The narrative that charter schools are a better choice for students is shifting, and Oakland, once a haven for the charter industry, is witnessing this shift firsthand.
Last year, families whose students attended two charter schools in the Fruitvale neighborhood of East Oakland had to scramble to find a new school after the closure of EPIC Charter Middle and Latitude 37.8 Charter High when city zoning officials denied the operator, Education For Change (EFC), their conditional use permits just as the school year was starting. Families were offered a chance to temporarily send their kids to Chabot Elementary, an actual public school but one which is nowhere near the Fruitvale neighborhood and is not a viable option for many families. (Ascend, a K-8 EFC Charter, was able to offer seats for some families.)
EPIC Charter Middle School, going by the charter movement’s own metrics of standardized test scores, was an epic failure. At EPIC, only 8% of students met or exceeded math standards and only 22% met or exceeded English standards on state exams in 2017. Charters have not been the secret sauce of innovation the ruling class claimed they would be since California passed the Charter School Act in 1992.
Hae-Sin Thomas, the Executive Director of EFC, said she felt “embarrassed” that EFC schools were doing so poorly on standardized tests, but it's unclear why she feels it's acceptable to still continue to expand operations in the Oakland flatlands. (Additionally, while Thomas said the organization has hired more African-American teachers recently, why did it take so long to make that shift? The importance of Black/Latinx students learning with Black/Latinx teachers is immeasurable.)
Despite the harm caused by K-12 school closures, we see more and more families in both public and charter schools having to make these difficult transitions. There will be 24 public and charter school closures over the next five years if OUSD has their way.
To make it plain, we as advocates of public education are in no way in favor of closing schools based on standardized test scores, nor are we in favor of closing public schools. But we know who is: the charter school movement and its private sector foundations, along with “good-intentioned” billionaires and of course their puppet politicians. A prime example of these marionettes is the Oakland School Board, whose members received hundreds of thousands of dollars to run local campaigns.
EPIC Middle, unlike most charter schools, was at one point at least attempting innovation:
“At Epic, students see themselves as heroes in their own Epic journey. Epic is a science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) school offering a unique educational experience to fully engage students in a rigorous curriculum and bring joy to learning through a personalized and immersive educational experience.”
But middle school students don’t need an “epic journey”, they need stability and wraparound services -- especially in working class Black and Brown communities where charters are harming the overall well-being of public school districts.
With most charters aligned with corporate/billionaire foundations (that is, tax havens to avoid paying a fair share of federal and state taxes) it’s important to take into account how much tax revenue is being diverted from public school districts to an industry that is then using it to first colonize (Francophone Charter taking learning space from Howard Elementary is a useful example) and ultimately privatize public education in large urban centers across the U.S.
Despite the private sector’s attempt to paint charter schools with a charitable and progressive brush, they remain a source of widespread corruption and dysfunction. To make matters worse, charter schools do nothing different and don’t offer families crucial wraparound services. They have the same structure as traditional public schools, the same average class sizes, the same curriculum standards, etc., but they don’t represent a different choice for students and parents. They represent a different tier of schools that can themselves pick and choose which students are worthy of admission.
In Oakland the “school choice” landscape is even more unpredictable – stemming from out-of-control displacement of families in favor of real estate developers catering to an entirely different class of workers; ones who are paid high wages from the Bay Area tech sector. It has become very difficult for working class families to afford housing in Oakland. Thus, enrollments are way down in public education, thanks primarily to the saturation of charters in Oakland (35 campuses, give or take), but both public and charters are facing the effects of this out-of-control gentrification on their enrollments.
What happened to the social contract in this country? It used to be that every student was guaranteed the right to attend a free public school in their neighborhood. Roots International Middle, Lakeview Elementary, Kaiser Elementary and countless other closed public schools were neighborhood schools that didn’t deserve to be closed. Charter school supporters will tell you EPIC and Latitude 37.8 were neighborhood schools and didn’t deserve to be closed, and they are correct, but only to a certain extent. Yes, the teachers and families of those schools certainly don’t deserve to experience that disruption and displacement to their education or jobs, but when we look at the broader picture and understand the undermining role charters play in the overall landscape of public education, we find an entirely different sector of the economy behind the charter school movement. We know the private sector, which has undermined public education by not paying its fair share of taxes, has no intention of doing what’s best for the working class students that populate both public and charter schools.
These recent charter school closures in Oakland represent a small dent in the armor of what has been a mostly successful attempt to undermine public education. To ensure the continued demise of the private sector charter movement, supporters of public education must actively support public education at the ballot box and on the front lines of the fight to defend and transform public education.