Are Charter Schools Losing their Cachet? Is the Narrative Shifting?

There is a swell of reaction against “corporate school reform.” It can’t be called a tsunami, but the wave is significant enough that people are paying attention.  Thanks to a year of strikes by public schoolteachers, for example, people seem suddenly more aware that the expansion of charter schools has left urban school districts with all sorts of collateral damage.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss noted: “This country is nearly 30 years into an experiment with charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately operated, sometimes by for-profit companies. Supporters first described charters as competitive vehicles to push traditional public schools to reform. Over time, that narrative changed and charters were wrapped into the zeitgeist of ‘choice’ for families whose children wanted alternatives to troubled district schools.”

Strauss continues: “Today, about 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren attend charter schools, with 44 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico having passed laws permitting them.  Some states have only a few charters while some cities are saturated.  In Los Angeles, 20 percent of children attend charters.  In New York, it’s 10 percent.  Charter backers say the movement is an important and sustainable feature of America’s educational landscape and any problems it faces are expected growing pains. Yet the movement, which has enjoyed Republican and Democratic support—including hundreds of millions of dollars from the Obama administration—seems to be at an inflection point as supporters and detractors recognize that charters are not the panacea backers had long suggested… What looks like a backlash against charters has been several years in the making.”

Recently, as part of the agreement to end the strike by 30,000 Los Angeles teachers, not only did the district agree to smaller classes and more support staff, but it also agreed to another demand: that the district’s school board pass a resolution pressing the state legislature for an 8-10-month moratorium on new charter schools and co-locations of charter schools into public school buildings until the legislature conducts a study of the impact on public school districts of the expansion of charter schools. Although newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom has not taken a position on the proposed moratorium on charter schools, he asked Tony Thurmond, the recently elected Superintendent of Public Instruction to convene an expert panel to examine the impact of the charter sector across the state.  Newsom wants the panel to report by July 1.

Even in his news report on the Governor’s request for a panel, however, the Los Angeles TimesHoward Blume alludes to one problem with California’s charter school law.  Local school districts have no control at all over the growth or location of charter schools. Within the Los Angeles Unified School District, the LA school board cannot impose the kind of moratorium its members requested from the state while the study is ongoing: “LA. Unified has no authority to enforce a moratorium, which would require a change to state law. The L.A. school board, like others in the state, is required to approve any valid petition to start a charter school that comes before it.”

Strauss describes signs that, well beyond Los Angeles, widespread support for charters may be fading. In New York City, where charter schools were rapidly expanded under mayoral governance during Michael Bloomberg’s term from 2001-2013, the newest NYC Chancellor, Richard Carranza has been more critical of charter supporters when they disparage the traditional public schools. In his CURMUDGUCATION blog on Tuesday, Peter Greene noted that Community Education Councils of NYC, a group of 36 parent councils across the 1.1 million-student school district, have through their Education Council Consortium formally proposed a five-year moratorium on new charter schools in NYC along with a system-wide impact evaluation of NYC charter schools.

Strauss reminds us that in Chicago: “(Mayor) Rahm Emanuel surprised the city when he said he would not run for a third time even though there was no heir apparent.  One of the reasons that commentators said contributed to his decision was the growing unpopularity in Chicago of his education policies, which included closing some 50 traditional public schools, affecting mostly African American students, and his embrace of charter schools.”

The Network for Public Education (NPE) has been tracking problems in charter schools and problems caused more broadly by charter schools for years. In the introduction to a 2017 report, Charters and Consequences, NPE executive director, Carol Burris describes the widespread absence of regulation and accountability in the state laws that establish and supposedly oversee charter schools: “There are national chains that are corporately managed and ‘mom and pop’ charters. There is instability as charters open and close. About 1 in 5 charters are for-profit.  Some have a real estate arm that buys buildings then rents them to their own schools at exorbitant rates.  Still others are not-for-profit fronts that are managed by for-profit corporations. Some charters are brick and mortar, others are located in storefronts and still others are cyber or virtual schools… Many boards are populated by billionaires who enjoy isolated lives of wealth far from the poor, urban communities that their ‘no-excuses’ charters serve… Despite the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars that has resulted from lack of regulation, America’s billionaires—from Betsy DeVos to Eli Broad and Bill Gates—have spurred charter growth.  Sometimes they flood pro-charter ballot initiatives or political campaigns with their cash. They fund state and national charter and choice lobbying organizations they help create. Politicians from both parties, eager to receive their contributions, are more than willing to comply with both legislation and funding.”

Besides states’ weak regulation of their charter schools, however, it is also becoming increasingly understood that maintaining separate and unrelated systems of schools—all paid for from the education budgets that were stretched thin even before charters were established—is economically untenable.  In Los Angeles, striking teachers highlighted a May, 2018, report by political economist Gordon Lafer on the economics of California charter schools:  “In 2016-17, charter schools led to a net fiscal shortfall of $57.3 million for the Oakland Unified School District, $65.9 million for the San Diego Unified School District, and $19.3 million for Santa Clara County’s East Side Union High School District.”

Lafer explains what most people don’t understand about their public school district: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case.”

Lafer details the costs public school districts cannot immediately cut when students leave for charter schools: “If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

The Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker examined the same fiscal issues around the expansion of charter schools in a November, 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities.  In a new column, Jeff Bryant interviews Baker about the dire consequences of charter school expansion in any fixed geographic space like a school district: “It’s about the fact that kids are shifting to charters, and money for district schools is declining at a pace whereby the district cannot possibly immediately, efficiently adjust its budget and use of space… It’s just inefficient… Running two systems in a common space is just less efficient and more expensive than running one.. The ongoing inefficiency of charters is baked into having uncontrollable mobility between two independent systems operating in a common space.”

8 thoughts on “Are Charter Schools Losing their Cachet? Is the Narrative Shifting?

  1. Pingback: Are Charter Schools Losing their Cachet? Is the Narrative Shifting? – Mister Journalism: "Reading, Sharing, Discussing, Learning"

  2. The trouble with corporate charters in Arizona is that they keep getting bigger. Huge campuses with football stadiums, gymnasiums, and even libraries. I came to work at a charter because I believed it would be different.

    These new corporate schools(ALA) are just bigger, shinier versions of the district schools. They are not what the originators of Arizona’s charter movement had in mind.

    Just my two cents.

  3. California may be decreasing charters, but they’re adding community schools. A community school run by partners is like a charter. Everyone likes the sound of community, but these schools won’t really be owned by the community.

  4. Pingback: Teachers’ Strikes in Oakland and Los Angeles Change the Conversation about Charter Expansion | janresseger

  5. This is an incredible summary of charter school systems overflowing into some states, for example, in Arizona according to the Arizona Charter School Association, about 17% of all Arizona public school students attend charter schools. With all the backlash against charter schools in Arizona, that is an astounding amount of student.

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