mix of schools (of varying sizes and models) do we need as a city to serve all our students well? What types of school, at what quality levels, will ensure full enrollment at the schools we do have (whatever the size)? What trade-offs will we need to make to operate a mix of excellent schools AND be financially viable as a system? And what will we do together to make this new approach a reality?
However, the author instead chooses to make the predetermined outcome that Oakland has too many schools. This hypothesis is front and center of the entire argument. It comes complete with this handy graphic:
OUSD looks pretty bad there, doesn’t it, just a line of pure, green evil. It appears to have boatloads of schools compared to everyone else. And, now the fun begins. Let’s look at this a different way:
OUSD School Numbers
Looks a lot different, doesn’t it? And why not include our close neighbor, San Francisco Unified? And what about that big gap between those two lines? Sure, OUSD appears to be on the high side, and, what does this mean exactly?
The point is, why are we even comparing our district to these other districts in the first place? Only by size? What about school mix, age, demographics, poverty levels, ELL, population trends, physical area/layout of the city, local economic trends?  “Getting to median”? Is this an admirable goal that will help children succeed?  The question one should be asking is, what is the optimal number of schools that Oakland needs, given it’s unique physical layout and diversity?  Do we want to copy other districts just because of size, or do what’s optimal for our own needs (as the author suggests, much later in the blog)? There are so many other variables unique to our district, as well as the other districts, that I would argue that district size alone is the least important variable. And yet, one gets the impression that somehow this comparison should drive decisions to close and consolidate schools. The author even tacitly implies that we should close 30 schools? So that OUSD would fit nice and neat along that graph?
So, even if we were to look at only comparable-sized districts (which we shouldn’t), why were those districts chosen? The author included high school districts when making the comparison, which doesn’t make sense. High school districts have fewer schools, which skews ALL the data towards fewer schools. One should only be comparing unified districts.  In addition, the chart doesn’t show which year this data is from. For 2015-16, I have 86 district schools, not 93.
In addition, the author uses OUSD’s current 37K (approx) enrollment as a starting point to compare. This enrollment figure of 37K is essentially artificially created by
the sheer number of charters that have been opened. In other words, none of the comparison districts were normalized for the number of charters that they have. The problem with this sort of information, is that, in order to remain “agnostic” about charter schools, Educate78 ignores their impact on the budget and enrollment. My chart shows how the enrollment is impacted, and one of my biggest problems with all of this is that those same organizations who “incubate quality schools” turn around and say that we have too many. You can’t have it both ways.
There is some information in the blog regarding having a smaller budget now than 10 years ago, along with declining enrollment. Ten years ago, the budget was around $540M. Last year, it was $790M. Where’s the decline? Read more about historical OUSD budgets here.
Enrollment is not declining. Total enrollment is on the upswing, and seems to be following an economic cycle,similar to what is happening at San Francisco Unified. What’s declining is the share of district students as more charters open. This “decline” is mentioned so often that it conjures up children fleeing Oakland in droves, and therefore we must close a whole bunch of schools. In my opinion, that’s not an accurate picture of what’s happening.
From the blog:
Small schools can be more expensive to operate than large schools
True. But, the question begs, why are some of our district schools small? The blog mentions many reasons, all of which I agree with, but a couple more important reasons are left out of the discussion.  What isn’t mentioned is some schools are small because they have been co-located with a charter, and can’t expand. The other is that their feeder schools have been shut down by the district. Westlake Middle is a perfect example.
Small schools can be financially viable, even at relatively low California per pupil funding levels
Encoded in this blog paragraph is that it is the fault of the teacher’s unions (“labor contracts”) for not being flexible enough to teach more hours/subjects in a downsized traditional public school. The author does acknowledge that expecting teachers to handle multiple courses, and using part-time staff is far from ideal. However, the business side of Educate78 would believe that somehow, these downsized schools should be happy to require their credentialed, experienced teachers to work longer hours and more subjects for the same pay. After all, that’s what charters do. But the teachers don’t stay long at charters, do they? And we all know that teacher churn is really bad to have at a school, from the student point of view. Students, particularly in a high-needs area, don’t do well when teachers are burned through constantly. It’s a terrible model, and not one that the district should aspire to have. But, from a business point of view, teacher churn is cheaper and a lot of charters embrace this model. But is it about the kids, or is it just business?
Finally, I just can’t help but get a sense that what this blog is saying is that if you’re a small district school, you need to be dealt with, but if you are a small charter school, that’s okay. Maybe I’m just letting my imagination run wild. Currently, approximately half of Oakland’s charters have less than 300 students enrolled.
At the end of the day, the district is going to have to tighten its belt, and given its past inability to do so, I am not terribly hopeful that things will change much. But, going forward, it would be really refreshing for ed groups in Oakland to be honest about their grand plan. If your group is planning on opening more charters, please don’t tell us in a blog that we have too many schools. That just makes my head hurt. Okay, I’m done, have a nice day, and remember, raise your hand if you like your school. If you do, that’s really what matters, isn’t it?

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This entry was posted on October 23, 2017 by in Uncategorized.
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