Credit: California Teachers Association
Erika Jones in her elementary school classroom in Los Angeles Unified.

As a public-school educator who is African-American, I am keenly aware of what it means to be a student of color within the public school system and the role institutional racism has played.

We have faced decades of funding and resource inequities, which have left our current public schools in marginalized communities unable to fully serve their students. Historically, acknowledging these inequities can lead to strategies to combat institutional racism in our schools and across the country.

The last 20 years of exploding charter school growth in communities of color also make it clear that many proposed solutions can have serious negative consequences for the overwhelming majority of public school students. The time is now for our elected leaders in Sacramento to pass laws to support students by curtailing the worst parts of this broken, decades-long experiment.

Often within the conversation of supporting communities of color, school choice and specifically charter schools frequently are presented as the answer. When looking at institutional racism within public education, instead of being the panacea for children of color, more often than not the charter school industry actually leads to worsening conditions for a majority of students of color. This is because many school districts in California, whose students are overwhelmingly students of color, are in crisis mode: seeing upwards of a 200 percent growth in charter schools, lacking facilities and averaging hundreds of millions of dollars in fiscal impact directly attributed to this growth.

Yet the achievement gap for students of color has continued to widen. We see a select group of children of color leaving the traditional public school setting to attend charter schools, while the majority of children of color remain in the traditional setting.

I taught both 3rd grade and kindergarten in South Los Angeles at Angeles Mesa Elementary and during the years I was there multiple new charter schools popped up surrounding my school. I saw firsthand how our families of color were lured away by the promise of free tablets for their kids, nicer uniforms and so-called college readiness. I hugged parents as they brought their children back to my school, feeling devastated that their child had been kicked out of one of the charters or their children found themselves in schools with higher class sizes and less student support. Some of my families had even been misled to believe that the new charter school was their new home school.

The original intent of charter schools was to be educator-driven incubators of change where innovations that lead to student success could be shared with all schools within the public school system. Here we are 20 years later and instead of sharing methods, many traditional public schools in communities of color find themselves competing for resources, having disproportionate numbers of students with high needs and having larger populations of English learners. All this while for the most part charters are performing about the same as traditional public schools.

Charter schools tend to be more segregated and the industry has been riddled with controversy such as school closures and mismanagement of funds. One study shows that confirmed fraud and waste in California charter schools has reached more than $149 million, while another more recent study shows that nearly four in 10 charter schools nationally that received federal funding over the past five years either never opened or have shut down: a total of 306 schools.

We are seeing that even when a small group of students of color in some charter schools show improvement, it’s to the detriment of the majority of students seeing resources siphoned off by a broken system. Charter schools were intended to be laboratories of innovation to benefit all students in the public school system, not silos to further segregate and isolate students based on race and income.

California can do better! It is time to uplift all schools and to reject a toxic competitive environment where schools are pitted against each other. Collectively we need to fix the funding issues within California, allow districts more discretion in charter oversight and authorizing so they are not put in crisis mode like LA, Oakland, San Diego and Inglewood. Why would families of color want to put their faith in schools lead by businesses that are intent on privatizing schools and leaving our neediest students out? That is not the solution for the real systemic change that needs to happen in order to fully address institutional racism. All of our students deserve better.

•••

Erika Jones has taught elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 14 years. She is on the board of directors of the California Teachers Association and a member of the Charter Task Force.  

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. We are running a series of commentaries on all sides of the charter school controversy, which has emerged as one of the most contentious issues on the education reform landscape in California.  To read other commentaries, check out our commentary section. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. David Brunsting 2 months ago2 months ago

    For those of you posting studies that students of color do better in charters vs traditional schools, those are very flawed. Most charters do not take all students on any day of the year like traditional schools. Plus many of them create barriers to entry like strict dress code policies. These methods of restricting enrollment cause many of the students with the lowest test scores to never enter a charter school thus leading to … Read More

    For those of you posting studies that students of color do better in charters vs traditional schools, those are very flawed. Most charters do not take all students on any day of the year like traditional schools. Plus many of them create barriers to entry like strict dress code policies. These methods of restricting enrollment cause many of the students with the lowest test scores to never enter a charter school thus leading to higher test scores.

    There are exceptions to this but generally the highest need students just default to their traditional neighborhood school.

  2. Li 3 months ago3 months ago

    Kangaroo court meets in secret. Will we at least see the minutes of these weekly meetings?

  3. Deborah Meier 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thanks. I think you are describing what many of us have experienced in other states as well. Rather than being innovative they tend to outdo traditional schools in rigidity. And even nonprofits are spending less money for students and more in administrators etc. the worst are the chains. There are many exceptions among the mom and pops run by parents and teachers.

  4. JudiAU 3 months ago3 months ago

    Our charter school is one of the most diverse in the city in terms of ethnicity and income family makeup and our lottery insures that we have the same number of special needs students. There is no difference in achievement between high and low income students! Our kids have all the goodies (art, music, library, garden, real lunch, pe) because we aren’t subject to the gross waste and poor management of the district. Can you … Read More

    Our charter school is one of the most diverse in the city in terms of ethnicity and income family makeup and our lottery insures that we have the same number of special needs students. There is no difference in achievement between high and low income students! Our kids have all the goodies (art, music, library, garden, real lunch, pe) because we aren’t subject to the gross waste and poor management of the district. Can you find me a public school like this? Maybe in some fancy-ville but not in This city.

    Ironically my older child is moving into a special district gifted program because he needs more challenge. I’m finding the parents via the PTA wield the real power of the purse at the school. The bureaucracy is mind numbing. Class size is ten kids more per grade. The enrichments are minimal. Food is disgusting. The teachers have been excellent.

  5. Jim Mordecai 3 months ago3 months ago

    Livermore Parents: Your neediest students in Livermore Public Schools do not need their public schools closed and finances of their public school district drained by the selfish choice of the minority of privately managed charter schools. Charter school choice is the choice that the majority has to suffer.

  6. Todd Maddison 3 months ago3 months ago

    ""Getting Down to the Facts II” shows how well charter schools are serving our low income and minority children. In California, the enrollment of African-American children into charter schools has increased significantly from 2008 to 2014. This isn’t surprising since African-American youth are doing better in charter schools than in traditional schools. In 2017, language arts scores showed that in traditional public schools only 29% of African-American children were meeting or exceeding the standards. Comparatively, … Read More

    “”Getting Down to the Facts II” shows how well charter schools are serving our low income and minority children. In California, the enrollment of African-American children into charter schools has increased significantly from 2008 to 2014. This isn’t surprising since African-American youth are doing better in charter schools than in traditional schools. In 2017, language arts scores showed that in traditional public schools only 29% of African-American children were meeting or exceeding the standards. Comparatively, 40% of African-American children in charter schools are meeting or exceeding the standards. The same results can be seen in math, where 19% of African-American children are meeting or exceeding math standards compared to 25% in charter schools. Just as importantly, African-American children are less likely to be suspended in a charter school than in a traditional public school.”

    http://lacomadre.org/2018/09/new-report-shows-charter-schools-are-having-success-with-low-income-and-minority-students/

  7. Mike 3 months ago3 months ago

    Waste? First of all, the money belongs to the taxpayers, who are the families. Why haven't there been any attack on private schools as a drain? Only when the disenfranchised and people of color get to choose is when the truth comes out. They cannot choose for themselves the naysayers say! People of color are the chattel in the mentality that the money is "owned" by an entity such as a public school. Let's be … Read More

    Waste? First of all, the money belongs to the taxpayers, who are the families. Why haven’t there been any attack on private schools as a drain? Only when the disenfranchised and people of color get to choose is when the truth comes out. They cannot choose for themselves the naysayers say! People of color are the chattel in the mentality that the money is “owned” by an entity such as a public school. Let’s be clear, the public school system does not produce revenue, they take it from taxpayers and then manage (and waste) it.

    The fact is, the traditional public school model has failed people of color for various generations and charters represented a line in the sand. Now, by all appearances (and let’s not forget the Janus ruling by Supreme Court) , the unions are trying to clear the table of choice so they can get all of the power and money. Yes, they will make a play for Prop. 13 taxes, but want to clear the competition first. Oh yes, and the fraud issue … for today, please google Oakland Unified, Alum Rock Unified, West Contra Costa Unified, and Sand Diego Unified. Enjoy the read!

    The biggest ripoff is to society. We rely n the next generation to be prepared and ready to lead, but with the current state of public schools, how can I as a Latino feel good about my kids and peoples chances with only one terrible system as my choice?

    Replies

    • Vivian Barker 3 months ago3 months ago

      “Why haven't there been any attack on private schools as a drain? Only when the disenfranchised and people of color get to choose is when the truth comes out.” This is a very interesting point, and I will be thinking on it for a long time to come. But facts are, “real” private schools — i.e., those unsupported by taxes — aren’t draining traditional public schools in the same way as charters. True, in a … Read More

      “Why haven’t there been any attack on private schools as a drain? Only when the disenfranchised and people of color get to choose is when the truth comes out.” This is a very interesting point, and I will be thinking on it for a long time to come.

