Charter Schools Unleashed “Educational Hunger Games” in California. Now It’s Fighting Back.

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By Andrea Gabor, Bloomberg Professor, Baruch College. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

California has the highest concentration of charter schools in the U.S., with one in 10 students in the state educated in one of them. Since the legislature passed a charter law in 1992, these schools have enjoyed the “unqualified support” of every governor. No one was more gung-ho than Jerry Brown, California’s last chief executive, who founded two charter schools when he was mayor of Oakland.

Both that unwavering support in Sacramento and the torrid pace of charter expansion — there are more than 1,300 charter schools in California today — are now likely to change. In one of his first acts as California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom convened a task force to evaluate the impact of the charters’ growth on public school districts. Earlier this month, in a series of bell-weather proposals that signal a U-turn for K-12 education in the state, as well as a growing nationwide backlash against charter schools, the task force recommended changes that could rein in the growth and increase much-needed oversight of these schools.

This policy realignment also marks a setback for philanthropists who have waged a high-stakes battle to elect charter-friendly school boards and rapidly expand charter schools in California and elsewhere in the nation. Indeed, while the task force initially came under fire from public-school advocates for its relatively large number of charter-friendly appointees, its report is noteworthy for the number of recommendations that received unanimous votes from the committee.

Chief among these is an effort to rein in an “extremely decentralized” authorization process in California, which allows 1,300 entities, including districts and counties—far more than any other state—to greenlight charters; this has led to a host of scandals, including most recently an $80 million scam. Other recommendations include giving charter authorizers greater leeway to consider the fiscal and “community impacts” of the schools, which are funded with tax dollars but privately managed, before approving new ones; under current law must approve any charter that meets basic requirements.

In March, Governor Newsom also signed legislation that requires charter schools to abide by the same open-meetings and conflict-of-interest rules as public schools — legislation Jerry Brown had opposed.

California’s policy reversal is rooted, in part, in the battle for scarce education dollars that is “exacerbated by the competition for resources between traditional public schools and charter schools,” as the report concluded. In California, as elsewhere in the U.S., rapid charter growth has left a wide swath of empty seats in both public and charter schools, while draining local budgets. Although California increased spending on schools sharply beginning in 2013, and is expected to do so again in its new budget, it still ranks 41st in the nation in per-pupil fundingcompared with other states.

Spending on K-12 education, which had once surpassed the national average,slowed substantially after the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which slashed local property taxes and made districts more dependent on state funding. Today the Los Angeles Unified School District spends about $16,000 per student, far less than, say, Boston; and teachers earn slightly less than their Boston counterparts, even though the cost of living in Los Angeles is substantially higher. Now California faces a serious teacher shortage among both public schools and charters. The vast majority of charter schools are not unionized and their teachers earn less than they do in public schools, though they are heavily subsidized by local and national philanthropists.

Charters have worsened these budgetary pressures, turning California cities into the setting for an educational Hunger Games. Because school funding follows each student, a near doubling of the number of charter schools over the past decade and an exodus of children from public schools has led those districts to suffer budget losses even as they continue to shoulder legacy and infrastructure costs they are increasingly unable to afford. These costs include school construction and maintenance expenses that a statewide study called “inadequate and inequitable.”

In Oakland, where about one-third of children now attend charter schools, the public school district experienced a $57 million budget shortfall in the 2016-2017 school year, according to a new study by Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District, where one in five students attend charter schools, lost about $500 million. (Charter-school advocates have claimed that Lafer’s figures are inflated, but they are mirrored by other respected studies.)

Lafer estimates that “the net loss to school districts for each student who moves from a district to charter school to be somewhere between $3,100 and $6,700.” This, in turn, has led to pressure to cut “core services like counseling, libraries, and special education” and to increase class sizes. Long-term charter saturation leads to the closure of public schools in low-income neighborhoods, which can destabilize the most vulnerable kids and is highly unpopular in affected communities.

A ballot measure this spring, one supported by both philanthropists and the teachers union, aimed to raise $500 million for schools in Los Angeles. But it was defeated in the low-turnout special election — thanks in part to opposition from business and real estate groups.

