The Oakland Unified School District board of education during its January 13 meeting. Credit: Screenshot

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After years of gradually declining enrollment in Oakland Unified School District, one school board member has proposed a policy meant to stave off future drops—but it has caused some families and school leaders to question whether the proposal will perpetuate divisions between charter schools and district schools in Oakland.

Board president Shanthi Gonzales introduced the enrollment stabilization plan at the first board meeting of the year on January 13. The policy would increase spending on marketing for district schools, direct school campuses to create individualized plans to grow their enrollment, and call on board members to promote the OUSD schools in their district. 

But arguably the most controversial parts of the policy would require OUSD to stop supporting enrollment at “competing schools,” including charter and private schools, by not listing non-district schools on OUSD marketing materials, school guides for parents, and district maps. 

Gonzales emphasized that the district’s declining enrollment has adverse effects on OUSD’s finances, causing year after year of budget cuts, layoffs, and school closures

“This is not about attacking charter schools. I understand that it is going to impact charter schools,” said Gonzales. “My answer to them is, I’m on the board of OUSD and I’m trying to protect our fiscal health and enrollment.”

Over the last 20 years, enrollment in OUSD district-run schools has decreased by about 30%, from more than 52,000 students to about 36,000 last school year. Oakland Unified, like all districts in California, receives state funding based on student attendance. Fewer students enrolling from year to year means that the district receives less money, which can lead to budget shortfalls for expenses like facilities and labor costs. 

During the same time period, charter school growth in Oakland rapidly expanded, and today about a third of Oakland public school students attend charter schools, leading some to criticize charters as being partly responsible for OUSD’s budget crises. Charter schools, which can be authorized by the district, are operated by independent organizations and their own appointed board members. There are currently 45 charter schools in Oakland.

“OUSD is on the forefront of addressing a lot of those challenges that have been caused by rapid charter school growth in California,” Gonzales said. “It’s possible that if the board adopts this then other districts could adopt something similar.”

Finding public schools online

Each winter, Oakland families begin the process of enrolling in school for the following year. To start, families are encouraged to visit OaklandSchoolFinder.org to explore all their options. On that website, prospective parents can enter their home address and bring up a list of nearby schools that includes both charter schools and district-run schools. Oakland School Finder is partly supported by funds from OUSD, and Gonzales’ policy would end that relationship, leading to separate platforms for district and charter schools. 

“It’s not appropriate to be using our resources to promote competing schools. That’s undermining our financial health,” Gonzales said.

Some fear that the move would make it harder for families to research their options if they have to use more than one resource. 

“A lot of families are exploring both systems, even within one family,” said Lisa Gibes de Gac, the executive director of Oakland Enrolls, a nonprofit that co-manages the Oakland School Finder website with OUSD. “Having two separate systems in this way will allow inequity to creep in, especially for families who also face barriers.”

Gibes de Gac added that during last year’s enrollment period, about 80% of families surveyed by Oakland Enrolls reported applying to both district and charter schools, and that that percentage has increased over the years.

Once families have selected the schools they are applying to, applications for district-run schools and charter schools are separate. 

Because the policy was only introduced at the Jan. 13 board meeting, there was no board discussion, but many community members weighed in during the public comment portion of the meeting. Some voiced support, while others expressed concern.

“I really agree with the importance of OUSD focusing on increasing enrollment in our public schools. When I started teaching, there were over 52,000 students in our public schools,” said Betty Olson-Jones, a retired teacher and former president of the Oakland Education Association. “We’ve lost over 16,000 students over the past 20-plus years, primarily to charter schools.”

“Many of our parents using this platform are not very familiar with technology, that’s why it’s important to keep this platform the same and there shouldn’t be any changes,” said Maria Flores, who said she was commenting on behalf of Spanish-speaking families. “If the goal is to have more students, it’s best if we invest funds in schools and not into a new system that is not needed.”

Some believe the policy would further entrench divisions between charter schools and district-run schools. 

“I feel the whole purpose for it is to divide and conquer,” Tunisia Adams, a mom of seven, told The Oaklandside. Five of her children attend schools operated by Lighthouse Community Public Schools. “So they can point the finger and say they’re the reason they don’t get money, that we can’t pay teachers.”

Some also fear Gonzales’ proposal could be the first step in a series of actions the board could take to undermine charter schools, especially since three of the four new board members ran on platforms of wanting to restrict charter school growth in Oakland. 

VanCedric Williams, who was elected in November to represent District 3, said during his campaign that he supports a moratorium on charter schools, or not allowing any new charter schools to open in Oakland. 

“I support parents choosing wherever they want to put their kids. But the reality is that we’ve lost a lot of public school students to charters,” he said in an interview with The Oaklandside. “Our budget is such that as we continue to lose students, we have to continue to cut and close schools.”

The board has authority over charter school renewals and applications, though it’s been several years since a charter school applied to OUSD. The board also makes decisions allowing charter organizations to use district property for their schools.  

“It does make me nervous when board members take an overly polarized stance about charter schools,” said Rich Harrison, the CEO of Lighthouse Community Public Schools. “Board members have an obligation to represent all of their constituents, whether that’s OEA, or whether that’s students and families in their district.”

Other enrollment changes could come

Oakland School Finder was launched in 2016, after an attempt to create a common application for all public schools in Oakland failed. Since the site is relatively recent, some point out that OUSD’s enrollment issues pre-date the common platform for researching public school options and that divesting from it may not reverse the enrollment trends.

Other parts of the enrollment stabilization policy call for individual schools to conduct analyses to identify the root causes of their under enrollment. Gonzales pointed out that robust marketing may not solve all of the issues. Demographic changes, like families moving out of Oakland to more affordable areas, or more child-free adults moving into the city, could also be factors. 

The policy is just one of a series of enrollment changes the district could be considering this year. Last year, OUSD created an equitable enrollment committee to examine trends and make recommendations for how the district can increase enrollment and create more diverse schools. One pilot program that the school board approved last year would tweak the enrollment priorities at three schools to boost the number of low-income students at those schools.  

Gonzales said she plans to host community engagement events with families and charter school leaders to talk about the policy before bringing it back to the board for discussion in March. 

Gary Yee, who represents District 4 on the school board, said he is interested in making sure that the stabilization policy is not in conflict with Board Policy 6006, the “community of schools” policy that passed in 2018, which strengthened oversight of charter schools and promoted collaboration between the district and charter schools to develop quality schools across the board.

“I think the initial alarm (over the proposed policy) is partly because we have a new board, and we know the charter school question was a big part of the campaigns,” Yee said. “Any kind of policy that looks at the district’s fiscal health as a result of enrollment is going to raise questions about whether we do this together or in competition. I’m hoping we do it together.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.