Credit: Joshua Hodge Photography / iStock

As the controversy around charter school expansion intensifies in California, a report commissioned by the West Contra Costa Unified School District estimates that the district is losing nearly $1,000 per student as a result of rising charter school enrollments. 

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The report, released last month, was produced by In the Public Interest, an Oakland-based research and policy organization that produced a similar report last year looking at three other California districts. That report claimed that charter schools were draining away funds, which contributed to fiscal crises in those districts.

Superintendent Matthew Duffy said the new report provides the district with “a starting point that helps us tell our story” and “helps us understand the bigger picture.”

However, reflecting the heated environment in which the report was produced, the California Charter Schools Association blasted it as “pure propaganda” and “far from impartial.” The report, the association charged, “is yet another tactic by special interests to prioritize politics over kids.”

In the district, which includes Richmond and surrounding communities, the proportion of students attending charter schools has more than doubled in four years, from 8 percent of the district total in 2014-15 to 17 percent this year, according to the report. Meanwhile, enrollment in district schools has dropped from 29,145 to 28,121 during the same period.

In February, the district’s school board voted 4 to 1 to ask the state to impose a statewide moratorium on charter school expansion. 

Board president Tom Panas, the lone vote against the moratorium, expressed a caveat about the report, saying it “does not paint a complete picture of the charter school situation” in the district. “Like any other school district, there are successes and areas that need more attention,” he said. “The charter school issue is just one area that needs additional scrutiny” as the district strives to “ensure that every student receives the best education possible.”

The report focused only on financial impact, not on the relative performance of district and charter schools. It comes amidst a plethora of reports that present often contradictory views of the impact of charter schools, prompting criticisms from opposing sides that the reports are influenced by the biases of their authors or by the agendas of their funding sources.

The funding calculations in the In the Public Interest reports use an approach developed by Gordon Lafer, a professor in the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. The report calculated the difference between the revenues West Contra Costa Unified would have received in state and federal funding for students who have enrolled in charter schools and subtracting the amount it would have had to spend directly on the students in the form of books, supplies, teachers and other staff. What was left was $27.9 million, the portion of the funds that the district could have used to pay for a range of more centralized services provided to all students, the report argues. 

In 2016-17, the district received $11,738 per student in state and federal revenues, Crawford said. The loss per district student was calculated at $978 by dividing $27.9 million by the 28,518 students attending regular district schools at that time.

Of the nearly $274.4 million the district received in unrestricted general fund revenues from the state and other sources, some of those funds were spent on essential services that serve the entire district or entire schools, like heating, teacher training, or principals and other operating costs. 

But when funds that could have been used to cover those services go to charter schools, the district has less money to pay for them, the report argued. This in turn can require cuts in direct services for district students, such as tutors the West Contra Unified school board recently agreed to reduce.

“While the district has experienced other financial pressures, charter schools have been a large contributor to the district having to cut spending on academic tutoring, services for English learners and more,” said Clare Crawford, senior policy advisor for In the Public Interest.

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

West Contra Costa Unified district officials (l-r) board member Consuelo Lara, Superintendent Matthew Duffy, Marcus Walton, board president Tom Panas and In the Public Interest senior policy adviser Clare Crawford speak about new report impact of charter schools.

The nonprofit In the Public Interest is a project of the Oakland-based Partnership for Working Families, which obtains funding from private foundations such as the Irvine Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation, as well as from labor unions including the AFL-CIO.

The partnership’s website describes In the Public Interest as “a project of the Partnership for Working Families” that “provides assistance to campaigns around the country that are fighting bad privatization deals or trying to enact responsible contracting policies.”

The district turned to In the Public Interest after the school board passed the resolution calling on the state to impose a moratorium on new charter schools. The resolution included the district’s desire to analyze the fiscal impact of charter schools. Because the district was familiar with In the Public Interest’s first report, it asked the group to perform the analysis, said district spokesman Marcus Walton.

The report notes that state funding follows students when they transfer from district to charter schools — approximately $9,563 per student in 2016-17 — but also says it is difficult for the district to cut its costs in direct proportion to the number of its students that enroll in charter schools.

For example, if a district has 14 percent fewer students to serve due to charter school growth, it cannot simply cut 14 percent of its costs for expenses such as principals, heating, building maintenance, bus route planning, grant writing and budget development because these are relatively fixed costs that the district incurs from year to year. When basic operational costs cannot be cut, districts must often cut student services, the report says.

Emily Bertelli, spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association, said the report ignores the positive impact charter schools have on their students. “It’s time to put politics aside and support all public schools that are helping our students grow and thrive, while also balancing the very real needs of local school districts,” she said. She asserted that charter schools in the district “are helping to close the achievement gap,” with higher graduation rates and higher rates of students meeting college entrance requirements.

Last December, the West Contra Costa school board approved $12.5 million in budget cuts for next year that would eliminate 82 positions, decimating an academic tutoring program and slashing programs for English learners. The board is also considering reducing or capping the amount it spends on school police officers.

