Are our Oakland charter schools another version of public schools or are they private schools running on public money?
A couple recent news reports show that our charters are less public than they could be and more private than they should be.
A reporter from Los Angeles recently wrote about our Oakland schools and our charters asking if our local charter school movement plans to take over half the local students the same way the sister charter movement in Los Angeles does. The locals are not talking and the Greater [?] Public Schools in Los Angeles are double talking, at least according to this article.
A brief article in the East Bay Times tells us why our local grand jury declared our oversight of our local charter schools to be insufficient under the scope [?] of the law and also wonders what ratio of public to charter schools is intended and rightly asks if anyone has any plans for determining it.
In both cases we are bumping into the big question of “Who owns the charter schools?”
If they are special public schools, on a special mission with some local freedom to run themselves differently, then WE OWN THOSE SCHOOLS. Public ownership would make sense, because we citizen taxpayers do certainly pay for those schools. Every day teachers take attendance that, in turn, calculates the number of taxpayer dollars that will go to each school. This calculation works the same for a charter as it does for a normal public school.
The bottom line is that we the public own a bunch of charter schools, serving a quarter of our local enrolled students, and if the grand jury report is to be believed, we have almost no control over these schools. The little bit of supervision we are supposed to provide, is not happening.
The Alameda County Grand Jury report is well worth reading. It covers a few vital aspects of public government not being what they should. The section about Oakland Unified School District and Charter Schools starts on page 85.
The report points out that the charter schools were set up to provide space for school districts to try different ideas or provide a special program, but with the passage of time have evolved into schools that are just trying to be better than the district’s non-charter schools. So how is this different from a voucher? If these charters are not accountable to anyone except their own owners or nonprofit boards, then in what way are they public schools? If your student is being treated unfairly by your local charter school, whom do you appeal to for help?
The situation is, of course, not so simply described. Some charters work closer with the district than others, whereas some are more private than others. The OUSD has the legal responsibility to watch over the fiscal operations of the schools and should be inspecting them and participating in their board meetings. The office in the OUSD with this job is half staffed.
Both the article and the report touch on the role of outside organizations with goals of moving a significant number of our students into the charter, semi-private, model. Moreover, both the LA article and the grand jury report point out that if privatization is going to be the model, or a significant part of it, there are problems with the current management structure and burden sharing.
And there remains the whole business of enrollment. In theory, charters must accept students who enroll on a choice/lottery basis and not charge them tuition. In practice this is basically true, but the charters have their own enrollment processes. The big difference between the OUSD managed schools and the various types of charter schools is that the OUSD must accept every last student who comes to the door. This is historically what being a genuinely free, tax-supported, public school system is all about.
There may be a way to make the existing charter schools more like the charter schools we were initially promised. Part of that way would be to have both kinds of school be held to the same standards and held accountable in the same way. The other way charter schools could be truly public would be in taking their full part of the community commitment to serve each and every last student.