However, Governor Newsom’s first budget seeks to make up for some of that shortfall. It would allocate about $3 billion toward teachers’ pensions statewide, a cost that has been increasingly borne by local districts. (California pension costs have nearly doubled to about $1,000 per student in the four years leading up to the 2017-2018 school year; the legislature mandated increases to make up for a 25 percent drop in pension value due to the 2008 financial crisis.)

California’s K-12 realignment also marks a wake-up call for philanthropists who have championed unbridled charter-school expansion. In 2015, the Los Angeles Times uncovered a $490 million plan by Eli Broad, a local billionaire philanthropist, to turn half of all Los Angeles schools into charters, a program that could push the school district into insolvency. The plan aims to tap a who’s who of wealthy philanthropists, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, organizations that have promoted privatization plans nationwide.

Indeed, philanthropies increasingly have been pooling their resources and targeting most grants to support organizations that received funding from other major philanthropies. Among the top grant-getters in 2010, garnering close to $70 million, were Teach for America and its sister organization KIPP, one of the nation’s largest charter management organizations. (TFAs founder Wendy Kopp is married to KIPP CEO Richard Barth.) The philanthropies are funding what Harvard’s Jal Mehta and Johns Hopkins’s Steven Teles call “jurisdictional challengers”—organizations that are working to upend traditional public schools and school boards. A new investigation by Pro-Publica estimates that TFA alone has pulled in $200 million from just three major donors and their foundations, including the Walton’s and Los Angeles’s Eli Broad.

Together Teach for America (TFA) and KIPP have played a key role in charter expansion in cities like New Orleans, Los Angeles and Indianapolis, at the expense of traditional public schools.

Not surprisingly, charter schools have become a significant factor in a continuing wave of nationwide teachers’ strikes. During the Oakland and Los Angeles strikes earlier this year, both of which won substantial backing from the local community, the teachers’ unions’ demands centered as much on reining in charter-school growth as they did on increasing wages.

Now the California charter task force’s recommendations seek to answer many of those demands, which include limiting the authorization of charters to local districts. Current law allows charter applicants who are turned down by a district to file multiple appeals, including to the State Board of Education. The task force also proposed a one-year moratorium on virtual charters, which have been plagued by scandal, and the development of standards to improve charter-school oversight. Several bills pending before the state legislature echo these recommendations.

TFA, which has come under attack for its high attrition rates—teachers frequently don’t stay more than two years—is also the target of new legislation pending in Sacramento that would ban districts from signing contracts with “third-party organization[s]” whose teachers do not commit to teaching for at least five years.

While charter schools are not the only reason for the crises in places like Oakland and Los Angeles, Gordon Lafer is right that they contribute to the “urgent needs—even desperate needs” of these districts.

An important step for cities with high concentrations of charters is to determine the tipping point at which charter proliferation in a given neighborhood hurts nearby public schools, and to develop policies that mitigate those effects. One approach might be to penalize charter schools that discourage the enrollment of high-needs students, including those with learning disabilities and English language learners. This practice, called “creaming,” has turned nearby public schools into dumping grounds for children who are the hardest and most expensive to educate.

Most importantly, states need to increase school financing, which for most still hovers below 2008 levels. They should learn from California, which saw its schools go from “first” in quality to “worst” after the funding cuts that began with Proposition 13 and led to ballooning class sizes, crumbling school buildings, and underinvestment in everything from counselling to technology, even as the number of high-poverty public schools has steadily increased.

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  1. Pespi

    If we say the purpose of charter schools is to end public schools, what is the purpose of this? Do billionaires simply want to decide what children will learn, out of their disdain for any democratic notion?

    It’s good to see California pushing back, but sad to see the various efforts forced to treat charter schools as part of the landscape and not an alien infection to be annihilated.

      1. Sushi

        Asset-stripping is a favored way to make money. If the government helps you, that is a feature.

        When some of those assets in play are kids, that is tantamount to child abuse.

        1. Susan the other`

          Interesting way to look at it. Much like homeowners were the assets for the mortgage bubble.

      2. shinola

        From the article flora linked to:

        “…if you are shopping for a charter school for your child, knowing that it’s nonprofit is not enough. Ask if there is a for-profit business operating the school, and if there is, think twice. If that for-profit business is operated by the same people that run the school, don’t think twice– just walk away.”

