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The Alameda County Grand Jury released a report on charters in OUSD this week which will have some fodder for pro and anti-charter groups.  And while there were some insights, at times the analysis was insufficiently nuanced and at others it seemed to misunderstand the context or the law.  Some of the more simplistic analysis probably will lead to misleading headlines that may not reflect reality.

For instance, the East Bay Times’ article was titled, “Grand Jury Report:Better Management Needed of Oakland’s Charter Schools.”  It focussed on some questionable test score analysis (see below), and wanting OUSD to “manage” charters more, which is not the role of the authorizer under California law.  The data and testimony is a good starting point, but the Grand Jury’s analysis was not sufficiently grounded in law or context.

Validly studying school performance or charter school performance requires understanding and nuance.  Sadly, student background characteristics have larger effects on achievement than schools tend to, so any comparison of schools really needs to look at growth and achievement of similar students or that in demographically similar schools, this nuance is missing in the report.  And the State Charter Association sent some additional data that seems to challenge the report’s findings around student performance.

So let’s take a look at some of the findings, recommendations and critiques.

Test score comparisons

The anti-charter headlines will likely focus on the academic comparison, which is written a little strangely and leaves maybe a worse impression than it should.  I am copying the original here, and the BOLD type is my insertions.

Using the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress Test Results for English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics for 2015, the Grand Jury determined that of the 37 Oakland charter schools that participated, 17 scored below the blended average of all Oakland unified public schools (with 20 scoring at or above) and 24 scored below the statewide average in English. Nineteen scored below OUSD averages (and 18 scored at or above) and 23 scored below the statewide average in mathematics. Within these results, there were 15 Oakland charter schools that scored below OUSD averages in both categories (and 22 didn’t). Many of these charter schools have been in Oakland for years and scored similarly on the previous API tests that are no longer in use.

So this says to me charters, are on average, doing about as well and maybe better than the district averages on one narrow measure; the first year of a new test.  And demographically we know that charters are more likely to have low income students and English language learners, while district schools have a higher percentage of identified special education students.  In this context it’s hard to know what to make of the academic data comparisons without more nuance in terms of similar schools or similar students.

This became even more murky when I asked the California Charter Schools Association about the data, here is the table they sent.


What percent of students are meeting/exceeding standards on 2014-15 SBAC tests in charters vs. non-charters?

ELA Math
charter average 41% 33%
non-charter average 25% 22%
OUSD avg. (charter & non-charter combined) 30% 25%
how many charters perform below the combined (charter+non-charter) district average? 18 charters (out of 36 with data), 50% 17 charters (out of 36 with data), 47%
how many non-charters perform below the combined (charter+non-charter) district average? 54 non-charters (out of 77 with data), 70% 56 non-charters (out of 77 with data), 73%

By this data comparison, a significantly higher proportion of charters are performing above the public school averages than OUSD-run schools.  But again without some more analysis of who the children are and what their learning gains are we really don’t know what this data really says about school performance.

Greater charter- district collaboration

The report also highlighted the need for more than “a tangential relationship” between the district and charter schools identifying special education, facilities, and common enrollment as potential areas of improvement.

As they stated around facilities—charters use space much more efficiently and that allows them to better focus resources on the classroom,

Most charter schools are fully enrolled and therefore occupy space efficiently. This allows a charter to focus funds on teaching. On the other hand, OUSD is responsible for 130 buildings, many of which are under-enrolled schools that are far below maximum occupancy. Furthermore, each school must be staffed. Without closing or consolidating schools, the district must continue to maintain many of these underused structures, thereby diverting funds from the classroom.

However, they also noted that the charter law has lower building standards, and that charter facilities, while up to code, may not provide the same protection during an earthquake.  There would seem to be a win-win here, creating full buildings, and safer kids, by using district facilities for charter students more efficiently, which is also required by law.  But I won’t hold my breath.

The logic and desire for a common enrollment system

Much like the 73% of survey respondents, the Grand Jury noted the challenges families have in accessing schools and the logic of a common enrollment system,

A recurrent issue addressed by witnesses is the existing multiple enrollment systems whereby OUSD schools and each charter school must be accessed separately. The Grand Jury views this as an undue burden on families to seek out each school separately and enroll using that school’s unique application and apply by its deadline. The Office of Charter Schools is a proponent of the common enrollment concept currently being evaluated by the Oakland Unified School District. This system allows families to review and select their desired choices from a single integrated process thereby providing an equitable access for all Oakland students.

Misunderstandings of Law or Authorizer Role

There were a few factual or legal issues that I think the Grand Jury missed.  It argues that Oakland should manage its charter growth more and that it only authorizes schools that sign the District’s Equity Pledge.  While I personally half agree, I agree wholeheartedly that charters need to collaborate more with the district.  OUSD, by law does not have this discretion.  The Charter Law requires that a district approve a charter that meets the legal threshold and the districts legally don’t have the power to add their own new requirements, like the Equity Pledge.

The Grand Jury also seemed to envision more of a school inspector regime, with a more than doubling of charter office staff.  A bigger office won’t necessarily lead to better oversight, and the district should be hiring bilingual aides, or special education teachers, not more central office staff.

I always welcome more honest data, and this is a good first step, I just hope over time we commit some resources to the deeper analysis we need of student growth to understand what is really working for children and families and how to best serve them.


Dirk Tillotson has worked for over 25 years with underserved students and communities expanding educational opportunities, and simultaneously striving for equity and excellence.  He blogs at greatschoolvoices.org and oneoaklandunited.org.

 

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