How California's Charter Schools Are Failing The Test

Charter schools' overall report cards have not been so stellar.
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This story originally appeared in Capital & Main.

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When the Great Public Schools Now Initiative, the $490 million blueprint to turn half of Los Angeles’ public school system into charter schools, was first leaked to Los Angeles Times reporter Howard Blume, it triggered an uproar among the city’s education community. The Los Angeles Unified School District already has more charter seats than any school system in the country, though at a lower percentage (about 16 percent) of total enrollment than Oakland’s — which, at roughly 25 percent, is proportionally the state leader. And like Oakland, and many other urban school systems in the U.S., LAUSD is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

This comes at a time when charter-supporting philanthropists, led by the Broad, Walton Family and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundations, have been aggressively pushing charter schools across the country under the banner of “parent choice.” The initiative, which originally surfaced with a cover letter signed by Eli Broad and is often referred to as the Broad Plan, argues its case by charging that the country’s “urban school districts are not serving students. This failure is particularly acute for low-income and minority students who are in the greatest need of a quality education.” But contrary to the plan’s claims, the charters’ overall report card has not been so stellar.

According to University of Colorado, Boulder professor Kevin G. Welner and others, charters have been shown to offer no tangible academic advantages over traditional public schools. Welner, who is director of the National Education Policy Center, told Capital & Main, “If we’re talking about test scores, we’re not seeing any real meaningful differences between charter schools as a whole and noncharter public schools.”

Today there are about 1,230 charter schools statewide (or seven percent of the state’s K-12 enrollment), with 80 new schools opening in the 2015-16 school year alone, 21 of which were in Northern California. The 27 that opened in Los Angeles put it first in the state for growth. The Great Public Schools Now Initiative calls for 260 more charters to be created in the city by 2023. Capital & Main has since learned that charter groups have also been quietly pushing a similar plan to make Oakland’s school district half charter schools and half traditional schools.

“If you are talking about going to one-third [or] one-half of enrollment in a place like Oakland or L.A., there are two big worries,” says Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “One is [that] you start to siphon off the most motivated families out of the traditional system and into the charter system. [Then] the charter system starts to look more and more like a network of private schools. So that kind of creaming process is very worrisome. The second thing is their fragile financial situations — especially Oakland’s. As you drain the dollars out of the mainstream system, the traditional system starts to shrink and implode as it tries to compete.”

““If we’re talking about test scores, we’re not seeing any real meaningful differences between charter schools as a whole and noncharter public schools.””

- Kevin Welner, Director, National Education Policy Center

These caveats have led some critics to question not only if charter schools represent a viable or effective solution to improving learning opportunities for the state’s most disadvantaged children, but whether reforming public education is the only driver of charter expansion in the state.

Steve Zimmer, the LAUSD school board president, has his doubts. Zimmer, who has been one of the harshest critics of the Broad Plan, points to the charter industry’s pattern of existing expansion in Southern California. The LAUSD’s 130,000 charter-student population already would make it roughly the 20th largest school district in the country. It also, Zimmer says, represents an overpopulated charter school oasis surrounded by a veritable charter-free desert of even more desperate, high-needs districts like Lancaster, Palmdale, Santa Ana, Pasadena, Lynwood and Compton.

“Even if you accepted the argument that choice is the most important lever for change and that charter schools were providing extraordinary opportunity,” he pointed out in an interview, “how could you possibly justify opening a hundred more charter schools — or 10 more charter schools even — in L.A. Unified, when there are districts with lower student outcomes all around L.A. Unified, places where there are no charter schools? The only answer is that it’s not about kids and it’s not about kids who need choice the most. And it’s not even about choice. It’s about what is in LAUSD that’s not in any of these other districts.”

What makes LAUSD a priority target, Zimmer maintained, is its board of education, which has been staunchly supportive of effecting reform within the public school system rather than through privatization, and the influential, 31,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the second largest teachers union local in the nation.

Zimmer may have a point. In a section on political strategy titled “Improving Conditions for Los Angeles Charters,” the Broad Plan emphasizes its goal of winning a pro-charter majority on the LAUSD school board, and it spells out the effectiveness — and importance — of lobbying by the California Charter School Association to “improve the political and regulatory landscape.”

