February 23, 2023

Carl Petersen: Do Charter Schools Perform Better?

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Carl Petersen is a parent advocate for students with special education needs and public education. Here he answers a question about charter quality–are they really magical bastions of excellence? Reposted with permission.

In response to a Twitter post about my article detailing Congressional candidate Laura Friedman’s past support from the Charter School Industry, I was asked the following question:

Before answering this question, it must be noted that standardized tests are fraught with equity issues and arguably not a measure of proficiency and LAUSD should unplug from the SBAC tests. Until they do, parents should take advantage of their right to opt their children out of these tests.

Also, the law has given charter schools considerable advantages over public schools. The original selling point might have been that privatizing education would have increased performance through competition, but greedy operators found that following the same rules limited their ability to capture funding. They let the legal bribes fly (like funding Friedman’s past campaign), and bent the rules in their favor.

Some examples:

The Students That They Serve: Charter schools start with a built-in advantage because parents who seek these schools out tend to be more involved in their children’s education. As any teacher will tell you, having a motivated parent is a good indicator that a student will do well.

While public schools have an obligation to serve every student that walks through the door, charter schools have been given the ability to select their student bodies. Students who are not expected to do well on standardized tests are regularly “counseled out” of these schools. Being told that the child is not “a good fit” for the school is a common occurrence.

This disparity in enrollment can be seen quite clearly in the percentages of children with Special Education needs. While 14.27% of students in the three largest California school districts received services related to their disabilities, only 11.01% of students in charter schools did. The difference was even more pronounced when comparing “students with the most severe — and typically most financially costly — disabilities”. Children with moderate to severe disabilities comprised 28.85% of LAUSD’s special education population but only 15.18% of those enrolled in charter schools.

When schools like El Camino Real Charter cherry-pick their students it has a dramatic effect on surrounding public schools. Not only is student test data skewed, but the schools with a higher percentage of students with Special Education needs have higher costs. This is exacerbated by the fact that federal education funding for Special Education is based on the total number of students, not the number of students receiving the services. This rewards charter schools financially for not serving all students.

Funding: There is definitely a “What’s Mine Is Mine, And What’s Yours Is Ours” theme when it comes to the funding of charter schools. On the one hand, these privately operated organizations insist that they are “public schools” and are entitled to every funding stream that actual public schools get. Therefore, all bond proposals are written with guarantees that charter schools will also get access. The California Charter School Association (CCSA) even sued the LAUSD when they felt that money being spent to make schools more accessible for disabled students was reducing their “fair share” of bond proceeds. Also, under PROP-39, charter schools are allowed to claim space on public school campuses, even if it harms children with Special Education needs.

On the other hand, charter schools have access to funds that are not available to their public school counterparts. In addition to receiving bonds issued by public school districts, charter schools can also sell their own bonds. They are also provided with grants to obtain their own facilities (and continue to receive these funds after they have paid off their mortgages). On a federal level, charter schools were given access to PPP funds, but public schools were not.

Oversight: Charter schools are privately run, often by governing boards that are unelected and have no accountability to the stakeholders at the school. Parents and teachers at El Camino Charter High School who dared to complain about a principal who charged personal expenses to his school credit card were bullied by his supporters. North Valley Military Institute was allowed to settle a lawsuit alleging “abhorrent child sex abuse” without notifying the parents of public school students on the campus it shares. Despite obvious warning signs, Community Preparatory Academy was allowed to operate for five years while its Executive embezzled $3.1 million in public funds. LAUSD Board Member Nick Melvoin voted to renew the charter of Prepa Tec Los Angeles High even though only 3.26% of its students met state standards in math, it was $485,718 in debt and had no cash reserves.

While charter schools are supposed to be reevaluated every five years, Governor Gavin Newsom took advantage of the COVID crisis to automatically extend all charters in California by two years. This allows a school like the North Valley Military Institute to continue to victimize children with no public hearing provided to expose their misdeeds.

Finally, the answer: With all these advantages, one would think that charter schools would vastly outperform their public school competitors. That simply is not true. Yes, there are individual schools that perform really well, but there are also public schools that are also high performers. For every Granada Hills Charter High School (which was also an excellent school before it converted to being a charter) dominating the academic decathlon, there is a Prepa Tec Los Angeles High where only 3.26% of its students met state standards in math before it was shut down.

Twenty percent of the schools on a 2019 list of “underperforming” schools in the LAUSD were independent charter schools. Included in this list were schools operated by large, influential charter chains like PUC, Kipp, Green Dot, and Camino Nuevo. Clearly, these schools were not providing a good return on investment for the $591.7 million diverted from public schools.

What charter schools are good at is marketing. The industry has built a reputation that they achieve better results without ever actually proving that they are the better alternative. It is time to put Kids First and start holding these schools accountable for the public money that they receive. Those that cannot show that they are a better alternative to our public schools should be shut down immediately.

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