September 9, 2016 4:26 pm

Charter Schools Gone Wild in California

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This introduction is the first in a series of four articles on charter schools in the State of California. All four will be a part of an extended national report on charter schools, entitled Charters and Consequences, that will be published by the Network for Public Education in 2017.

img_0047You can find a charter in a mall, near a Burger King, where students as young as 12 meet their “teacher on demand.” Or, you can make a cyber visit to the “blended learning” Epic Charter School, whose students are required to meet a teacher (at a convenient, to be determined location) only once every 20 days. There is an added bonus upon joining Epic—students receive $1500 for a personal “learning fund,” along with a laptop computer. The enrollment site advertised that students could boost that fund by referring others to the charter chain.

A superintendent can expand his tiny rural district of 300 students to 4000 by running ‘independent study’ charters in storefronts in cities miles away, netting millions in revenue for his district, while draining the sometimes unsuspecting host district of students and funds. If he is clever, he might arrange a “bounty” for each one opened, while having a side business selling services to the charters. Charters can even provide lucrative investment opportunities for tennis stars and their friends. And then there is the opportunity to ‘cash in’ on international students at a jaw dropping $31,300 per student.

Exclusivity can be a magnet that draws families to charters. In districts with poverty, charters with a conservative and patriotic milieu, attract far fewer undocumented kids and students who need free lunch. For the ‘diverse adverse’ there are charters like Old Town Academy, whose students are 65% white and 6% poor, in a district where only 23% of the public school students are white and 61% receive subsidized lunch. If dog whistles don’t work, you can blatantly break the law and spell out the kind of student you would like to attend.

These examples (and there are many more like them) are not happening in Ohio or Pennsylvania, infamous for their ‘loosey goosey’ charter laws. They are examples from the beautiful and blue State of California, where flowers and charters grow wild.

California has the most charter schools and charter school students in the nation. In 2000, there were 299 charter schools in the Golden State. Last year there were 1230. Twenty-percent of the students in San Diego County attend its 120 charter schools.

Of the San Diego charter schools, over one-third promote independent learning, which means the student rarely, if ever, has to interact face to face with a teacher or fellow students. One of the largest independent learning charters, The Charter High School of San Diego, had 756 students due to graduate in 2015. Only 32% actually made it. The Diego Valley Charter School, part of the mysterious Learn4Life chain, tells prospective students that they “are only required to be at their resource center for one appointment per week (from 1-3 hours), so it’s not like having a daily commute!” The Diego Valley cohort graduation rate in 2015 was 10.8%, with a drop out rate of 45%. The San Diego School District’s graduation rate was 89%.

Over 25% of all students in Oakland attend charters, in which African American students are dramatically under-represented. Sixteen percent of the students in Los Angeles attend charters, which has cost the district half a billion dollars in the last ten years. Los Angeles County is home to 26 ‘independent study centers,’ including the California Virtual Academy (CAVA), run by the for-profit K-12, which enrolls 3,634 students in Los Angeles County alone. CAVA just agreed to a $168.5 million dollar settlement with the state for false advertising and ‘cooking the books’ with attendance.

How many is enough when it comes to charters, given the scandals, problems, and little, if any evidence, of overall success? It appears as if there are more charters than California needs, but there are certainly not as many charter advocates want.

Eli Broad, who made his fortune building tract housing and selling insurance, is a Los Angeles multi-billionaire who has given a fortune to charterize the city and the state. His involvement drew national attention when his foundation’s plan for charter school expansion in Los Angeles was leaked to The Los Angeles Times. It proposed the following goals “(1) to create 260 new high-quality charter schools, (2) to generate 130,000 high-quality charter seats, and (3) to reach 50 percent charter market share.”

The term, “market share” refers to children.

The Broad plan is to be actualized by a non-profit called Great Public Schools Now, which keeps its funders hidden on its website, however, the leaked report included a list of billionaires both within and outside of the state from whom it would solicit funds. Despite public outcry when it was leaked, Great Public Schools Now is raising money and pushing its agenda.

No organization, however, better exemplifies the aggressive push to charterize the state of California than the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). The theme for their 2016 California Charter School Conference was March to One Million by 2022. Their conference goal was to “unify the charter community, whatever role they play.” Every kind of charter, regardless of effectiveness, can join the parade.

