By Gloria Lee
If you ask any Oakland parent what kind of public school they want for their child, they will tell you: a safe school, where their child is known well and nurtured as a unique being, that has strong academic outcomes and will help their child achieve his or her potential.
They do not specify governance structure; they do not say: “a district-operated public school” or “a charter public school.”
In rethinking school enrollment in Oakland, why discriminate between types of public schools? Why deny parents the opportunity to choose from all their options?
There is a lot of agreement about improving public school enrollment in Oakland – including from OUSD trustees Roseann Torres and Shanthi Gonzales. Our current enrollment process is outdated, complicated and unfairly disadvantages many families.
Local parents have expressed wide-ranging dissatisfaction.
This is a good start: we have consensus that our families need a better way to enroll in public schools. We agree enrollment should be easy, enable families to make an informed decision and fair for all.
The disagreement is whether the new district enrollment process should give families access to all types of public schools, including charter schools.
Oakland’s charter public schools serve 27 percent of public school students; they are ingrained in the fabric of public education in Oakland. They are serving the needs of many diverse families in our city. Most charter public schools are getting great results for students.
OUSD authorizes and oversees most of Oakland’s charters (the Alameda County Office of Education oversees the rest). Are charter public schools an important part of the public education system in Oakland?
That decision is already being made by the thousands of families who are choosing them.
Including charter public schools in the new enrollment process does not add to the number of spaces available in existing charters or bring in new ones. It merely gives all families the information they need to make the right public education choice for themselves.
Legitimate concerns about oversight, transparency and fairness in admissions and retention policies at some public charter schools are being heard by Superintendent Antwan Wilson and other OUSD leaders.
They will be addressed – along with enrollment – in the public schools Equity Pledge being developed by the district with input from diverse families and community members. The Equity Pledge seeks to create a level playing field for all public schools. Schools that cannot adhere to those rules have no place in the Oakland public school family.
Regardless of whether you are charter public school believer, skeptic or undecided, we should be working together to solve the challenges facing public education in Oakland.
Instead, we are divided. School board member Torres even referred to charter public schools as “the other guy” during a recent school board meeting. Imagine how thousands of students who attend charter public schools and their families feel about being called “the other guy” by their own elected representatives?
This cannot be an “us” versus “them” fight. Instead, it needs to be about “we” – specifically, what “we” can do to better serve all students, in all of Oakland’s diverse communities.
Improving enrollment is not a silver bullet. We have a lot of work to do before we have great public schools in every neighborhood, for every Oakland child. But it is one step we can take in the right direction.
Families need an easy, open and fair way to find the right public school for their children. We need to make sure all families – not just families “in the know” – have the access to this resource. That’s why the district and supporters of improving enrollment will be making an extra effort to engage families that are too often left out.
It’s these families we should focus on – not our ideological fights – as we work to fix enrollment and solve other public school challenges in Oakland.
Gloria Lee is an Oakland resident, the mother of two public school students, and executive director of Educate78, a local non-profit organization.