After a quarter century of uninterrupted growth, aggressive efforts by charter school advocates to increase enrollments and to elect sympathetic school board members and legislators have triggered a backlash unlike anything that has occurred since the first charter school opened in California.
Charter schools have drawn an increasing share of California’s approximately 6 million public school students. How this conflict plays out will have major ramifications for the kinds of schools those students will attend in future years.
“What you have in California right now is a charter school community that has a great sense of momentum,” said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association. “Our adversaries can see that our strength is really, really growing. This year we are crossing the 600,000 enrollment barrier, and we have crossed the 10 percent of students in public school threshold. The pipeline for growth seems robust.”
The push has roused the California Teachers Association to ramp up their demands for more regulation of charter schools, and to pressure Sacramento legislators to require greater transparency in charter school operations. It has launched a campaign titled “Kids Not Profits” – complete with radio ads in both English and Spanish – that declares that billionaires have launched a “coordinated strategy” to divert money from neighborhood schools to “privately run charter schools.”
“Instead of subsidizing corporate charter schools with taxpayer dollars, we should be using the money to strengthen our neighborhood public schools for all California children,” the CTA campaign declares.
“We are not saying get rid of charter schools, period,” said CTA president Eric Heins. “What we are opposed to is the opaqueness in how public money is spent, and that there’s no accountability for many of these schools, and there are a lot of bad actors that are using charters to enrich themselves.”
The conflict accelerated last fall when a plan hatched by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation came to light to drastically increase charter enrollments in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The district already has more charter school students than any district in the nation, but the foundation’s proposal would nearly double charter school enrollment and expand the number of charter schools from the current 228 by an an additional 260 schools.
Then, at its annual convention in March, the charter school association announced a “March to a Million” campaign to enroll 1 million students statewide in charter schools, almost double the current number, by the year 2022. That would mean that in just over five years 1 in 6 children would attend charter schools, up from the 1 in 10 currently enrolled.
Charter advocates have also made an unprecedented push to elect sympathetic members to district and county school boards, as a counterweight to the CTA and other unions’ longstanding practice of endorsing and supporting candidates financially.
In the 2015-16 election cycle, charter school advocates have so far reported raising $24 million for races throughout California
—– almost five times more than during the 2013-14 cycle –
Most of the funds come from deep-pocketed donors, some of them billionaires. The largest contributor is Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO of Netflix, who is reported as contributing $3.75 million in the last two years. Other major donors include Doris Fisher, the co-founder of The Gap ($2.46 million); and Carrie Penner, the granddaughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton ($1.15 million).
The CTA has contributed close to $33 million to various causes during this election cycle, including ballot measures, candidates, and party committees. About $20 million of that alone went to support Proposition 55, the tax increase on high earners that will raise billions of dollars for K-12 schools, including charters. The charter school’s Wallace said that its contributions are only a “small fraction” of those raised by the CTA. But so far figures suggest that charter advocates may well have contributed more to school board and legislative races than the CTA during this electoral cycle
The backlash to the charter school’s expansion plans has come relatively quickly. The so-called “Broad plan” provoked furious criticism. In response, proponents – now organized as a nonprofit named Great Public Schools Now – altered their strategy to include supporting not only charter schools but other high-performing public schools as well.
But this has not allayed suspicions about charter school intentions in the district. The United Teachers of Los Angeles recently ran a full page ad in the Los Angeles Times titled “What is the CCSA afraid of?” It accused the charter association of hiding behind “the patronage of billionaires” and “perpetuating a false narrative about public schools,”and challenged the association to a debate on the “rapid expansion of unregulated charter schools.”
On a press call kicking off the CTA’s Kids Not Profit campaign on Sept. 1, LA Unified board member George McKenna said that enrollments in some high schools have plunged by two-thirds to 800 students in recent years, and in some middle schools to 400 students.
“How do you keep open a middle school with only 400 students?” McKenna asked, suggesting that at least part of the declines are due to charter schools siphoning off students. “How does a high school maintain its competitiveness with only 800 students?”