That muscle was flexed last year when CCSA effectively killed or stalled several reform bills, including a measure by State Assemblymember Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) that would have allowed school districts to take fiscal impacts into account while considering charter school applications, and a law proposed by state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) designed to rein in so-called “push-out” abuses by charters related to suspensions, expulsions and the basing of admissions on standardized test scores.

In both the Broad Plan’s rhetoric and rationale, an increase in charter seats translates directly to an increase in political constituency and more influence over policy, both locally and in Sacramento.

“The number of parents with children in charter schools now dwarfs the number of teachers who are members of the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers,” the plan boasts. “When parents are effectively engaged, organized and mobilized, positive political change for charters in California will not only be possible, but will be expected.” (Disclosure: The CTA is a financial supporter of Capital & Main.)

Regardless of motives, the charter initiatives in Oakland and Los Angeles together signal a significant watershed in the growth of a statewide movement that was birthed by California’s Charter Schools Act of 1992 to create classroom laboratories that might develop the dynamic new curricula and teaching methods needed to reinvigorate schools that were failing the state’s most underserved and disadvantaged children.

How that modest experiment in fixing neighborhood public schools could morph in less than 25 years into the replacement of public schools with an unproven parallel system of privately run, taxpayer-funded academies is only half the story of California’s education wars that will be examined in this series, much of which is based on conversations with both sides of the charter school debate. Over the next few days Capital & Main will also look at:

  • The influence wielded by libertarian philanthropists who bankroll the 50-50 takeovers.

  • How charter schools spend less time and money on students with learning disabilities.

  • The lack of charter school transparency and accountability.

  • How charter expansion is pushing Oakland’s public school district toward a fateful tipping point.

  • The success of less radical yet more effective reforms that get scant media coverage.

  • Nine solution takeaways for struggling schools.

In California, charter schools are publicly funded but run independently by nonprofits (though often with ties to for-profit companies) and operate will little oversight – much like private businesses, which is why the movement is often described as “privatization” by its critics. More important, charters compete dollar-for-dollar within public school districts for the same limited education money that traditional schools do. Every new charter seat created within a district siphons an equal amount of Average Daily Attendance (ADA) money — which last year averaged $9,794 per pupil — from noncharter district schools.

Under California law, the current cap on charter schools is 1,950 statewide, but the cap automatically increases by 100 schools each year. The law also forbids local districts, which in California are the main authorizers for new charters, to take into account the potentially crippling impact of new charters to district financing when the districts consider approving new schools.

And since there is no theoretical limit to charter proliferation over time under the law, say traditional public school advocates, already under-resourced urban districts like LAUSD or Oakland are at risk of spiraling into insolvency. But signs suggest Oakland may already be there. The district has been forced to cut back on services and close neighborhood schools in recent years as it steadily contracts in the face of aggressive charter expansion.

In a revealing report commissioned last year by then-LAUSD superintendent Ramon Cortines, before the Broad Plan came to light, an independent financial review panel attributed half of a six-year, 100,000-student drop in enrollment to charter schools. The report warned that unless the trend is reversed, “the District’s future planning will be characterized by constant downsizing and loss of revenue until the District reaches a new equilibrium at a lower, but sustainable, level.”

One area on which both the pro-charter and public school supporters agree is that the current system is inequitable. Large urban school districts in the state are typically under-resourced and over-stratified. The issue, said Kevin G. Welner, is whether a radical charter transformation will make things better or worse.

“We’re not talking about moving away from a perfect system,” Welner emphasized. “We’re talking about a system that’s already flawed and under-resourced and stratified, and in need of real reform. The problems of stratification increase when you move from a system that is based on neighborhood schools, which are [already] stratified, to a system with an overlay of charter schools. You would just have an additional layer of stratification.”

Nevertheless, charter-school advocates insist that free-market competition and a system liberated from collective-bargaining contracts is the cure-all for the state’s education woes. It’s a narrative that has so dominated the education reform discussion that alternative, unambiguously effective models for improving public schools have all but been pushed to the sidelines.

“The bad news is that there are no magic bullets, charter schools or otherwise,” Welner reflected. “But the good news is that we know how to provide the sorts of supportive, rich opportunities to learn that children need. We’re never going to provide high-quality education by focusing on test scores and by forcing each child’s family to navigate an ocean of school possibilities. The only way to truly close the opportunity gap is by building up the communities where our students live and the schools in those communities.”

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