Equity and Common Enrollment?

The concept of equity has been used by the Superintendent and his staff to frame the conversation about bringing a common enrollment system to Oakland, so I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on how equity is and is not being considered as part of the work around our enrollment system.

To begin, a definition:  I believe that equitable schools are schools that serve all students.  We have district schools and charter schools that do this well and poorly, so I want to say up front that I recognize that there is room for improvement across the board.

However it is factual to say that OUSD schools are significantly more likely to be the ones serving special education students, African American students, and English Language Learners, some of our students with greater needs.

So here are some questions related to the concept of equity as it concerns the proposed common enrollment system.

1. Is it equitable that we are only planning to make improvements to our enrollment system if charter school students are included?

I have spoken with hundreds of parents about common enrollment at OUSD Parents United house parties, and while they agree that there is room for improvement in our enrollment system, they do not agree with the idea of a common enrollment system.

Some of the ideas that parents like include:

  • Regional enrollment centers
  • Greater outreach at the outset to all families (training, options fair)
  • Online and mobile tools
  • Greater language access
  • Elimination of waitlists and the "first come, first served" appeals process
  • Greater transparency about how children are assigned to schools
  • Following up with families over summer to pin down attendance

These are the things we should focus on, rather than including competing schools in our enrollment system. 

We don't have equity when parents who have opted out of our system are privileged over the group that has helped to build our school communities.

2. Is it equitable that the way that schools are rated for quality does not factor in the kinds of students they are serving?

We know that it is more difficult to get people to work in high poverty schools.  It is harder because the students have more needs, because the teachers tend to be less experienced, and there tends to be more demands on staff in these schools from the central administration.  These schools tend to have more English language learners and more special education students as well.

The way that schools are evaluated does not account for the additional challenges they face as a result of who they are serving.   Many charter schools have recently agreed to adopt school quality measures that will allow us to better compare Oakland schools and evaluate quality.  The adoption of a broader set of common criteria to evaluate quality is a positive step.

But these common measures do not go far enough, because they do not take into account the needs of the students the school is serving.  The result is to penalize the schools that serve all children.  There are charter schools in Oakland that are more inclusive, and also experience this, so it's not just an OUSD problem.

We don't have equity if we pretend as though poverty, language ability and learning differences do not impact student achievement when we create measures of school quality.

This matters because parents rely on these quality measures heavily, because most do not have time to visit lots of different schools, ask experts for their opinions, etc.

Excluding these factor creates the appearance that schools that serve all students are poor choices when compared to the schools that don't serve all students.  This is true for both district and charter schools.  Parents that do not understand this will be more likely to choose a school that looks good on paper, but may not serve their child well.

3. Is it equitable that we are pretending that there are only upsides to a common enrollment system?

The reality is that competing schools will be joining our system, and that some of them are already struggling to fill their seats (hence the roster instability problem that many Oakland schools are facing).  Two new schools have already been approved by the School Board this year, and there are seven more whose applications we are expecting.  With the people on the school board right now, it is likely that all or most of them will be approved.

We already have excess capacity in many Oakland schools, partly as a result of competition with charter schools for students.  With nine new charter schools and everyone in the same system, it is probable that the declining enrollment that is affecting many of our schools currently will accelerate and lead to school closures.

In Newark, NJ, district schools lost 10% of their students in the first year of common enrollment, which led to school closures, student displacement and teacher layoffs.

School closures negatively affect the likelihood that students will graduate and they are disruptive to families and school communities, as well as staff.

It is dishonest to have a policy discussion and neglect to discuss all the possible consequences, and it is financially irresponsible as well to proceed without discussing the financial implications of losing students and closing schools. 

It is likely to be our lowest-income families that will be affected by school closures and they have not been included meaningfully in this discussion, which is also not equitable.

Creating a system that uses OUSD funds to facilitate movement of OUSD students into competing schools will undermine the stability our system, which is the system that serves all students.

It is not equitable to destabilize the system that serves all students.

4. Is it equitable that there has been no plan from OUSD about efforts to increase participation in the options process?

The majority of families in our district (District 6) do not even submit applications by the deadline, meaning that they are assigned to a neighborhood school that may not be a high quality option.  There has also been no plan to address the transportation barriers that prevent families from availing themselves of their options, even if they are aware of them.

We don't have equity if the people who most need a better option are unaware of or unable to meet the deadlines and processes.

This is the reason that I don't believe that creating common enrollment would create a more equitable system.  We will spend money that should have been directed to the schools that serve everyone to destabilize the district and in the long run decrease our ability to continue to serve the students that many charter schools avoid serving.

5. Is it equitable that OUSD parents and staff have largely been excluded from the planning process for a common enrollment system?

We are a public agency, we work with public funds, and make public policy.  It is not equitable that planning meetings for common enrollment have taken place by invitation only, and largely excluded the OUSD families who are the largest segment of families in the city, and have not been open to public participation.

That is not equity.

The Superintendent has said that having a common enrollment system will address the roster instability problem facing OUSD and charter schools.  I actually believe that roster instability will get worse, not better, under common enrollment, because we will soon have even more schools, and with them all using the same enrollment process, it will actually exacerbate the enrollment instability.

If this plan is really intended to accelerate the closing or consolidation of OUSD schools, it would be more appropriate for us have an open, transparent and planful approach to doing that.

I want to be clear about where I stand: it is not the case that I see no merit in a common enrollment system.  The Superintendent believes that having all students in the same system would allow us to get more timely information and a better handle on practices such as discriminatory enrollment practices and mid-year student push-out.

I share his interest in addressing these problems, but have not seen any evidence that creating a common enrollment system is going to address these problems.  The common enrollment blueprint does not require any change in admissions criteria or speak to the student push-out issue, and there has been no evidence presented about how common enrollment would stop these practices.

What it really comes down to at the end of the day is that I am on the board of the system that serves all students, and I want to see OUSD direct every dollar and every minute of staff time to supporting OUSD schools.  I don't support the creation of a system that I believe will ultimately undermine the schools that serve all students.

We should make improvements to our enrollment system; I am in favor of that, but if we care about the health of the system that serves all students, then I believe common enrollment is too risky an idea.

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