“I am not opposed to the existence of charter schools,” he said. But the problem, said McKenna, who was played by Denzel Washington in a movie on his legendary principalship in the 1980s at Washington High School, “is that they are aggressively going to expand without looking at the impact this will have on schools and surrounding communities.”
He called for an “academic and economic impact study before any new charter schools are approved.” That, he said, would help the district make an assessment of whether a charter school will “start destroying neighborhood schools.”
The impact of the controversy was evident when the L.A. Unified school board earlier this month turned down five applications from schools to renew their charters. Over the past five years, the board has approved all but four renewal requests out of 159 it was asked to consider.
Another sign of the escalating conflict was the approval by the NAACP this month of an anti-charter resolution that originated with the California-Hawaii chapter. The resolution accuses charter schools of “perpetuating de facto segregation” of high- and lower-performing students, and calls for a moratorium on charter school expansion.
The conflict is in some ways surprising because compared with many other states, California has provided remarkably fertile ground for charter school growth. In 1992, California became only the second state to approve legislation permitting charter schools. Every governor since has generally backed them. Gov. Jerry Brown actually started two of them – the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School of the Arts – when he was mayor in Oakland, and is still very involved in supporting them.
The number of charter schools has doubled over the past decade, and the state now has a larger share of the nation’s charter schools proportionate to its population. In 2015-16 California’s 1,230 charter schools made up about 20 percent of the nearly 7,000 charter schools nationwide.
Over the years the California Legislature has opened the door even wider to charter expansion. The original law set a cap of 100 charter schools, with no more than 10 in a district. Los Angeles Unified got a special exemption – it was allowed to have 20 charter schools.
Those limits now seem quaint by today’s standards. In 1998, the Legislature passed legislation that automatically raises the cap by 100 charter schools each year, regardless of how many open or close. As a result, the current cap is now at 2,050 charter schools. Los Angeles has 20 times more than the original cap, and many districts have more than 10. Oakland, for example, has 38 – and charter advocates are hoping for more by contributing to pro-charter school board candidates, as reported by the East Bay Express last week.
The Legislature also revised the law to make it more difficult for districts to reject a charter school application. An EdSource review in 2004 noted that changes to law have made “requiring approval as the default decision of school boards.”
In effect, there is no ceiling on how much charter schools can grow in California. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools described the California cap as one “that allows ample growth, a robust appellate process, and provides a fair amount of autonomy.” It ranked California 15th on the list of the most charter-friendly states.
Wallace says the charter school movement’s legislative strategies are paying off. Gov. Brown vetoed one bill heavily promoted by the CTA, Assembly Bill 709, that would have required charter schools to comply with the state’s open meetings, public records and conflict of interest laws. Charter advocates said that most charter schools already voluntarily follow those laws. Brown in his veto message said the bill went too far “in prescribing how these boards should operate.”
Another bill, Senate Bill 322, would have prohibited charter schools from establishing admissions preferences, and required them to comply with laws on suspensions and expulsions. The bill did not make it out of the Legislature, receiving 34 no votes versus 31 yes votes in the Assembly.
However, the CTA’s Heins said he thinks the moratorium resolution was on the “right track.”
He pointed out that the idea behind charter schools came from the late Albert Shanker, the iconic union head of the American Federation of Teachers. “The concept was to have laboratory schools, to try out ideas free from restrictions of public schools, and then if they work to scale them up,” he said.
But that is not how it has worked out, he said. “It would be one thing if it was all private money, but this is taxpayer money we are spending,” he said. “It is especially impacting our most vulnerable populations. They (charter schools) may have a lottery in the beginning, but the students who don’t necessarily perform well on tests or they have other challenges are kind of eased out.”
Wallace insisted that he and his fellow charter advocates are not against traditional public schools. Rather, he said, charters are playing an essential role in preserving public support for public schools. Charters, he said, are part of the “inevitable destiny” of California, and that charter advocates make up what he called a “constructive disruptive force” in contributing to “all kids being in better schools than we would have otherwise,” whether charters or traditional pubic schools.
It is a struggle that will play out for many years, he predicts.
“Going forward, I am looking at decades of communities adding more charter schools, and we will be supporting them along the way,” he said. “We know that as that happens our adversaries will resort to even more desperate gestures.”