        I can hardly believe I read that in an article from Forbes.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Charter schools and privatization are about many things: breaking the teacher unions and de-skilling the job, making teaching into low-paid, contingent labor: removing school management from any kind of democratic oversight: channeling tax dollars into for-profit entities (even if they are nominally non-profit): enacting all kinds of sleazy real estate plays… all of it marketed with cloying, insipid rhetoric about “the civil rights movement of our time.”

      As a public school teacher who has been fighting corporate ed reform for over twenty years, I’m almost (but not quite) grateful to Trump, since 1) despicable charter school hustlers and privatizers can no longer hide behind their bogus social justice rhetoric while cashing checks from Betsey DeVos, and 2) Democratic Party enablers (Booker foremost among them) are more likely to be called to account for the destruction they’ve helped cause.

      Clueless liberals were perfectly happy to see the public schools destroyed under Obama, whose Secretary of Education memorably said that Hurricane Katrina and the wholesale firing of the unionized teaching force was the best thing that ever happened to the New Orleans public schools, but have now all of a sudden are finding religion Because Trump.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Whoops, sorry, I neglected to mention one of the other objectives of so-called education reform: monetizing the kids’ data, and making the curriculums safe and friendly for the employer-dominated labor markets the kids will enter…

      2. flora

        “the civil rights movement of our time.”

        As was said of the first missionaries to Hawaii: They came to do good and ended up doing very, very well for themselves. ka-ching’.

        As for civil rights… Al From, architect of the modern New Dem political estab, went south in the 60’s to work for civil rights. He discovered the public schools and local & state govts had encoded Jim Crow in the schools, but a lot of private schools had not. From that he concluded govt was the problem (almost like he’d been reading Hayek and Mises), not that govt at the local and state levels needed reform. The New Dems have always favored charter/private schools over public schools….as a civil rights issue. Except, using the segregated south of 50 years ago as a measure now is well past its sell-by date.

        Dem pols are helping destroy good public schools in the name of righting a wrong from 40-50 years at the height of segregation, and their donors are making a boatload of money running charters. What’s not to like? grrr.

        Why not put money into public schools?

        1. flora

          The irony of charters as an answer to segregation is that charters themselves are often more racially homogeneous than the public schools around them… which charter owners now spin as a positive, culturally affirming environment. … right.

          Making public schools poorer to make charter schools richer … it was always about the money… what about the civil rights of kids in public schools to a good public education? Why take away money from public schools? grrr.

          /end rant

  2. sharonsj

    Here in Pennsylvania, charter schools make up about 10% of all schools yet they get 25% of the state’s budget for education. Regular public schools have constant shortfalls and are continually cutting programs and teachers. Anybody with a brain knew that charter schools were nothing but a scam to get taxpayer dollars.

  3. Genghis

    Apologies if this is read as changing the subject. What’s missing from the article is an understanding of individual families and their needs as they try to do what’s best for their children.

    My kids are grown so I am years away from the concerns young parents have re raising kids and sending them to school. But when our kids were in school, the public school system in our LA suburb failed our kids, one of whom nearly aced the SAT. Bullying was a huge problem, we got involved and co-founded a bullying prevention task force for the school board. It took years but a program was put into place, unfortunately it was years after it could have done any good for our children.

    The only student from one of our kid’s graduating class who got into Harvard was a known cheater. Known by the kids anyway.

    I can see the appeal of charter schools, though I do not support them. I do support public school reforms, like getting a better balance between male and female teachers, especially in primary and secondary classes. Yes, teachers should be paid more, but at the same time underperforming teachers are very difficult to remove. Tenure occurs way too soon, 2 years technically but functionally in only 16 months. This is in a system that ranks very close to the bottom nationally.

    Charter schools are not the answer, but what is?


    1. Anon

      Umm, that is why the author referred to The Hunger Games. Education becomes an individual zero-sum game, and NOT the community affirming affair it should be. A quality education for all who need/want it is essential to a functioning, egalitarian society. The Charter/Public school dichotomy is the wrong solution to a lack of funding, and oversight, for essential education programs.

