California Public School Crisis

The basic blueprint

Against all odds, students in California’s poorest neighborhoods shine brightly in public schools, but when lobby-controlled school boards close their schools, they are forced to fight for an education.

This should be a story about these students, their teachers and families. They are speaking out and doing everything they can to keep their schools open. But the students have no leverage: they don’t have a lot of money and they are not white. So the school board ignores them. And regular citizens don’t hear the students either. They don’t feel the urgency, even though it’s their own hard-earned taxpayer money getting funneled into private investment portfolios.

Students from ROOTS International Academy

I could say, “Imagine it’s your kid that suddenly has to find a new school.” or “These kids are just like you were when you were in high school. They just want experiences, opportunities, relationships and a safe place to be teenagers.“ and then I’d say, “Remember when you were in high school?” and then you’d say, “I’d rather not.” Which is understandable. For those of us who had the privilege of school, it is was a dreaded delight to really just hate it to death.

The ROOTS International Academy community.

So this doesn’t really have anything to do with these students, as much as it cuts to admit this. Thanks to racism, classism and political shell games, this isn’t about the students, the awkward geniuses, who usually but not always bloom where they’re planted. It should be about them because they are the real protagonists, the heroes of the story.

This story is a showdown between the charter school lobbyists and the teacher’s unions. The charter school lobby has been systematically taking over public schools in California for over two decades.

Here’s how it works. In order to convert public schools into investment packages, the charter school industry targets a vulnerable region, called a “portfolio district”, where they gain political influence over the school board. Starting with the poorest neighborhoods, they destabilize existing public schools, force school shut-downs, install charter schools and deliver financial returns to investors. That’s the basic blueprint.

The “portfolio district” blueprint being played out in Oakland

The Oakland Unified School District board members receive massive campaign funds from both the teacher unions and the charter school lobby. Basically, the unions want teachers to get paid and the lobby wants to convert public schools into investment packages. The charters disproportionately target neighborhoods where students have to contend with living in high-stress, violent environments with everyday threats like child trafficking and homelessness. On June 27th, 2018, the OUSD board passed “The Community of Schools Policy,” which will close as many as 24 public schools in the next 5 years. All closures affect East Oakland and West Oakland schools that serve poc and low-income communities, in the area known as the “flatlands”. All schools located in the hills, that serve financially stable communities and that have more white students are safe from the shut-down.

The deciding factor in school closures seems to be the neighborhood’s lack of financial and political leverage. It has nothing to do with the quality of the school. Even good schools get shut down with no consideration for the school’s deeply ingrained, positive impact on the community. For example, this month (January 2019) the OUSD board voted to close ROOTS International Academy, a thriving school in East Oakland. The board was unmoved by the outpouring of heartfelt support from family, teachers and students at the OUSD board meeting.

Student speaking at the OUSD board meeting to keep ROOTS Academy open. Photo by Ken Epstein.

Direct accounting vs the runaround

The OUSD runs $30 million over budget. The reasons for this shortfall include loss of revenue to charter schools, mismanagement by the OUSD administration and borrowing hundreds of millions from the state that they struggle to pay back. The Alameda County Office of Education and the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) have swooped in many times, advising the OUSD to shut down more schools, lay off more teachers and take out state loans.

However, research has shown that closing schools and laying off faculty loses money by cutting off the primary source of revenue, student enrollment funds. It is also well-documented that shutting down replacing public schools with charters almost always costs more. For example, a recent UC Berkeley study states that is “a high-risk/low-gain strategy that fails to hold promise with respect to either student achievement or non-cognitive well-being.”

Teachers, parents and community advocates are asking for more practical steps to reaching solvency: their solutions all amount to more transparency. And right now is the time to make this happen. The California Legislature recently passed the Education Trailer Bill, which offers the OUSD district a grant of $34.7 million to be doled out over the next three years, but they can only receive this funding if they cut $30 million in their annual budget.

Public school advocates want to balance the budget by going to the source of the problem, basic accounting. Proposed solutions include hiring a Chief Financial Officer to establish financial accountability, to shine a light on how funds are being mismanaged and to create a strategy to reduce expensive consultancies and bloated admin salaries.

Parents were dumbfounded by the sudden push to close ROOTS International Academy. They found out via a robocall in December 2018 and less than a month later, the board voted to shut down their kids’ school. The OUSD continues to willfully lose student enrollment funds by closing schools, while making the claim that it is to “save money”. This sounds like gas lighting, the parasitic kryptonite that leeches off of earnest endeavors. Parents just want to know what’s really going on. They want to know if the board and other public organizations are being influenced by the charter school lobby, including GO Pub­lic School, Educate78, New Schools Venture Fund and the California Charter School As­sociation.

The difference between individual charter schools and the charter school industry

Charter schools have devoted supporters. And every charter school is unique. I used to work at two excellent charter schools in the Bay Area. Many students, teachers and parents have found charters to provide a unique home for academic success. Parents who are frustrated with public schools should have the option to move their kids to a school that offers what they need.

Like regular public schools, charter schools are tuition-free public schools that receive public funds based on enrollment and attendance. The only difference is in the charter, or contract, that spells out the way they operate based on a unique vision and alternative approach to educational success.

The problem is that the financial industry found a way to prey on this unique arrangement. The private charter industry pays off school board members in their hunt for student enrollment money. When this happens, the school board board no longer acts as an impartial servant for student academic success. The board becomes a puppet for a strategic takeover by increasing school closures without consideration for its traumatizing impact on underserved and poc children. The objective of the “district portfolio” blueprint is to privatize education by converting all public schools into investment portfolio products.

The charter school lobby argues that public schools have gotten complacent and don’t provide a good education. Their thinking supports privatization of public services in general: open market competition “naturally” breeds excellence and provides consumers with more options.

Teacher’s unions claim that the effects of charter school industry strategies, such as destabilizing existing public schools and selectively recruiting high performing students, are a drain on enrollment dollars and this financial blow drastically cuts into resources for underserved and poc public school students. The teacher’s unions want a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools.

A temporary moratorium on the "portfolio district" blueprint in Los Angeles

This week, on January 29, the LAUSD board declared a temporary hiatus on the formation of new charter schools in order to take a step back and analyze charter school impact. A comprehensive study by the California Department of Education is expected to be published late 2019 and will examine the more than two decades of charter school growth in California, the state with the most charter schools in the country.

LAUSD board
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The LAUSD board doesn’t actually have the power to suspend new charter schools; this is something the California Legislature would likely have to approve. The LAUSD board’s action is more of a “please help us” signal to Sacramento, where a statewide cap on charter schools has been talked about. The OUSD board piggy-backed on to the LAUSD’s plea, letting Sacramento know that they want to be included in a statewide cap, if it happens.

Newly elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond, has promised a pause on charter school expansion. Governor Gavin Newsom is more vague, supporting investigations into conflicts of interest and more transparency in the charter school industry, however he hasn’t spoken out about a moratorium.

California Governor, Gavin Newsom, with State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond.

Like the OUSD board, most of the LAUSD board members have received large payments from the charter lobby, so this “temporary moratorium” on new charters may be a way to appear temporarily unbiased. The charter school lobby has proven to be excellent at their long game, finding ways to diffuse any obvious correlation between the lobby’s campaign donations and pro-charter bias on school boards across California.