Charter schools are not to blame for OUSD school closures

Hana Thomas, Editor

Why are Oakland schools closing?  The technical answer, as reported by the OUSD School Board is that Oakland Unified School District does not have the funds to adequately support the number of schools that it has open.  Many opponents of the closures would blame the closures on a long history of charter school openings and citywide gentrification.  While OUSD enrollment has declined, charter school enrollment has overall increased.

What is a charter school?  It is a term that is often used during debates regarding public education, especially in Oakland.  A charter school is a public school that receives government funding, but is independently operated or managed.  Many would argue that because the schools are not managed by a publicly elected board, they are not “public.”  Others would argue that these schools are public because they are required to comply with California Education Code and funded through public dollars.

For example, Latitude 37.8 High School is a charter school that is managed by Education for Change, which operates six different charter schools in Oakland.  EFC (Education for Change) was originally founded in 2005 as a charter operator in partnership with OUSD.  Their mission was to redesign district elementary schools that were underperforming and support them in achieving better outcomes for their students.  

The organization was established around the same time that the small schools movement started.  The small schools movement originated in the 2000s with the idea that smaller schools (400 students or fewer) would offer a feeling of community and connection and facilitate better academic outcomes, with a bigger focus on individualized learning.  Schools like ASCEND, MetWest High School, and Think College Now were all founded during the small schools movement.  

But what does this have to do with school closures?  Oakland schools are being closed because there are too many of them.  What does that mean?  Because there are some expenses schools have to incur no matter the size (administration, custodian, utilities, etc) and because student enrollment drives revenues, a school that is small in size doesn’t generate enough revenue to afford the expenses.  Students are leaving the district, and the number of open schools is simply unnecessary.  OUSD has lost around 20,000 students since 2000, and it’s not just because of charter schools.  The data comparing OUSD declines and charter school increases doesn’t correlate.  

Students and families are leaving Oakland.  Not just that, they are leaving California.  As housing prices climb, many families are being pushed out.  About two decades ago, OUSD moved towards a system of choice, where Oakland families are able to choose a different school than their neighborhood school.  Many Oakland students attend a school outside of their neighborhood, both district and charter.  Many Oakland students also choose private schools, but for those who cannot afford these options, charter schools offer better outcomes and potentially more convenience for families.  

What I have come to understand is that OUSD’s financial challenges are complicated, and it’s probably fair to question whether closing schools is the way to address them.  I understand closing schools is really hard on families and students in those schools.  

However, it’s definitely not as simple as the charter schools are to blame for OUSD’s financial woes.  With gentrification and demographic shifts, citywide choice, serious school quality issues, and all the internal challenges OUSD has, there are many other factors to consider.