School Board Votes to Shutter Three of California’s Top Schools

On Wednesday, the Oakland school board voted 4–3 to close three of California’s highest performing schools: the American Indian Model (AIM) charter schools. When Ben Chavis took over the American Indian Public Charter School just over a decade ago, it was the worst peformer in Oakland—an utter shambles. Today, it and the two sister schools Chavis created are among the highest-performing in the entire state. I know—I did the math. In a 2011 study comparing the performance of all of California’s charter school networks, I found that AIM was #1 by a wide margin. For contrast, I included in the study two of the state’s most elite, academically selective high schools: Lowell in San Francisco and Gretchen Whitney outside of Los Angeles. After controlling for student characteristics and peer effects, the AIM network beat them both—not just on the official state tests, but on the Advanced Placement tests administered by the College Board as well. More remarkable, AIM accomplished all that while spending less per pupil than the Oakland Unified School District, whose performance is abysmal by comparison. And that’s the great irony of the school board’s vote to close the AIM schools: the board accuses Ben Chavis, who is now retired, of fiscal irregularities or mismanagement during his tenure. Think about that: The board’s own schools are expensive failures. The AIM network is an incredibly cost-effective success. Yet somehow Chavis is the one accused of mishandling a budget? The core of the allegations seems to be that Chavis, who has a real-estate business, leased space to his schools and made money from that transaction, while vaulting AIM schools to stratospheric success. So, naturally, we should punish his schools. $#%#?!?

Even if Chavis is found guilty of some impropriety (the district’s allegations are now almost a year old, yet no charges have been filed against him), the man is retired. What purpose is served, what possible justice could there be, in closing down the brilliantly successful schools with which he is no longer involved? The bigger picture is this: It isn’t simply the Oakland school board that is broken, it’s our entire approach to organizing and funding education. In every other field, our greatest innovators and achievers are handsomely rewarded for their contributions to the welfare of their fellow citizens. As a result, innovation has flourished in those other fields. But in education, great achievers and innovators are not comparably rewarded. In fact, some of the very greatest have been driven out of the system. By shutting education out of the free enterprise system, closing it off from the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace, we have stunted its development. And with it, the development of our children. The AIM schools will appeal the board’s vote. If enough people from the Bay Area voice their desire to see the vote overturned, sanity and humanity may yet prevail.