After Months-Long Battle, California Finally Enacts Modest Oversight of Charter School Sector

There’s an old cliche that almost perfectly describes the struggle to regulate an out-of-control charter school sector from state to state:  You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

In late August, in a presentation at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, former Ohio Governor Bob Taft named lack of effective regulations in the Ohio laws that enabled charter schools as one of the things he regrets about his tenure as Ohio governor.  Taft, a Republican, served for two terms as governor, from 1999-2007. In his remarks last week Taft explained that during his term, “We were not as observant as we should have been with regard to the early development of charter schools. We didn’t have the quality control we should have had, and as a result, we have a lot of low-quality charter schools. We should have done a better job—making sure operators were good; quality was high.”  (You can listen to Taft’s comments here—at minute 53 in the broadcast.)

This year, the enormous difficulty of regulating charter schools in the public interest has centered in California. California’s original charter school enabling legislation, like the Ohio charter school legislation which Bob Taft now regrets, emphasized innovation and launched a new experiment. But it neglected strict oversight.  Los Angeles Times reporter Taryn Luna explains: “Charter schools in California are publicly funded and independently operated. Originally authorized in 1992 legislation to promote educational innovation, charter schools have evolved from an experiment to a system that enrolls more than 600,000 students across the state.  California ties education funding to enrollment, and charters have often been pitted against traditional neighborhood schools in a competition for students.”

Capital & Main‘s Bill Raden is more blunt.  He sees this year’s battle to regulate California’s out-of-control charter sector as an attempt to correct laws that, “created a California-sized test bed for the never proved, and now largely debunked ‘pure market’ education theories of radical libertarian economist Milton Friedman.”

After months of fierce debate pitting school teachers and public school supporters against the lavishly funded California Charter Schools Association and an even more conservative group, the Charter Schools Development Center, a deal for modestly improved oversight of the charter school sector was reached at the end of August. The deal was formally enacted by California’s state legislature last week. Governor Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond personally brought the two sides together to broker the deal.  The deal won’t rein in some of the most outrageous California charter school authorization practices,  described in the Network for Public Education’s 2017 report, Charters and Consequences, but at least it will provide  local school districts some control over the charters which elect to operate there.

The Los Angeles Times and EdSource report the details of the new regulations. The agreement provides that school boards can reject new charter school petitions based on the fiscal impact the new school will likely have on district public schools. The plan requires all teachers at charter schools to be fully credentialed. Until now California law has required full credentialing only for teachers of core subjects—language arts, math, science and social studies—but districts could hire non-credentialed teachers for the arts and foreign languages.  Under the new agreement, if a proposed charter is refused by the local school district, the charter sponsor may appeal to the county board of education, but appeals may no longer be made for the state to overrule the local school district, except in cases where the local school board is said to have abused its discretion or acted arbitrarily. Charter schools in California will now be evaluated according to the same rating system as the state’s public schools, and the new law makes it at least somewhat easier to shut down academically or financially unsound schools.

There remains concern that the new plan incorporates broad principles, but that it may spawn litigation as it is implemented.

Impetus for the new regulations grew intense this year, especially during teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, where teachers exposed the dire conditions in their public schools, conditions created to a significant extent by the fiscal impact of charters on the public schools. In an academic study, political economist Gordon Lafer demonstrated conclusively that the growing charter school sector sucks essential dollars from the public schools—students carrying so much revenue out of the public system that the public districts can no longer maintain core functions required by law without increasing class sizes to unmanageable levels and slashing the number of nurses, counselors, librarians, and enrichment programs.

Demonstrating that in Oakland, charter schools suck $57.3 million from the public system each year, Lafer explains: “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…  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.”

A new study, State of Denial: California Charter Schools and Special Education Students, also demonstrates that in addition, charter schools in California—just as in other states—educate fewer special education students and far fewer students with severe disabilities.  Diane Ravitch summarizes the conclusions of the study: “The study found that charters enroll fewer students with disabilities than public schools. Charter enrollment (of disabled students) is 11% compared to more than 14% in public schools.  Furthermore, charters enroll fewer students with severe disabilities. They avoid the students who are most expensive to educate…  In some of the charter networks, fewer than 10% of students are entitled to special education services.  One celebrated charter in Oakland… known for its high test scores, has fewer than 3%.  The 12 Rocketship charter schools enroll only 7.34% students with disabilities. The two charters created by former Governor Jerry Brown in Oakland enroll fewer than 10% students with disabilities.”

While California has now taken steps to establish minimal oversight of its charter school sector, nobody believes the fight is over. The Los Angeles Times‘ education reporter Howard Blume predicts that the new regulations will only continue to fuel what has been a long and lavishly funded political battle: “A major agreement aimed at setting stronger standards for charter schools stands to intensify power struggles for seats on the Board of Education in Los Angeles, setting the stage for more contentious and costly election battles between charter advocates and allies of the teachers union, a cross section of education leaders and experts said… In Los Angeles, school board elections already were the most expensive in the country—as the influential teachers union went head-to-head against better funded pro-charter school groups seeking a controlling majority on the seven-member body. A record breaking $17 million was spent on three 2017 board races, including nearly $10 million in District 4, where charter-backed Nick Melvoin defeated union-backed school board president Steve Zimmer… The stakes are especially high in Los Angeles, where close to 20% of public school students attend 224 charters, more than any other school system in the nation.  Currently, the board is closely divided on many issues affecting charters, but leans toward tighter restrictions… The agreement between the teachers unions and charter organizations announced by Newsom…represents the biggest revision to state charter law since it was first enacted in 1992, when charters were widely viewed as a niche experiment to foster innovation. They have since become a central education reform strategy, often with wealthy backers and foundations propelling their growth. In Sacramento, there’s been a decades-long stalemate over charter regulations….”

While I agree with Howard Blume that the battle will continue, I am concerned about his and other reporters’ framing of the fight as a simple political battle between lavish backers of charters and teachers unions. Charter schools were created everywhere without any real understanding of the urgent need for public regulation in a system where millions of tax dollars would be flowing into the coffers of entrepreneurs. There is a lot of money sloshing around in the charter sector, including the for-profit charter management companies making big profits from the non-profit charters they are paid to manage. Across the states, this money has flowed generously into the campaign coffers of the state legislators—the very people responsible for public oversight.  California has also seen huge investments in this battle from neoliberal ideologues—Eli Broad, a California native, and additional out-of-state money from the likes of Michael Bloomberg.

In California and across the states, teachers unions represent the people closest to the students in the public schools. Their members provide the primary source of funding to support and promote public education.  On the unions’ side in this battle are also the researchers like Gordon Lafer in the report described above, and Rutgers University’s Bruce Baker, who has also demonstrated that out-of-control charter school expansion is catastrophically undermining the public schools not only in Los Angeles and Oakland, but also across the United States.

California demonstrates all the reasons why it is impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube.