School Enrollment Shakeup

The Oakland school board is weighing a controversial plan that would make it easier for parents to enroll their kids in charter schools.


Oakland parent Mona Treviño has grown disenchanted with charter schools.

Photo by Heather Finnecy

When Mona Treviño first moved to Oakland, she was a single mom who struggled to find a good school for her oldest son. They eventually landed in a charter school, where Treviño also worked as the school secretary. "School was the one place that we had that was stable," she said.

But over time, Treviño grew disenchanted with charter schools, and her younger son now attends a traditional Oakland public school. She opposes the practice employed by many charter schools of pushing out struggling students—rather than helping them. "They are the poorest families; they are the ones whose households are in crisis, who are new to Oakland, who are homeless," she said. "When they get pushed out of charter schools, they end up in my kid's public school. That's why we need strong district schools."

Treviño is now speaking out against a proposed change that is designed to simplify the enrollment process in Oakland and make it easier for parents and guardians to enroll students in charter schools. As a member of the group Parents United for Public Schools, Treviño says the proposed new student registration process, which would include district and charter schools in the same system and is known as "common enrollment," would end up hurting the most disadvantaged children. (Treviño requested that the charter school she worked at not be identified because she still has family members who attend the school.)

Common enrollment is part of an education reform trend that's spreading throughout urban school districts nationwide, from Newark to New Orleans. Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Antwan Wilson is a strong advocate for common enrollment, and the Oakland school board is set to decide this month whether it's the right path for the district.

Wilson, who is entering his third year in Oakland after holding leadership positions in Denver schools, has made common enrollment a core piece of his larger pledge to establish racial and economic equity as a cornerstone of his administration. In Denver, where common enrollment has already been implemented, the system seems to have streamlined the student registration process. But the topic has already generated heated debate in Oakland—the school board was supposed to vote on it in January but postponed the decision for five months.

In an interview, Wilson said common enrollment is about making more schools accessible to families. Under the current system, parents can apply to Oakland's district schools in one application, but if they want to apply to a charter school, they must do that separately for each charter school they're interested in. Under common enrollment, parents would be able to select district or charter schools on one form. "Parents shouldn't have to navigate multiple systems," Wilson said.

The superintendent also argued that many low-income families, for a variety of reasons, don't have the time and resources to research the charters that are available to their children. "Right now, there's a disparity in access," he said. "The more affluent, the more access. Many of our families that have less access to information and resources often take what's given." Wilson said common enrollment would give all parents, regardless of income level, equal access to the school of their choice.

But critics say charter schools in Oakland don't need help in enrolling students, especially considering the fact that there are already 44 charter schools in the city compared to 86 district schools.

Charter schools operate as separate entities and govern themselves, though they are also regulated, to some extent, by the school district. Charter schools are funded by taxpayers, but they don't have to abide by the same rules as regular public schools. For example, the majority of charter school teachers are not unionized, and students don't have the same protections against expulsions. In addition, enrollment data indicate that charter schools are underserving children with special needs. District-run schools are twice as likely to serve children with disabilities than charter schools in Oakland (children with disabilities make up 14 percent of district-run schools and 7 percent in Oakland's charter schools). Each charter school can also have separate boards of directors with separate rules. And currently, charter schools in Oakland are serving a lower percentage of African-American students than district schools.

The competition for space between charters and traditional schools in Oakland also has led to a recent lawsuit against the school district. The California Charter Schools Association, which represents charter schools throughout the state, is suing the district for not providing adequate building space for charter schools in the city. In addition, the competition for space has resulted in charters "co-locating" with traditional schools on the same campus.

As a result, many parents and teachers are concerned that common enrollment will further erode the existing district schools. By putting charter schools and district schools on one form, it may pull more students away from district schools, some parents and leaders believe. This would then lead to school closures due to underenrollment and charter schools moving into shuttered district schools, like the former Lakeview Elementary, which American Indian Public High School (a charter school) is now using.

School board member Shanthi Gonzales says presenting the charter schools alongside district schools can be misleading. Parents can see test scores and the school data, and many choose schools based on those scores, she said. But schools that serve all students—including special education kids—will have lower test scores, which gives charters an unfair advantage on paper. Parents would be "picking schools based on inadequate information."

But Wilson said the conversation shouldn't be about district schools versus charters. Wilson is more concerned about the 17,000 kids who live in Oakland and attend neither a district nor a charter school. By sixth grade, more than one-third of the kids in Oakland's district-run schools leave the district. "The majority of kids who leave go to 'other' schools, not charter schools," Wilson said. "Other" means the students are in private school, are home-schooled, or attend a school outside of Oakland; the district does not track what happens to students once they leave.

Wilson said that by improving efficiency under common enrollment, some of those students might remain in Oakland public schools, whether charter or district-run.

But critics note that the common enrollment system would be voluntary, and they argue that popular charter schools would have no incentive to take part in the program, because they already have plenty of students.

Some also say the process to develop the system has been overly secret and object to the fact that Wilson and his staff have been meeting privately with key charter school officials. "The work to create the blueprint for the common enrollment system—none of these things have been open to the public," Gonzales said. "Meetings were not posted anywhere; agendas and minutes were not posted. All of this public policy work was being done behind closed doors, and charter schools were heavily represented in those meetings."

The impact on the future of Oakland's district-run schools remains to be seen, and some say that question can't be ignored. "We have not had a serious discussion about what the consequences will be for our district," Gonzales said.

Editor's Note: This story appears in the June edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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