Some of these cuts were necessary to help pay for salary increases for teachers and other district staff members. However, board member Consuelo Lara, who pushed for the charter school moratorium resolution, said the funds the report says the district now doesn’t have because of charter school enrollments could have been used to restore cuts.

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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  1. Franklin Franks 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Charter schools exist because public schools do not adequately meet the needs of all students. Charter schools fill a need. Yes, some are improperly managed (just like public school districts).

  2. Lorenzo 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I read the last comment from the writer where 3% of students are proficient in math and I am floored!! That means 97% of students cannot perform math at grade level! Then to hear the parent (Suzanne) talk about the practice of teachers exposing children to their adult issues is despicable. In what other industry is this acceptable?! Could you imagine if a surgeon had 97% death rates, or if an attorney lost 97% of cases? … Read More

    I read the last comment from the writer where 3% of students are proficient in math and I am floored!! That means 97% of students cannot perform math at grade level! Then to hear the parent (Suzanne) talk about the practice of teachers exposing children to their adult issues is despicable.

    In what other industry is this acceptable?! Could you imagine if a surgeon had 97% death rates, or if an attorney lost 97% of cases? They would be bankrupt and out of a job…..but not teachers. I work in construction and if 97% of my end result work were failures, I would be living on the streets! What is wrong with us?! This is a national crisis and instead we get these teacher strikes?

    I am sorry, I would be for way more higher pay, if the unions were eradicated. Until then I am not supporting any more municipal bonds or parcel taxes for WCCUSD. It is a crime!

  3. Zeev Wurman 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    So let me put it simply to make sure I understand. The district gets roughly $12,000/year per student, and it costs it about $11,000/year to educate such student, leaving the district with about $1,000/student of essentially "free" money it can spend almost any way it wants. Now, because some 5,000 students "prefer" to go to charter schools – nobody forces them, after all – the district complains that it "loses" the free money for those students, … Read More

    So let me put it simply to make sure I understand.

    The district gets roughly $12,000/year per student, and it costs it about $11,000/year to educate such student, leaving the district with about $1,000/student of essentially “free” money it can spend almost any way it wants.

    Now, because some 5,000 students “prefer” to go to charter schools – nobody forces them, after all – the district complains that it “loses” the free money for those students, since it somehow “deserves” it rather than, if at all, the charter students themselves..

    A nice deal if you can get it! I think West Contra Costa should complain also that it doesn’t get the extra $1,000 for students in Oakland, Berkeley, and even San Francisco! After all, West Contra Costa could, in principle, educate those students too and hence it is unfair not to give it the money for them! After all, the money is intended to make school districts rich rather than educate students, right?

    Replies

    • Anonymous 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      So, Zeev, you are okay with taxpayer money being diverted to charter school enterprises (some of which are for-profit)? Many of them are fiscally mis-managed and have high teacher turn-over. This is “free money” that can be spent by a charter company any way it wants, for example on high administrative and marketing expenses.

      • Zeev Wurman 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

        There are so many problems with your short pseudo-question that I need to number them to keep track (smile). 1. The extra money is not being "diverted" – it is being saved. A typical charter student gets only about 75% of what a typical regular public school student gets, so the state – that's you and me, in case you didn't notice – save about $3,000 on every charter student. 2. Some charters are, indeed, "for profit." … Read More

        There are so many problems with your short pseudo-question that I need to number them to keep track (smile).

        1. The extra money is not being “diverted” – it is being saved. A typical charter student gets only about 75% of what a typical regular public school student gets, so the state – that’s you and me, in case you didn’t notice – save about $3,000 on every charter student.

        2. Some charters are, indeed, “for profit.” So is your grocer and contractor. Would you rather have your groceries sold to you by the state? Check with ex-Soviet citizens how well it worked for them. Further, the salaries of the “non profit” public ed admins are in the $250,000-$400,000, much higher that most “for profit” charter organizations. So much for that.

        3. Many of them are fiscally mismanaged? Really? Some of them are, and unsuccessful charters are rather rapidly closed. Show me a public school that is ever closed because it is “unsuccessful” and look around for all the fiscal mismanagement and corruption in the public system, that are rarely if ever punished. At least with charters the accountability looms every few years when their charter needs to be renewed.

        4. High teacher turnover? Perhaps, although the difference is not that big after adjusting for school types and localities. Nevertheless, so what even if true? That’s exactly a part of accountability. If charters can’r recruit good teachers, they will disappear within a couple of years. If regular public schools can’t recruit good teachers, they will continue employing bad teachers for decades until they retire with generous benefits after decades of damaging kids. Which one would you rather have?

        5. I already mentioned that the administrative overhead in most charters is way below the regular public schools, and that charters don’t get any “free” money. In fact, they successfully educate children for a “fraction” (~75%) of the public school money, and the rest is mostly returned to the treasury.

        In the final accounting, nobody is forcing parents to escape their regular public schools and enroll in charters – except for the relative performance and safety in charters versus public schools. It is also important to remember that the money does not belong to the teachers, the administrators, or to their unions, but to the students themselves.

