Study compares district-run and charter schools

August 4, 2017

A study that examines district-run and charter schools in Oakland across three dimensions – student need, resource levels and resource use – has raised a number of important and troubling equity issues that require further conversation and action, according to the Oakland Achieves Partnership.

The partnership commissioned the study, “Informing Equity: Student Need, Spending and Resource Use in Oakland Public Schools,” conducted by Educational Resource Strategies as a baseline assessment in the 2014-15 school year. The aim is to begin the work of collaborating across sectors and schools to find solutions to students need.

The Oakland Achieves Partnership includes First 5 Alameda, Urban Strategies Council, Educate78, Oakland Chamber of Commerce, GO Public Schools, Rogers Family Foundation and Oakland Public Education Fund.

The study found that Oakland Unified School District serves a greater proportion of higher-needs students, in terms of incoming academic proficiency, students in need of special education services, and late entering students. There is significant variation among schools, as well as among charter organizations and schools.

Compared to peer districts in California and nationally, OUSD places 30 percent more of its special needs students in restrictive environments, which are more costly. In addition, the state funding law that caps concentration funds for charter schools is resulting in millions of dollars of lost revenue for charters serving high-needs students, making it more challenging for charters to serve them, according to the partnership.

ERS released a report in June it said is the first of its kind, exploring K-12 spending and resource allocation patterns across charter and district-run schools. ERS acknowledged that since the 2014-15 school year there have been changes in spending, student populations and strategies for serving special education students, among others, but the “core facts and takeaways continue to reflect overall trends and patterns across the city and are still relevant and timely.”

The research was guided by a Citywide Study Steering Committee, including OUSD leaders, charter leaders, and education advocates. The purpose of the study was to build a shared fact base.

“While this project aspires to ultimately impact student outcomes, we focused this analysis on resources and needs rather than performance outcomes,” according to an ERS statement. “We believe that such a report is the first step in helping the many stakeholders in Oakland to explore new opportunities and solutions to common challenges.”

Key findings include:

  • Student need: Overall, the student population in OUSD schools had greater needs than did the Oakland charter school student population.
  • Special education: District-run schools have a higher share of students receiving special education, and provide special education services in more restrictive settings. Twelve percent of students in district-run schools received special education services, compared to 7 percent in charters. Special education students who are served by district-run schools were more likely to have disabilities requiring intensive services compared to those served by charter schools. Across all disability types, district-run schools served a much greater share of special education students in more restrictive – and costlier – settings than both charters and other large urban districts nationally.
  • Academic need: When high-performing students, as measured on state tests, transition from elementary to middle school or from middle to high school, they disproportionately enroll in charter schools rather than district-run schools. On the other hand, students who performed below grade level in the prior year disproportionately transition into district-run schools. This means that district-run schools receive new sixth grade and ninth grade students who are academically less proficient on average than do charters.
  • “Late-entry” students: District-run schools also served a larger share of late-entry students – those who enrolled well after the beginning of the school year and who typically have greater needs and require additional supports.
  • Other aspects of need: There were not major differences in the concentrations of English learners and socio-economically disadvantaged students. District-run schools did serve higher percentages of homeless and foster students than did charter schools on average.
  • Variation among schools of both types: Notably, there was wide variation in all types of student needs within each sector – that is, comparing individual charter schools to each other and district-run schools to each other.
  • Resource levels: In 2014-15, OUSD spent $1,400 more per pupil than the average charter school on operating expenses, adjusted for student need differences in special education, English learner status and eligibility for free and reduced-price meals. This adjustment does not capture other potential differences in student need, such high mobility rates and or the number of students entering school significantly behind academically.
  • Gap on charter funding: The Local Control Funding Formula caps the amount of “concentration” funding that charter schools can receive. In 2014-15 this meant that 23 charter schools received fewer dollars from LCFF than their actual student need would suggest. This is a driver of lower per-pupil spending for charter schools.
  • Resource use: OUSD district-run and charter schools used their resources differently in several important ways. In 2014-15, Oakland charter schools had 14 percent more contractually required teacher time per day, on average, than did district-run schools. District-run schools spent 18 percent more per teacher on compensation than the average charter school – mostly due to higher average teacher benefit costs. District-run schools had a slightly lower student-teacher ratio at 18:1 than the charter school average of 19:1, due to district-run schools’ much larger investment in special education teachers.
  • Spending on administration and business services: Charter schools, on average, spent a larger share of resources on administration and business services as compared to district-run schools. This was likely due to differences in system size, as OUSD has greater economies of scale when it comes to administration and business services.
  • Small schools: Oakland operated a high number of small schools – both district-run and charter – compared to other cities in California. OUSD spent disproportionately more on its small schools relative to small charters.
  • Rent for space: Across charters, spending on rent varied from $190 to $2,250 per pupil, with those renting from OUSD generally spending less per pupil than others.
  • Spending gap on special education: Both charter schools and district-run schools spent more on special education than they received in special education revenues; though they received and spent substantially different amounts of dollars.

Based on steering committee member discussions, some of the following next steps emerged:

  • To ensure that school spending matches student need, explore opportunities for both the district and charter sectors to serve a more equitable percentage of students with higher needs, including needs related to special education, incoming proficiency and late-entry students. This includes increasing parent and student agency in choosing schools by increasing awareness of school options across Oakland, with a focus on families of students with greater needs.
  • As part of a broader rethinking of revenue policies, explore using a more nuanced assessment of student need to differentiate resources across schools.
  • Explore advocating for a state legislative change to address the current LCFF cap, in order to provide additional resources to charters serving high need student populations.
  • Explore opportunities to optimize special education resources within the city by aligning financial incentives with the authentic needs of students to ensure that all schools both invest appropriately in all students and serve students in the least restrictive environment. This may include creating a special education funding system that incentivizes charters to remain in their local/regional Special Education Local Plan Area, which are the organizations that receive revenue from the state earmarked for special education and that provide special education programs, services and/or revenues for identified students within a defined region. This would increase overall local special education revenue and more equitably share cost.
  • Articulate a citywide strategy on the number and mix of district-run and charter schools that maximizes the number of high-quality seats for all types of students and allows schools to operate at a size that’s financially sustainable over time – including sharing facilities across schools, as appropriate.

There was strong agreement that these steps can only lead to meaningful change if OUSD leaders, charter leaders, Oakland education advocates, and other city stakeholders truly collaborate to create specific solutions and act on them.

According to a statement from the Oakland Achieves Partnership, “With a better understanding of these issues, education leaders and the community can work together to create policies and practices that drive greater educational equity and quality for all Oakland students. These are deeply complicated problems and we don’t expect easy answers, but this study provides an empirical foundation for change, one that is unique in its breadth and scope anywhere in the country. We must seize this opportunity to take an honest look at our situation and begin the difficult work of collaborating across sectors and schools to find the solutions our students need.”

Find the full study at www.erstrategies.org/library/informing_equity.

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