      But facts are, “real” private schools — i.e., those unsupported by taxes — aren’t draining traditional public schools in the same way as charters. True, in a sense they deny public schools the enrollment funds that would apply per-pupil. However, charter students receive a hefty portion of per-pupil taxes (depending on state, anywhere from 50% to 90%), so no question they are diverting funds from traditional publics – which educate 85-90% of US kids — to charters which educate 6-7% of the nation’s kids.

      And if you read this lady’s post, you understand that kids of color are the main ones hurt by this, as charters proliferate mostly in their neighborhoods: the better-behaving or richer or better-scoring or non-LD or better-English-speaking kids get whatever’s better about charters (probably smaller classes, at a minimum), while the least fortunate are left behind in schools w with more-expensive-to-educate kids and a smaller budget to do it on.

  8. jesus arguelles 3 months ago3 months ago

    I find the opinions and observations by Ms. Jones regarding charter schools informative and supported by ample data to understand her perspective. However, as a pro-bono advisor to a charter school executives and Board members for nearly 10 years, there are few points which need to be considered in the entire debate about the role, proficiency and impact of charter schools on school districts: 1) existing districts’ structure, operational management, fiscal arrangement and service delivery … Read More

    I find the opinions and observations by Ms. Jones regarding charter schools informative and supported by ample data to understand her perspective. However, as a pro-bono advisor to a charter school executives and Board members for nearly 10 years, there are few points which need to be considered in the entire debate about the role, proficiency and impact of charter schools on school districts: 1) existing districts’ structure, operational management, fiscal arrangement and service delivery model is over 100 years old. Although world renown advisors and academics have been retained district Boards to come up with new models, the fact remains that most of them still outdated since these have not adapted well to the changing needs, challenges and ethnic diversity of students, parents and other stakeholders; 2) the fiscal structure and funding formulas of districts are sometimes overly complex, assuredly inequitable and only sufficiently understood by few school board members and key districts’ staff; 3) the existing districts models were not original designed for sustainability, equity, continuous and meaningful parental and community engagement and the measurement of impact of mission-critical alignment priorities; 4) nearly 80% of all California school districts have not been successful in integrating parents and their surrounding community as part of the decision making process for allocating dollars where these are most needed. This task is only reserved for the elite executive and Board members who claim to know best current and future needs of students; 5) the leadership and senior management of school districts do not view their role as a catalyst for building robust local economies but limit themselves to generating a flow of students which may or may succeed in life including serving the needs of our regional and national economies. Hence, the charter school model is an early effort to design, test and scale a transformative model of education which addresses and incorporates the above mentioned considerations.
    Suffice to say for now that probably charter schools may not be the answer to the goal of creating a global citizen who can self-actualize, be exemplary in her/his deeds and have the desired positive and lasting impact on the holistic status of our communities. On the other hand, the financial, social and political investing that we have made to date in districts with questionable educational outcomes far outstrips the dollars and other resources spent to date on what Ms. Jones refers to as the “charter schools experiment.”
    In my view, how about taking time to assess the pros and cons of ‘the experiment’ and use those lessons to re-design our school system to be eco-system based, multi-generational in scope, more diverse and innovative in its funding sources, adaptive in nature via philanthropic and corporate partnerships and responsive to the richness of our much needed diversity and inclusivity as we continue to evolve into a global model for educating and training our kids. Why continue to compete when collaboration is better and leads to more efficient and equitable outcomes? Why not leverage our collective resources, will and desire for our kids to have the best options and paths to succeed? In fact, why waste more resources defending our respective positions on the illusion that one side knows more than the other and one can do a better job than the other? Perhaps what may help in the aforementioned endeavor is having a social and moral contract with and among all stakeholders of our public school system to make sure all of us use it as a compass for our individual and collective decision making to ensure the best educational outcomes for our kids.

    Replies

    • Vivian Barker 3 months ago3 months ago

      “4) nearly 80% of all California school districts have not been successful in integrating parents and their surrounding community as part of the decision making process for allocating dollars where these are most needed.” You could make exactly the same statement for charter school boards, in fact it’s baked-into the structure in most cases. And that goes to my reaction to your idealistic proposals for the future: how are public and privately-run schools to … Read More

      “4) nearly 80% of all California school districts have not been successful in integrating parents and their surrounding community as part of the decision making process for allocating dollars where these are most needed.” You could make exactly the same statement for charter school boards, in fact it’s baked-into the structure in most cases.

      And that goes to my reaction to your idealistic proposals for the future: how are public and privately-run schools to identify (much less collaborate on) such goals when the former responds to publicly-elected school board and the latter to a corp board with the minimal transparency of a corp – all the while competing with the former for scarce public ed dollars?

      The way to make this happen — assessment of pro’s and con’s of the charter experiment — is to have both charters and districts operating under the district umbrella, and all subject to public feedback via locally elected school boards. I’ve seen a glimmer of this in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where there is (a)open enrollment within districts, and (b) some publics have opted to go charter (but are still district schools).