        One wonders how much misconceptions can be packed in a four lines of text (smile).

  4. Susanne 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I hope my message is added to the response thread. I have three kids- 2 in WCCUSD schools, and one in a charter school. At first I was unaware of the large differences between school district and charter schools. All I heard were bad things about charters from the teachers at my kids' schools and I believed them. But in reality, I had become more frustrated, and more disillusioned with the WCCUSD schools … Read More

    I hope my message is added to the response thread.

    I have three kids- 2 in WCCUSD schools, and one in a charter school. At first I was unaware of the large differences between school district and charter schools. All I heard were bad things about charters from the teachers at my kids’ schools and I believed them. But in reality, I had become more frustrated, and more disillusioned with the WCCUSD schools and staff. The scores were terrible at our schools and this year, the school teachers and staff at my kids elementary schools cared more about their “Red for Ed” and union matters than the education of my child. This year was the worst! My kid (1st grade) was coloring posters about “charter school oppressors” as work and was asked to wear red shirts for support of teachers in Oakland that have nothing to do with my child. I was livid!

    My child in a charter middle school in the meantime, was focused on math and ELA. His writing has gotten so much better, and he now talks about college incessantly (I truly love this)! He served as a guard in the youth Seabees and participates in marine science events sponsored by the school. Never did my child get any pro or anti-union or charter messaging from the teachers or staff. Instead, they met with us to discuss A-G, high school programs, attendance matters workshops and so forth. I truly think that the school district schools are going to perform worse than last year due to this errant focus on union matters than content.

    Even though many of my neighbors and friends still remain skeptical about charter schools, they are asking questions about enrollment at them as they too see the adult-focused practices at schools. As for the administration, I am totally convinced that the school board and specific members of the board are terrible stewards of programs and my tax dollars. Their infighting, grandstanding, and crying at every board meeting makes our city schools look pathetic! So while I still support the school district schools my kids still go to, we are heading to charter schools next year for all of my children.

    I hope the district gets the message that education should have never been about the adults, and the focus should always be about what is best for the kids.

    Replies

    • Anonymous 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      With all due respect, Suzanne, high quality education depends on attracting high quality teachers. In any district – but especially in a high-cost-of-living area – low salaries make it difficult to attract teachers. The students benefit from teachers who are and well-paid.

      • Ann 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

        So? Where in her post did you read that either the quality of teachers at her child's charter were poor or they were poorly compensated. What she did say was the teachers at the public elementary weren't teaching but engaging in union activism and student academic outcomes in the district are poor and she fears will only get worse. If you want higher teacher salaries then we must assure we will get quality teachers … Read More

        So? Where in her post did you read that either the quality of teachers at her child’s charter were poor or they were poorly compensated. What she did say was the teachers at the public elementary weren’t teaching but engaging in union activism and student academic outcomes in the district are poor and she fears will only get worse. If you want higher teacher salaries then we must assure we will get quality teachers for the added expense. Reform the admissions process for ed schools raising academic standards.

        Actually, the entire system of ed schools will need reform (a lot of professors will need to be relieved of their positions and replaced with those interested in real pedagogy). Add a system of true accountability for teacher performance (student outcomes, of course). When we see our schools and students making real progress every year, I’m not only sure Californians will be happy to pay teachers well, we can eliminate the current pension system and allow these well paid employees to invest in their own pensions. We will also save the expense of added employees and curriculum needed for academic interventions for all those students who fall behind due to poor teaching. Students who do well academically will be more invested and interested in school and discipline costs will also be reduced as will the expensive vandalism that occurs in public schools today. So yea, I’m with you. Let’s pay for quality teachers!

  5. Ray 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    The money belongs to the taxpayers, not the school district. If their outcomes , which include 0.1% proficiency in math at Kennedy High School (or 99.9% below grade level to spin it another way) then why would I agree to send my kids and tax dollars there? The system is broken and the bully tactics of the teachers (many who do not live in central Richmond) will not work in the long run. In the … Read More

    The money belongs to the taxpayers, not the school district. If their outcomes , which include 0.1% proficiency in math at Kennedy High School (or 99.9% below grade level to spin it another way) then why would I agree to send my kids and tax dollars there? The system is broken and the bully tactics of the teachers (many who do not live in central Richmond) will not work in the long run.

    In the meantime, 6 out of the 8 homes in my cul de sac in Richmond either have their kids in charter or private schools. And by the way, that brings up a second point- why isn’t there a report on the impact of students going to the private schools in WCCUSD?

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Ray, the proficiency rates on the 11th grade Smarter Balanced test is low (about 3 percent meeting Levels 3 and 4, the definition of proficiency) but not as bad as you assert. See Ed-Data to verify.

      • ann 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

        3%? Not as bad? A difference without a distinction. What are the outcomes at the charters? Any charter that is not making progress should be held accountable even as the public are not, at least not by the system. Of course the accountability is parents choosing charters.

        • John Fensterwald 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

          Didn’t say it was good or acceptable. Just accurate.