  4. XXYY

    As an aside, I have a family member who’s an elementary school principal here in CA. She says one of the things that’s killing her school budget is the ever increasing cost of healthcare for school employees. Effectively, much of the education budget is being redirected to finance the ridiculous US healthcare system, which spends more than 2x per person than other first-world countries while achieving inferior results.

    A national healthcare program like Medicare For All will have a tremendous impact on school budgets by moving this huge expense off their books, allowing school budgets to be devoted to staff salaries and facilities maintenance.

    1. Anon

      Yes. I’m not sure what the health benefits for all statewide CalSTRS retirees but the LAUSD teachers retire with full medical benefits. As healthcare costs inflate, retiree cost rise. M4All would likely lower those costs for everyone.

  5. anon y'mouse

    having gone to Oakland Public Schools in the 80s/90s, i am not sure HOW they could have further cut “libraries, counselors, maintenance on infrastructure, etc”. our library had to borrow books from other schools to make the shelves look full during the accreditation review, had no full time librarian nor hours and was staffed mostly by students (including myself, shelving those “borrowed” books). my counselor in HS had 500 students to “guide”. one language instructor explained to me that she was not allowed to use the copying machine to run off materials for her students because she taught a mixed elective, so her students did not meet the minimum requirements of nearly all scoring within a certain percentile on the annual tests. and this was 20+ years ago. also, the emergency exists were chained due to concerns about the safety of the stairwells, and half the bathrooms were pretty much permanently closed. how could it have gotten worse? i guess things can always get worse, until there isn’t anything left at all.

  6. anon in so cal

    Yes, the Los Angeles Ballot Measure EE was defeated this spring. EE proposed to levy a 0.16 cents per square foot parcel tax on homeowners, to find additional funding for the LAUSD.

    Not mentioned in this article: the Deasy iPad fiasco:

    “a $1-billion effort to put iPads in the hands of every student in the Los Angeles Unified School District….The district is paying $678 per device — higher than tablets cost in stores — with pre-loaded educational software that has been only partially developed. The tablets come with tracking software, a sturdy case and a three-year warranty.”

    Deasy and others were apparently personally profiting from this.

    “The district is using school construction bonds, approved by Los Angeles voters, which didn’t mention the purchase of iPads. This factor raised questions among members of the appointed Bond Oversight Committee.”


    “LAUSD officials had close ties with Apple, Pearson execs, records show”

    1. Anon

      Ballot EE was defeated by a concentrated NO vote from an area of LA that has few, if any, students in the LAUSD. Low turnout allows a motivated few to dominate a “democracy”.

  7. Susan the other`

    Time flies. California passed Prop 13 in 1978. At a time of full denial of our dysfunctional economic system. It should be considered a case study now for what not to do. 40 years of social neglect.

  8. Cal2

    Susan, 40 years of economic tax justice and neighborhood stability, another way of looking at it.

    The growth in charter schools has to do with the decline in public schools. One cause, meddling with succesful curricula and standards.

    Years ago, Bill Honig became state superintendent of public education in California.
    Instead of teaching children to read, he mandated teaching phonics, part of bilingual education. This led to disastrous expenses, with few benefits to taxpayers, declining scores, a teacher shortage with expensive esoteric tests for teachers and declines in scores and school quality.

    Here is a state legislator finally trying to rectify that:

    As usual, there’s corruption in California politics and especially school boards.

    “Honig was elected superintendent of public education in California three times and served from 1983 to 1993.
    In 1992, he was charged with four counts of participating in making state contracts in which he had a financial interest.
    The indictment stemmed from payments made by the Depart-ment of Education to local school districts to pay the salaries of individuals who actually worked for the Quality Education Project, a nonprofit corporation. QEP used as its address Honig’s residence address, and the required periodic legal statements and reports were filed by Honig’s wife, Nancy.
    Honig was convicted on all four counts following a jury trial in Sacramento County Superior Court. He was sentenced to four years of probation, 1,000 hours of community service, and was ordered to make restitution payments of $274,754 and pay a fine of $10,800. A one-year jail sentence was suspended.”

    1. Anon

      … 40 years of economic tax justice and neighborhood stability, another way of looking at it.

