A new annual report from the Alameda County Grand Jury raises concerns about the low academic quality of a number of Oakland’s charter schools and the lack of public accountability of local charters, even though they are funded by public tax dollars.
According to results of the grand jury investigation, published last week, a number of Oakland charter schools appear to be performing worse than Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) traditional schools.
The report recommends that the school district increase its oversight of charters and that the district not approve new charters that do not voluntarily agree to increased accountability.
The report examined Oakland charter schools’ performances on standardized tests.
While many educators consider tests a deeply flawed measure of academic achievement, test scores have been widely used to justify the closing of schools or turning them into charters, which promote themselves as superior to traditional public schools.
The grand jury determined that out of 37 Oakland charter schools that gave standardized tests in English to students in 2015, 17 performed below the average for OUSD schools and 24 performed below the statewide average.
In mathematics, 17 performed below the OUSD average and 23 scored below the statewide average.
Fifteen Oakland charters scored below OUSD averages on both tests.
“Many of these charter schools have been in Oakland for years, and scored similarly” on previous tests, the report said. “It is a concern that some charters are not achieving expected results, and yet may still be reauthorized (every five years).”
The report said that charters schools enroll about 12,000 students, about 25 percent of the total enrollment of the district. Oakland has more charters than any other city in Alameda County.
Difficulties in holding charter schools accountable stem from both local issues and state legislation.
State law requires the district authorize a charter to monitor its fiscal condition, “but beyond an annual financial audit, there is no oversight of charter school’s long term financial planning or budgeting,” the report said.
Charters are funded by taxpayer dollars “allocated in the same amount as district public schools,” the report said. “However, charter schools are not governed by the local school district and an elected board of education, but rather by independent governing boards.”
State law restricts local districts’ ability “to adequately hold low performing charters accountable.”
Further, the OUSD Office of Charter Schools is doing an “adequate job” but is “understaffed and underfunded.”
“It will be increasingly difficult to ensure the future success of the school program in the City of Oakland. The state provides a formula for … a staffing level that would require 13 full time employees to support Oakland’s charter schools.”
However, the district’s charter office has only six employees.
Further, there is “no reporting or tracking to monitor potential wrongful expulsion or dismissal of ‘less desirable’ students by charter schools.”
Grand jury witnesses testified that this procedure would be unknown were it not for whistleblowers.
The grand jury heard testimony that individual charters schools have fewer disabled students than other OUSD schools. The grand jury views this as creating an inequity for special needs students in Oakland’s district schools.
The grand jury recommended that the school district “must not authorize or renew a charter” unless it agrees to join the superintendent’s proposed Oakland Equity Pledge, a voluntary agreement on accountability and transparency.
The report also recommended that OUSD “seek independent legal counsel as well as advice form the state (on) how to exercise more rigor in the charter school renewal and approval process.”
Responding, Valerie Goode, OUSD Deputy Chief of Communications and Public Affairs, said:
“The district remains committed to ensuring all students have access to a high quality education and will continue our important work toward equity in our schools.”