Oakland Unified cuts off funds for private school

The district also is increasing its oversight of the federal money it doles out to pay for tutoring and teacher development in private schools.

But a California Watch investigation has found additional flaws with the district's approach to private schools, which neither of those measures addresses: The district contracts with private school teachers who lack teaching credentials to provide special instruction to struggling students.

Federal and state officials say private school teachers hired with federal money not only must be credentialed, but also must meet even higher federal standards for "highly qualified teachers." School district officials contacted in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego say they abide by those requirements, but Oakland maintains that the private school teachers paid by the district do not need special qualifications.

The district's recent changes come after a California Watch and CBS 5 investigation found the district was paying leaders of St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church based on padded enrollment figures at the West Oakland church's K-12 school. The school also has drawn scrutiny for requiring students to ask for donations at BART stations and for allegations of physically abusing students, which the school denies.

"Our investigation found substantial evidence to corroborate the claim that St. Andrew's is inflating enrollment numbers to increase eligibility for federal funds," stated a recent district memo to school board members. "Since St. Andrew's proved unable to effectively explain the discrepancies, we are forgoing any relationship with this school for the 2012-13 school year."

The district allocated more than $50,000 to benefit St. Andrew during the last school year based in part on total enrollment and partly on the number of low-income students.

The school claimed 195 students, but Oakland Unified found that 59 of those listed on school rosters were enrolled in Oakland public schools – 36 of them for the entire year. 

Marc Guillory, an attorney representing St. Andrew, questioned the accuracy of the district's records.

"I need to be able to check your records to ascertain precision as to records of the 36 students you claim attended OUSD the entire 2011-2012 school year," Guillory said in an email to the district's general counsel last month.

Guillory said this week that he has not received a response and didn't know that the district had decided to withhold funding. In an earlier interview, Guillory said the church's position is "that they have a good-faith basis to submit the numbers that they submitted."

Approached by CBS 5 late last month, St. Andrew's 79-year-old pastor, Robert Lacy, chalked up the discrepancy to an honest mistake.

"Sure, it was an error," he said, "and everybody makes errors."

To ensure better monitoring of funds benefiting private schools, the school district is adding two staff members to help oversee the program and will require schools to provide rosters of students and teachers.

Also, every private school receiving taxpayer-funded services now will be visited at least three times a year, the district memo stated. Previously, district spokesman Troy Flint said, the policy had been to visit at least once a year.

"We are confident that these changes will augment our ability to administer the private schools program in a way that protects public funds," the district memo stated.

For the 2010-11 school year, California's school districts spent $15.6 million in federal Title I funds on services to help private school students, primarily in low-income communities, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Education. Oakland distributed $474,344, more than any district except the far-larger Los Angeles Unified School District.

To provide Title I tutoring at St. Andrew, since at least 2008 Oakland Unified contracted with one of the school's teachers, Robert Lacy Jr., whose father runs the church and school.

Lacy Jr. is not a credentialed teacher, but the school district has maintained that he and other private school instructors do not need to be.

However, officials with the state and federal education departments said private school teachers paid with Title I money must meet the requirements of "highly qualified teachers." Highly qualified teachers need at least a bachelor's degree and teaching credential and must show competency in the subjects they teach.

"It is true that the private school teachers hired by the (district) have to meet the HQT (highly qualified teacher) requirement," Lara Azar, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, wrote in an email.

Flint, the Oakland district spokesman, responded that because Lacy Jr. is a contractor and not directly employed by the district, the standards don't apply. But state and federal officials said educational consulting companies are the third-party contractors that don't need teaching credentials for Title I instruction.

District staff are "confident about our interpretation," Flint said. "Other districts may do it differently."

Indeed, the San Francisco Unified School District doesn't contract with private school teachers at all because of the federal standards.

"We need to hire credentialed teachers ... and a lot of them do not have California teaching credentials," said Mary Elisalde, program administrator for state and federal programs.

Instead, for Title I tutoring at San Francisco private schools, the district contracts with Catapult Learning, a national provider of educational services, Elisalde said. Catapult's instructors do not need to be credentialed teachers under federal guidelines.

The San Diego Unified School District also abides by the higher standards.

"The teacher has to be 'highly qualified' to provide Title I instruction," said Peggy Zickert, program manager for private school services. "If they haven't done it, then they're not eligible to provide the services."

Zickert said she prefers to rely on public school teachers to provide tutoring at private schools because "they understand the program, so there's less of a learning curve."

In San Diego, 37 private schools receive Title I services – more than twice as many as in Oakland – but the total amount of money is less: $323,358 for the 2010-11 school year. Zickert said she visits every school once a month and some schools weekly.

"I just want to make sure that things are going as they should, that what's supposed to be going on is really going on," she said. "For me, this is my job. I'm out of the office a lot."

The Los Angeles Unified School District provides Title I services to some 140 private schools, spending more than $10 million during the 2010-11 school year. District staff attempt to visit every school once a month, said Tina Saunders, coordinator of the Title I private schools program.

"We make every effort to get out and make sure that the services are provided the way that they should be," she said.

Saunders said she contracts with few private school teachers.

"I do actually have some schools that choose to have their teachers provide the Title I services, but they still have to meet the 'highly qualified' criteria," she said.

Ron Reynolds, executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, called for tough measures for schools that misrepresent enrollment figures. Private schools like St. Andrew report their student numbers to the state Department of Education under penalty of perjury.

"I want to see those schools prosecuted. I don't want schools to take liberties and try to game the system," Reynolds said. "One school like that gives a black eye to the entire enterprise of private schooling." 

While Reynolds called St. Andrew a "clear extreme outlier," he said, "the Oakland situation demonstrates that there's opportunity for abuse."

Oakland school board member Noel Gallo, who pushed for reforms, said the district had cut back oversight staff in the past because of budget cuts.

"Those are special federal funds, being set aside by taxpayers to give kids with special needs a chance," he said. "Too many times, it happens where poor kids get left out, disregarded and poorly served. We have to honor our obligation."

View this story on California Watch

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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