      Prop 13 had little to do with tax justice. While some fixed-income elderly had property tax bills they couldn’t pay, most homeowners were not being taxed unjustly. They were simply duped by Howard Jarvis (leader of an apartment owners association) into believing that Prop 13 was something it was not; it was actually a tax break for commercial property owners. Property tax on residential property was only 40% of state income in 1978, it is 60% today. And while the percent of state funding from commercial property has dropped, commercial property owners have found ways to scam Prop 13 and pay NO taxes on their sales/transfers.

      The injustice is that older Californians are refusing to fund schools at the levels they received as young students. And refuse to recognize their errors.

  9. Adam Eran

    Union-busting Charters are part of a trio of strategies: Charters, merit pay (because teachers are so motivated by money), and testing. No science supports these as improving educational outcomes, but education “reform” backing billionaires have even made a film touting Michelle Rhee’s draconian methods implementing this in Washington D.C. where she was the “tiger mom” administrator who cashiered under-performing teachers. The film (Waiting for Superman) also promotes Finland as having exemplary schools, but omits mentioning that Finnish teachers are tenured, unionized and very well paid.

    What does science say correlates with better educational outcomes? Answer: childhood poverty. In Finland it’s 2%. In the U.S. 23%.

    So all this “reform” is misdirection, roughly like attempting to steer your car with the rear view mirror. It will simply destroy another public institution…and public institutions generally are a threat to the plutocrats’ property rights.

  10. Kuhio Kane

    (1) Don’t think for one second that Trump supports public education over the wealth of the financial elite.

    (2) As a retired public school teacher, I witnessed the dismal performance of most TFA recruits. The bulk of the Kopp Korps doesn’t stay longer than 2 years b/c two years of “service” qualifies them for free funding for their Master’s degree.

    In a capitalist state, profits are the only purpose. The latest iteration of this historical system no longer hides from scrutiny. Rather, it can steal from the public weal with impunity today. Look no further than the Orange Menace Trump (huge tax breaks for the wealthy class; growing empoverishment for everyone else and every public-based institution) to see that the big monied people, banks, and most corporate foundations are allowed to enrich themselves at the expense of the working class.

  11. parisblues

    As long as schools are funded by local property taxes rather than by state income taxes, the schools in poorer districts are always going to be underfunded. Charter schools are just a way of allowing the very best and brightest black and brown kids to drink from the white fountain.

    1. Joe Well

      >>As long as schools are funded by local property taxes rather than by state income taxes, the schools in poorer districts are always going to be underfunded.

      I have been saying that over and over in “liberal” Massachusetts and none of my “progressive” friends from wealthy communities like Cambridge can quite grasp the idea…and my friends from working class backgrounds laugh it off as a fantasy.

      >>Charter schools are just a way of allowing the very best and brightest black and brown kids to drink from the white fountain.

      Umm..most charter schools are worse than public schools, so no. Some Boston suburbs actually do have a decades-only program to bus a small number of city of Boston students in, which is more what you’re describing.

      Also, side note, even though race and income are highly correlated, this is still fundamentally about income rather than race, which is too easy to manipulate with optics. The affluent, aggressively gentrifying and whitening municipality of Cambridge has a black mayor and is now researching at city expense which city streets bear the names of colonial-era slave masters to rename them. Seriously.

  12. Joe Well

    What a coincidence! Today I met someone who introduced themselves as an “educational equity social entrepreneur” and I (poor impulse control) laughed and said “I hope that isn’t code for charter schools.”

    It went downhill from there.

    I said that given the mountain of evidence against charter schools, they are a God that failed, that supporting them now is akin to antivaxx and arguing over them is a similarly pointless exercise in debate. My interlocutor replied that the issue is more “nuanced” without specifying how. I asked if their funding was coming from Broad or another billionaire and that about ended that.

    It reminded me of a Facebook exchange I had with someone who identified themselves as a “housing provider” before admitting they were a landlord.

  13. Paul Kleinman

    The “new philanthropy” for charter schools is not just about short range profits here. It also deeply reflects the neo-liberal philosophy of Darwinian combat to produce children who “deserve” further attention by economic and social leaders to get Bill Gates, Eli Broad, etc genuinely believe that their success in raking in billions gives them the right to replace student centered public education with charter charter schools reflecting their ideology of pick and choose winners and starve the losers in public schools.

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