Children Should be Learning in Classrooms, Not Closets.

What makes a good school? Lots of different things, of course, but there are some basics that most people would agree are needed: a well-equipped and safe facility, good teachers, a broad and engaging curriculum that includes not just reading, history, math and science, but also the arts and music, and a warm and welcoming environment. This is true no matter what kind of school we are talking about – private, public or charter. Of course we expect those things in private school, because you are paying for them. But what about in charter schools which are privately managed but paid for with public money. What do charter operators think is a baseline for their school?

A review of the Proposition 39¹ (“Prop 39”) Facilities Request Forms can help us answer this question. Charter schools that wish to occupy district school space must file a Prop 39 request by November 1st, and in Oakland Unified School District (“OUSD”) they are asked to indicate any “unique facilities-related requests based on the school’s educational programming”. Charter schools have responded with a laundry list of things that they expect for their students, and most end with the boiler plate language that “If the comparison schools have any other regular teaching space, specialized classroom space or non-teaching space not identified here, the Charter School expects that the District will provide it with a reasonably equivalent allocation” – basically, if district schools get a particular kind of space, charters want it too, even if it isn’t something they need for their program.²

Here’s what Oakland charter schools said they need from OUSD for next year: 


Let’s be clear – this is not an unreasonable list – there are a few pie in the sky ideas, but most of us would agree that the items on the list are not just “wish list” luxuries but absolute necessities. 

The problem is, of course, that our OUSD schools do not even have some of the most basic things on the list, and when a charter school asks for space in a District school, OUSD forces them to have even less. Here’s how.  

Proposition 39 and its regulations say that IF a charter school requests space in a district facility, the District MUST provide it. It does not say exactly where³, but it does require the district to compile a list of comparison district schools⁴, figure out how much space they are actually using per student, and offer the same amount for the “in  district” students⁵ of the charter school. In other words, charter schools are allocated space based on the way OUSD schools are actually used.

Prop 39 is silent, however, on how the district decides which schools to offer up to charter schools for occupation (by themselves) or co-location (with an existing district school)⁶. So rather than figuring out HOW a district school is using its specific space in service of students, OUSD has come up with a formula for how much space ANY district school is entitled to. They call it an “Estimate of Underutilization” formula and it goes like this:

  • One regular teaching station (600+ square foot classroom) for each 24/26/30 kids projected to enroll in the following year, depending on grade level;
  • A classroom for each Special Education Special Day Class (“SDC”) at the school
  • A classroom for each Preschool class at the school
  • A classroom for each Newcomer Program classroom at the school⁷
  • Any classrooms needed to fulfill A-G requirements (at the high school level only)
  • 1 “Flex” Space for every 8/10 regular classrooms allotted, depending on grade level, with a minimum of 2

That’s it. No allocation for Special Education Inclusion specialists or reading or math intervention. No allocation for mental health needs or restorative justice. No allocation for art or music. No allocation for afterschool programs or parent spaces to allow community building or continuing education courses. In other words, none of the specialized spaces that make a Community School. OUSD takes the total number of classrooms, subtracts all of the above, and whatever is leftover is underutilized space.

What it translates to in practice is that students — usually in schools with a high concentration of Black and Brown students, Newcomer, English learners, unsheltered and Special Education students — are being displaced to make room for a charter school which likely does not serve the same high needs population⁸ (although they still want a share of that space). It means services like reading intervention and mental health counseling are moved into closets or noisy rooms behind the cafeteria. It means Special Education students receive pull-out services in cramped and distracting shared offices. It means teachers have nowhere to eat their lunch or collaborate with colleagues⁹.

classrooms not closets IG (1) crop

So what if we apply the OUSD formula to the space given to charter schools? How does that impact the laundry list of things they need to operate their program? We thought it would be interesting to take a look, so we dug into the request from one school which is already occupying the entirety of an OUSD Facility to see how much space they would be allowed under the OUSD Estimated Underutilization Formula and compare it to their list.