      • jesus arguelles 3 months ago3 months ago

        I beg to differ with your comment suggesting that 80% of school district boards have failed equally as charter school boards to incorporate parents in their decision making in allocating resources. First, the Board members of the former often are elected unlike the Board members of charter school. The latter recruits and selects members from the local community whose task is to advance students’ interests by defining and allocating funding accordingly. In fact, some Board … Read More

        I beg to differ with your comment suggesting that 80% of school district boards have failed equally as charter school boards to incorporate parents in their decision making in allocating resources.

        First, the Board members of the former often are elected unlike the Board members of charter school. The latter recruits and selects members from the local community whose task is to advance students’ interests by defining and allocating funding accordingly. In fact, some Board members at charter school are parents with kids attending the same school.

        Secondly, Board members from school districts have ‘multiple, more complex and encompassing as well as hidden ‘ agendas due to their embedded political structure and modus of operandi. This results frequently in favoritism and unfair channeling of resources. Having parents closely engaged tend to share more openly the desires and preferences of their daughters/son thus having a higher likelihood of knowing the needs of their kids better and matching resources where they are needed the most.

        Third, the geography or service area covered typically by one district is considerably larger than that served by a charter school. Such dynamic tends to lead to more opportunity for many multiple interests to influence Board’s priorities in allocating resources equitably. This is less so the case for charter schools given a more hands-on and more transparency due to closer accountability in all aspects of its planning and management of their operations.

        And fourth, continuous and meaningful parental engagement is part of the ‘secret sauce’ of the success of the charter school model. Such model attribute is part of the essence and concept that “it takes a village” to educate a child.

        Again, we must persevere in seeking and accelerating innovation in our public school system which improves educational outcomes with less strife and resource consumption. Also, such effort must generate higher positive impact on the education of our kids. We cannot continue to feed the 800 lb. gorilla in the room to fix our schools and increase administrators’ salary (and consequently paying less to teachers who are the ‘boots on the ground’ doing the real work) by accessing financing via tax levies, bonds while performing financial engineering magic with the assistance of investment bankers and their political associates. Truth be told, we have become ‘financial junkies’ to support and update the same old model of public education system. Voting on bond financing initiatives every two years is not a very smart and financial prudent as a way to get to where we are going. That is, one does not keep on financing a business that is near inefficient, out of date and near bankruptcy most of the time!!!

        One last thought regarding the idea of moratoria and charter schools: If placing a moratorium on charter schools growth is the order of the day and the will of the majority with the goal of assessing the pros and cons as well as financial and political impact of the charter school model on school districts, then why not just declare a system-wide moratorium on the public education system to pause, evaluate, and possibly prescribe a different system or at least get rid of the elements of the system that are toxic, dysfunctional and not aligned with our student current and future educational needs?

  9. Eleanor Sledgewick 3 months ago3 months ago

    “When looking at institutional racism within public education, instead of being the panacea for children of color, more often than not the charter school industry actually leads to worsening conditions for a majority of students of color. ”
    Livermore Parents – Read the article.

  10. Danielle M Serio 3 months ago3 months ago

    I’m an educator currently working on my masters in administration, and the more I learn about charter schools in California, the more frustrated I am. Fantastic article!

  11. Roxana Marachi 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thanks for this timely and important commentary and yes, a moratorium is definitely warranted. Readers might also be interested in the recent news about this massive charter school scandal involving tens of millions of dollars, criminal counts that include conspiracy, misappropriation of public funds, paying for student information, and conflict of interest. The defendants are described to have "engaged in a devious, systematic public corruption scheme on the backs of students, their parents and the … Read More

    Thanks for this timely and important commentary and yes, a moratorium is definitely warranted. Readers might also be interested in the recent news about this massive charter school scandal involving tens of millions of dollars, criminal counts that include conspiracy, misappropriation of public funds, paying for student information, and conflict of interest.

    The defendants are described to have “engaged in a devious, systematic public corruption scheme on the backs of students, their parents and the public that over time diverted millions of taxpayer dollars into their own pockets,” according to District Attorney Summer Stephan.

    “Our team of investigators and prosecutors uncovered widespread misappropriation of public funds that extends across the state.”

    https://www.10news.com/news/local-news/50-million-in-state-funds-reportedly-stolen-in-charter-school-scheme

    Replies

    • Li 3 months ago3 months ago

      I’m pretty sure the way this scam worked was through school districts sponsoring these charters for the extra ADA. Are any district employees being held accountable?

  12. Livermore Parents 3 months ago3 months ago

    Our neediest students deserve charter schools and they should not be denied that choice.