California charter schools set goal of 1 million students despite pushback

March 16, 2016

Before the pandemic, students work in a Santa Ana Unified classroom in a way that would be unimaginable today.

In the face of widespread pockets of resistance around the state, the California Charter Schools Association has embarked on a new expansion campaign, aiming to serve 1 million students in charter schools across the state by 2022.

If the goal is reached, it would almost double the 581,100 students now attending state charters, bringing to about 18 percent the number of public school students who would be enrolled in them. Currently, it’s about 9 percent.

“We have to stay focused on our core mission of expanding high-quality charter schools as quickly as we can,” Jed Wallace, the association’s president and chief executive officer, said during a break at the group’s 23rd annual conference in Long Beach this week. “We definitely want growth, but we do not want growth if it’s at the expense of quality.”

The theme of the conference this year is “March to One Million.”

Yet the “march” is playing out across a rocky landscape, with various efforts aimed at stunting the growth that has made California the nation’s leading host of charter schools, with 1,230 in operation. In 2013-14, the latest year for which data is available from the National Alliance For Public Charter Schools, 6,440 charters were operating around the country.

In California, no opposition to charter growth has been more strident than efforts in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the school board recently passed a resolution condemning “external initiatives that seek to reduce public education in Los Angeles to an educational marketplace.”

It was a direct response to a plan announced last year by the philanthropist Eli Broad to expand the number of charters in the district, which is already home to more of them (nearly 230) than any other school district in the country. The plan has morphed into a group called Greater Public Schools Now, which has widened the mission beyond charter creation to include replicating all manner of schools that can provide high quality education, including magnets, pilots and traditional public schools.

This week the charter school association named Broad and his wife Edythe as charter schools’ “supporter of the year.”

Whatever the form of the plan, it has engendered widespread opposition, particularly from the L.A. teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which has held rallies around the city to accuse Broad and other reformers of undermining public education. The teachers’ effort has been joined by other unions affiliated with the district.

Other anti-charter efforts have surfaced elsewhere in the state.

“With more than 150,000 kids on waiting lists, it’s clear that people want more charter schools,” said Jed Wallace, president and chief executive of the California Charter Schools Association.

In Orange County, the Anaheim Union High School District board and superintendent have urged state lawmakers to place a moratorium on all new charters, asserting that “wealthy and disconnected elites – the ‘1 percent’ – have successfully lobbied elected officials to pass overly permissive laws allowing ‘charter’ schools, many of which operate on a business model whose main goal is to make money,” as they wrote in a commentary for the “Voice of OC” website. 

They accused charter operators of “continuing to hide their funding, ownership and financial relationships.”

So far, said Anaheim Union High School District Superintendent Michael Matsuda, no one in the Legislature has introduced a measure that reflects their concerns. “Our role as educational leaders is to raise awareness for the community,” Matsuda said. “Their job is to address the problem or not.”

In San Diego, at least three lawsuits are underway, pitting one school district against another in cases that involve resource centers and learning centers affiliated with charter schools operating in districts other than those that authorized them.

While Wallace and other charter school officials say the intent is to discourage charter expansion, Music Watson, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Office of Education, said the lawsuits have arisen because state education code provides no prohibition against opening such centers in adjoining school districts.

“Over the last few years, as the suits have increased, districts involved now sense a need to clarify the issue,” she said, insisting that the legal actions are not meant as deterrents to charter growth. In fact, the number of charters in San Diego County has increased, to 123 for the 2014-15 school year, from 92 five years earlier.

A statewide ballot initiative for November that would eliminate charter schools altogether is now in the signature-gathering phase. It needs 365,880 signatures by Aug. 8 but has not yet reached the goal, according to the California Secretary of State.

If approved by voters, it would eliminate the state charter law, giving existing charters the option of closing or reverting to traditional schools. It also says passage would mean $5 billion of state funding would shift from charters to school districts.

These efforts aside, charter schools have enjoyed steady growth across California for more than a decade, increasing by an average of 61 a year since 1998-99, when the association started tracking them. Most are independent charters, which means they are privately run, using public money.

By the 2014-15 school year, the last year for which it has data, the charter school association said 158,000 students remained on charter school waiting lists.

“The backlash is a function of our succeeding,” Wallace said. “It’s generally coming from those interested in protecting the status quo, but the general public strongly supports charter schools.”

National polls conducted last year show that public opinion generally favors charter school as a choice for parents. A poll by Education Next found that 51 percent “support the formation of charter schools” while another poll, by Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup, found that 64 percent “favor the idea of charter schools.”

“We’re just going to stay focused on what we’re doing,” Wallace said. “With more than 150,000 kids on waiting lists, it’s clear that people want more charter schools. Those who resist, and those who resist with greater intensity, I hope they can find new ways to tone it down.”

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