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Bruno: The Slippery Slope of Charter Conversions

TimthumbBack in March, the Oakland Unified School District begrudgingly approved charter conversions for two schools dissatisfied with district control. This week, a third conversion proposal was rejected over concerns about the budgetary impact to the district.

Nevertheless, at least one CMO advocate maintained that "the tide has shifted" in favor of charter schools, and the district seems to agree that they've begun sliding down a slippery slope. The same night that the Lazear Elementary charter conversion was rejected, the school board passed a resolution stating that it intends to "Provide school governance teams increased decision-making responsibility and authority" and "Strengthen the ability of school governance teams...to determine the composition of their employee teams." 

It's a little hard for me to see how or why this should stem the apparent swelling of support for charter school-like school site autonomy. The district can't afford to keep all of its schools open - for example, Lazear is slated for closure - but nobody's ever happy about losing a public good they've become accustomed to. And if it's staffing autonomy a school really wants, the district doesn't have the authority to grant exemptions from union contracts anyway. (The school board's resolution concedes that staffing autonomy must be consistent with "established collective bargaining protocols and agreements".) It actually seems to me like there's not much in the way of substantive autonomy that the district can grant.

In other words, most of what people are demanding they can only get through a full charter school conversion anyway. The district may be able to temporarily slow such conversions down, but ultimately appeals will make their way to the more charter-friendly county board. So OUSD's resolution on school site governance signals that they are concerned about losing more schools, but it probably won't do much to prevent that outcome. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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If current winds continue to prevail, local school boards and district offices, and all other supervising agencies up to the state level, will have to justify their services' costs, which are deducted from money that should flow to school sites were it not for the districts' interventions. The costs of the huge numbers (more than fifty percent of the employees inside LAUSD at the time of our rebellion at Locke High School in 2007) of educrats not working at school sites has been borne on the backs of poor children for many years; California's charter law gives teachers the option of divorcing themselves from their oppressors, if that is the interpretation of such overseers the teachers come up with, as we did at Locke five years ago this week.

I wouldn't put it in such stark terms, but I do think it's noteworthy that the district doesn't seem to be making much of a positive case for its own value-added. And once it's conceded the virtues of autonomy in all of these areas, it becomes that much harder for them to make the case that schools should bother with them at all.

Agreed. The work of William Ouchi is particularly apropos here: I recommend his "Making Schools Work", which was one of the books that sufficiently fired me up to start looking for help outside of the district. In particular, Ouchi praises Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada, as having the best managed school district in North America. There, the central office keeps a much smaller share of available monies for its operations, and turns the rest over to schools; I'll quote from page 115: "We've already pointed out that Edmonton has the ultimate solution: it gives 92 percent of the money to the schools and then lets them decide what, if any, services to buy from the central office -- or from outside suppliers."

Edmonton’s system, in that case, makes far more sense than the convoluted middleman-esque role districts seem to play in school funding.

Local districts are, all too often, overloaded amateur networks whose influence needs to be curtailed. At worst, they prevent great things from happening. They become self-interested institutions dedicated to preserving the status quo, regardless of benefits to students, and force ambitious educators into private schools or out of the profession altogether.

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