Are Charter Schools the Answer?

This is the 9th entry in a continuing series on the status of public education in California today. Speak Out California’s own Jackie Goldberg has been involved in the public school system for close to 40 years-as teacher, LA Unified Schoool Board Member, LA City Council Member, State Assemblymember and Chair of the Assembly Committee on Education.
To see the other stories and analysis she has done, just go to our Weblog, scroll down the left-hand side of the page and click on the “Public Education” category.
We welcome your comments and responses as Speak Out California tries to provide Californians with honest discussion and appraisal of what is good and bad in the largest public school system in the Country. With so many challenges ahead, we hope you will let us know your thoughts on the subject as well.

What are we to think about Charter Schools? Well, as someone who began teaching in the 1960’s when the Alternative Schools Movement was afoot, I would normally be all for them. And part of me is quite happy to see some charter schools in very low income neighborhoods that may well better meet the needs of students who are in enormous schools, stuffed with too many children and not enough facilities, teachers, or materials to teach them appropriately.
But as they currently function in most of California, charter schools are really a disguised form of school vouchers. The only difference is that someone has to create a “new” school to get state money, where with vouchers, one could just move students into existing private schools, especially religious schools. And, charter schools are creating a disturbing pattern of who is NOT included. On the whole, special needs students are turned away when they apply to charter schools. The explanation is that they are not staffed to take on these children. Also, since most charter schools do not establish free or reduced breakfast and lunch programs (since most of them do not have kitchens), well then hungry low-income children tend not to choose to attend charter schools. Finally, a disproportionate number of charter schools serve middle class and affluent children and are located in neighborhoods that include few if any very low income children. And since NO transportation is provided, your child must live near the school, or have a parent drive him or her, thus requiring that the family has a car.
And, charter schools are treated very differently from “regular” schools. Charter schools are exempted from most of the requirements of “regular” schools. They do not have to be in buildings that meet certain earthquake requirements. Most charter schools rent buildings, but are increasingly getting access to state school building bonds, and are building new schools, often in neighborhoods that also need schools. And so, they compete with existing overcrowded schools for limited state building funds. Charter schools get all their funding from the state for textbooks, and instructional materials. But they do not have to use those funds exclusively for State adopted texts even though that is the case for “regular” schools. The Charter schools set their own hours, decide if students need to attend classes at all or can work on “independent study.” And charter schools do NOT contribute to maintaining the school district(s) from which they are drawing students.
There do not seem to be any rules for requiring charter schools to keep their students for the full year. In some cases, students not performing well, or who have special needs are encouraged to return to their former “regular” school before the state testing takes place. And when they return to their school district, that school district has no way to receive funding for that student for the remainder of the year, yet must take all returning students.
Now I am as guilty as most of complaining about the overhead costs that school districts have. “Downtown” at the district office, whatever the size of the district, is always listed as the cause for why there is not enough money for instruction. But school districts ensure that money is spent according to law, and that credentials of teachers are checked. They provide security for staff and students, and breakfast and lunch programs too. Districts also work to improve instructional practices and provide professional development for employees. And, school districts provide the support and structure that make it possible for schools to welcome all students regardless of disability, family income, immigration status, or ethnicity, race, or religion.
Systematically, charter schools threaten the funding for “regular” schools in school districts. A school district loses 100% of the funding granted districts per student whenever a student attends a charter school.
But even though a district may lay off the teacher when enough students leave for charter schools, a district doesn’t close the school, so all the fixed costs of that school continue (e.g. utilities, grounds upkeep, food services, the library, the Principal and other non-classroom personnel) only there is no “”ncome” to pay for it. This means that those students NOT in the charter school suffer losses to their education because program cuts are often necessary in order to keep the lights on, and books in the library.
Finally, in almost every state that has charter schools, there is a set number that determines how many new charter schools can be added each year. Many states have an absolute cap as to the total number of charters allowed. NOT SO IN CALIFORNIA. There are no caps. As a result, some districts (who are required to charter schools in their geographic area if the charter school meets specific state-wide criteria) have large number of charter schools to which they are responsible for giving empty classrooms , and these districts are also responsible for monitoring the fiscal and educational programs of the charters. However, districts do not get funded to do these tasks. And thus, the costs are deducted from the resources that would otherwise be available to the district’s students.
And some charters are receiving many extra dollars from private, wealthy donors, which means these students are receiving more than the number of dollars for students in “regular” schools. Perhaps if these wealthy tycoons would just pay their fair share of taxes in California, ALL children could have more than the wholly inadequate $8000+ that is spent on students in this state. But of course, not ALL charters get extra money. Only those with “connections” to the right charters organization get the extra dough.
Finally, there is the long term to look out for. Already, about one-half of all California charter schools have closed. This raises serious questions of viability. Some charters were closed by the State for misusing public funds. Some have been closed by their own charter boards, as they didn’t always realize what it would take to sustain such schools. And some have been closed by districts who say that the schools are not meeting the student achievement standards they said they would when they got their original charter. And when these charters end operations, most of the students go back to schools in the district, while some try to find other charters.
This much flux, however, begs the question, how many charter schools will last 10 years, 15 years, 30 years? If they will last, they will become a part of infrastructure of California education. If they don’t, they will just deplete the resources available to students who have no charter to attend, or whose family chose to stay in “regular” schools. If the “secret” agenda is to get rid of district bureaucracy, then what will schools become? Will every school have to check teacher credentials? Will each school need to work out how to feed hungry children? Will each school decide whether or not to “take” special education students?
These and other critical long term questions need to be discussed before the “undermining” process is allowed to continue, even if that undermining is not intentional.
Experimentation and innovation in education should be encouraged. A Charter School Program could have been set up that would help discover new and better ways to help students who are from very low income neighborhoods. It could have been set up in a way that did no harm to school districts and the schools in those districts. It could have been set up to allow for more diversity in how students are taught, and what extras could be added by innovative teachers and administrators. It could have been many things. But the California system is flawed, largely because it was established by a ballot initiative funded by those who hate public education, and want to destroy it as it currently functions. They want to “privatize” schools with public money. They want a different set of rules for themselves, because, I guess, they are smarter than the rest of us who work for school districts. And some of them just want to destroy teacher unions. Of course, some who support charter schools don’t have any of these negative motives, but they are not usually informed on how the California system works in practice and the unintended (on their part) consequences of the growing number of charter schools in this state.