Per the school’s Facilities Request form for 2020-21 school year (filed by November 1, 2019) Achieve School, one of seven schools¹⁰ run by Education For Change (“EFC”), Oakland’s largest Charter chain, identifies the following list of site specific needs for their school:

EFC Achieve space needed (6)

In its Prop 39 request, EFC Achieve estimates an “in district” student population next year of 606 students in Transitional Kindergarten (TK) through fifth grade and  2 special day classes. If EFC Achieve were a district school, that would translate to the following, under OUSD’s formula:

  • 25 regular teaching stations (which is what they asked for);
  • 2 classrooms for their SDC program
  • No specialized preschool classrooms¹¹
  • No specialized Newcomer classrooms
  • No classrooms needed to fulfill A-G requirements (because they are not a high school)
  • 4 Flex spaces: 1 for every 8 regular classrooms allotted, which in this case is 25 regular classrooms (as OUSD always rounds up).

So under the OUSD scenario, EFC Achieve is entitled to a total of 31 classrooms at the school, far less than what EFC Achieve says it needs to help children learn. This is what they identified as needing to support their program:

  • 25 classrooms for teaching stations (general education)
  • 2 SDCs 
  • 14 Flex spaces
    • 1 Restorative/Newcomer/PE Planning shared
    • 1 Mental Health space
    • 1 Intervention classroom
    • 2 dedicated science classrooms
    • 2 dedicated art classrooms
    • 1 instructional coach/intervention space
    • 1 health clinic
    • 2 Early childhood/after school classrooms
    • 1 Food bank/storage room
    • 1 staff lounge
    • 1 parent resource room

Obviously, the difference is in the Flex space allotment. Under the OUSD formula, EFC Achieve is entitled to 4 flex spaces based on a ratio of 1 flex room to every 8 general education classrooms. Under the EFC Achieve request, they are asking for 1 flex room to every 2 general education classrooms, four times more than what OUSD schools are allowed for their students! EFC Achieve occupies the entirety of the school, all of which they claim they need for their program, and have 10 Flex Spaces more than they would be entitled to at the site if they were an OUSD school. 

EFC Achieve has what they need to operate their program because they are given space based on “comparison schools”  and because they have the whole campus to themselves. An OUSD school subject to co-location with a charter school can be forced to give up what they need for their children under OUSD’s “underutilization” formula. Co-located OUSD schools are forced to give up art, science and music rooms. Children who need intervention, mental health and special education services are learning in closets, hallways and crowded shared offices, and that isn’t right. It is time for OUSD to stop using a formula to determine which schools to offer up for co-location, but instead, like they do when deciding how much space to give to charter schools under Prop 39, look at how schools are actually and reasonably used in service of children, especially high need students. OUSD must stop displacing vulnerable children from classrooms into closets.


Afterword about revising prop 13

1. Proposition 39 is codified as Ed. Code, § 47614 et seq.
2. Two-thirds of charter schools operating within Oakland either own their own facility or lease one from someone other than OUSD. 12 charters occupy by themselves the campuses of former OUSD schools
3.  Prop 39 only requires that the offered space be “near” where the charter school requests
4.  In the neighborhood where the charter students live, not necessarily where the school will be located.
5.  For charter schools with a significant population of students who do not live in Oakland, this means any non-Oakland students are crowded into just the classrooms assigned for Oakland resident kids, unless the District agrees to allocate them additional space, which the district can charge them for at market rate (but does not always do so – a blog post for another day).
6.  The District could also co-locate a charter school at another charter school using a district facility, but that does not generally happen, at least in recent years in Oakland.
7.  OUSD has a significant “Newcomer” population of students, and has a robust Newcomer program at multiple sites in addition to general Newcomer supports at all schools. Most if not all charter schools do not have a large enough population of newcomers to have these specialized classes.
8.  Parents United looked into these disparities last year; for deeper detail on disparities in special education, see State of Denial
9.  A charter parent recently argued that co-located charter school students are forced to receive small group help in the hallways because they also do not have enough room, and that is true. But at that school 35% of the students do not live in Oakland, and so the charter was cramming 35% more students into the allocated space. We are not arguing that Prop 39 works well for co-located charter schools, it doesn’t. It just hurts district students more.
10.  One of the seven schools, EPIC middle school, closed unexpectedly last fall and it is unclear if they are still a functioning charter school
11.  East Bay Agency for Children located onsite does offer early childhood services to children 0 to 5 not enrolled in preschool, but not a traditional preschool program such as OUSD identifies in its formula