Oakland's charter public schools -- delivering results with less

August 8, 2017

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Reposted from an article in Medium.

By Dirk Tillotson

Opponents of charter public schools like to characterize them as wealthy schools funded by billionaires. But in reality, many of Oakland's charter public schools are delivering results for their students with far fewer resources.

A recent report -- Informing Equity: Student Need, Spending, and Resource Use in Oakland's Public Schools -- by Education Resource Strategies reveals a significant gap in per student spending between Oakland's public charter and district-run schools. Charter public schools in Oakland spend $8,972 per student while district-run public schools spend $11,760 per student -- a $2,788 per student difference. The difference drops to $1,402 per student when adjusted for higher levels of student need, including special education, socioeconomic disadvantages and English language learners but it still leaves district-run schools with 14 percent more resources available to their students.

The inequitable distribution of resources for per student spending looks even worse after a deeper analysis of how those resources are actually spent. Oakland's charter public schools spend a median amount of $651 per student on rental costs for school facilities -- a cost that district-run schools do not have to account for. Several charter public schools spend between $1,000 and $2,000 per student on rent. Imagine if high-performing charter public schools -- like the seven Aspire schools in Oakland, all of which spend more than the median on rent -- were able to direct those resources instead towards student learning?

To me, this is the "privatization" debate we need to have. Public resources that should go to public school students are being sucked up by private landlords, while public school space in district classrooms sit empty.

It's not just per student spending where inequities exist, Oakland charter public schools are also on the short-end when it comes to per student revenues. A study -- Charter School Funding: Inequity in the City -- by the University of Arkansas reviewed all sources of revenues, including federal, state, local and non-public resources, and found that charter public schools in Oakland received 40 percent less funding than Oakland's district-run public schools -- a gap of $7,173 per student.

Part of the reason for the inequitable distribution of resources is California's Local Control Funding (LCFF) cap on charter public schools that serve a large proportion of high-need students, defined as students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, English language learners and those in foster homes. In Oakland the 23 charter public schools which serve a larger proportion of high-need students than the OUSD average of 78 percent do not receive extra funding for those additional students. According to the ESR report, the LCFF cap denies those charter public schools $4.3 million -- or $380 per student -- in funding.

Despite the inequitable funding and spending levels, many of Oakland's charter public schools are delivering results for their students -- and doing so while serving a similar proportion of students from disadvantaged and underserved communities as Oakland's district-run schools.

Four-year graduation rates in Oakland charter public schools are higher than in district-run public schools, by 87 percent to 76 percent, according to the 2016 Oakland Achieves Report. That dynamic remains true among groups of student who face challenging circumstances. 81 percent of English language learners graduate within four years from charter public schools compared to 64 percent at district-run public schools. Among student receiving free or reduced-price school lunch, the graduation rate is 87 percent at charter public schools and 75 percent at district-run public schools.

As I have argued before we need to dig deeper into these numbers to really understand their meaning. But on the face of it, charters are delivering some impressive results.

It's easy to stereotype charter schools as wealthy, billionaire-funded schools. But that type of tired rhetoric is betrayed by the facts in Oakland. Oakland's charter public schools are in need of funding just like Oakland's district-run public schools -- often times more so. Instead of dividing the public school community, maybe our time is better spent working together towards fair and equitable funding for all of our city's public school students?

Dirk Tillotson is the Interim Executive Director at Oakland Families for Quality Schools.