And that parade is well funded indeed. In 2014, CCSA reported its income to be $22,120,466. Although it is a membership organization, only $1.6 million came from charter school dues. That year, CCSA received nearly $17 million dollars in gifts, grants and contributions. CCSA also has another name, the California Charter School Consortium, and under that name it received a 5.8 million dollar grant from the multi-billion dollar Silicon Valley Community Foundation in 2014.

CCSA does not disclose its funders on its website nor on its 990 form, but given its Board of Directors, who makes the list of big donors is not difficult to guess.

This year’s Board of Directors include New York’s DFER founder, Joe Williams, a director of the Walton Education Coalition, Gregory McGinty, the Executive Director of Policy for the Broad Foundation, Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of the Hastings Fund[1], and Christopher Nelson, the Managing Director of the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund.[2] Prior Board members include Reed Hastings of Netflix and Carrie Walton Penner, heir to the Walmart fortune.

The real power, however, sits in CCSA’s related organization, CCSA Advocates, a not-for-profit 501(c)(4) whose mission is to increase the political clout of charter schools on local school boards, on county boards, and in Sacramento. It is at all three levels that charters can be authorized in the state. Both CCSA and CCSA Advocates work together to thwart legislative efforts that would increase charter oversight, such as as AB 709 that would make charter board meetings public, allow the public to inspect charter school records, and prohibit charter school officials from having a financial interest in contracts that they enter into in their official capacity. All of the above are expected of public schools.

AB 709 is on the Governor’s desk awaiting action.

The California Charter Schools Association also fought SB322, which would give charter school students the same reasonable, due process rights afforded students who attend public schools, and SB 739 which would put some restrictions on the ability of a district to open up “resource center” charters in other counties, which led to the abuses described earlier in this report.

The efforts of the California Charter School Association Advocates do not end with the opposition to bills such as those described above. CCSAA is a conduit for hundreds of millions of dollars that influence California elections, both big and small.

The primary function of a not for profit 501(c)(4), according to the tax code, is to promote the social welfare. Although a 501(c)(4) may participate in some political activities, such expenditures cannot exceed 50% of the organization’s budget.

Does CCSAA promote the social welfare as its primary mission? Although its website has general information promoting charters, its donate button deposits donations directly into two political action committees (PACs).

In addition to those PACs, CCSAA also runs a super PAC, known as the California Charter Schools Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee, which has raised over $16 million since it began in the summer of 2011.

The list of big donors to CCSA Advocates’ Super Pac will not surprise those who follow the California charter world—Doris Fisher: $3,400,000; Eli Broad: $1,205,000; Reed Hastings: $3,684,500; members of the Walton family: $2,092,500; John and Regina Scully $1,529,500; and Barbara Grimm, $1,236,400. Ms. Grimm, whose family fortune was made in agriculture, stepped up her donations after her blended learning (computer based instruction) charter with its “edible education program” won an award from CCSA.

Then there are the PACs that donate to the Super Pac, as well as the individual donors outside the state like John and Laura Arnold of Houston ($1,000,000), Michael Bloomberg of New York ($425,000) and Stacy Schusterman of Tulsa ($75,000), the chairman of Sansone Energy, who also sits on the board of The Charter Growth Fund.

Does this massive spending make a difference?

Carl J. Petersen is a candidate in next year’s LAUSD District 2 board election. He became a public education activist while fighting for his two daughters who are on the autism spectrum. Petersen had this to say about the influence of CCSA in Los Angeles:

The California Charter School Association (CCSA) and their allies poured nearly $2.3 million into last year’s LAUSD election, helping to make them the nation’s most expensive school board election. Given this influence, is it any surprise that the LAUSD Charter School Division, which is responsible for overseeing the largest charter system in the country, is headed by a former staff member of the CCSA or that the District has only revoked one charter in the past three years?

The spending by CCSA Advocates and its PACs, one of which deceptively goes by the acronym PTA (Parent Teacher Alliance), has affected primary races across the state. No doubt November will bring another influx of cash and spending.

And so the citizens of California stand at the crossroads. Do they follow the Broad Plan and trust in billionaires to shepherd the education of their children in loosely regulated charters, or do they slow down, and create responsible policies and rules that serve both the taxpayers and children of the state well.

Another state-funded $28 million grant cycle to start new charter schools has begun. No doubt the school entrepreneurs will be lining up to grab the $575,000 in start-up cash, generously provided by the taxpayers of the Golden State.

[1] a private foundation of Netflix’s Reed Hastings.

[2] a San Francisco-based philanthropy created by Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of the Gap, Inc.