December 5, 2023

Thomas Ultican: Have California Charter Schools Stopped Growing?

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Thomas Ultican digs deep to see if the market for charters has cooled off in California. Reposted with permission.

Last year, John Fensterwald reported in EdSource, A new chapter for charter schools in California as enrollment drops for first time in 3 decades. The 2023 charter movement showed, year over year, attendance growth but it was not half that of previous years and 5,104 students less than 2021.

Has the bloom come off the charter school rose?

Looking at some board of directors for EdSource adds significance to Fensterwald’s article. Don Shalvey founded California’s first charter school, partnered with Reed Hastings CEO of Netflix and Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, is on the board. Then there is Robert Sheffield, President of CORE, a pro-testing billionaire funded organization. Jannelle Kubinec, the CEO of WestEd, and Mary Jane Burke, on the WestED board also serve on the 10-member EdSource board.

EdSource is a big-wealth supported pro-charter school publication.

Fensterwald noted,

“Not since the first charter school opened in San Carlos, south of San Francisco, in 1994, has charter school enrollment fallen year over year.

“In 2020-21, the first full year of the pandemic, total enrollment statewide fell 4.4% while charter school enrollment actually increased 3.4%. But this year, enrollment in TK-12 school districts and charter schools both fell 1.8%: 110,000 students in district schools, 12,600 in charter schools, as measured as of Census Day last October.”

Why Charter School Growth Cooled

Corruption, instability and segregation are endemic to charter schools, developing a reputation for avoiding special education students and English language learners. Researchers and organizations, like the Network for Public Education (NPE), have made sure these issues stay in front of the public.

Law enforcement has taken down many charter scofflaws, especially in the cyber charter arena. The largest charter school theft occurred in California when A3 Charter School conspirators fraudulently collected $400 million from the state, misappropriated more than $200 million, and according to the Voice of San Diego, outright stole $80 million. This led to a few years of corrupt charter school stories in the media.

For a decade, NPE has been updating “Another Day Another Charter School Scandal.” This searchable site catalogs charter school thefts, school closures, profiteering and more.

The profiteering field takes the user to articles about people like John Helgeson, vice-president at Learn4Life, who according to Voice of San Diego’s reporting“discovered a way to collect not just one, but two paychecks from California’s cash-strapped public school system.”

In her paper, Charters and Consequences,” Carol Burris addressed the phenomena of independent learning charter schools:

“There are 225 independent learning charter schools comprising nearly 20% of all charters in California. In San Diego County alone there are 35, including three associated with Learn4Life. The 2014 graduation rate for all of the students enrolled in San Diego’s independent center charters, including the more successful home-school programs, was only 44%. (Page 8) (San Diego Unified graduation rate was greater than 91%)

The infamous A3 Charter Schools were independent learning-centers. Mary Bixby is San Diego’s pioneer of the strip mall charter school business. In 1994, her Charter School of San Diego became the first charter school in the County. By 2015, Mary earned$340,810 from the non-profit she founded and her daughter, Tiffany Yandell, received $135,947.

Burris observed:

“Bixby, a board member of the charters and a full-time employee of one of the schools, also receives compensation for being ‘on-loan’ to two other Altus schools. Such obvious conflicts of interest would be illegal in a public school.” (Page 9)

Julian Vasquez Heilig, Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs Western Michigan University, joined T. Jameson Brewer from University of North Georgia and Yohuru Williams from University of St. Thomas to study segregating effects of charter schools. They concluded, “Charters are more likely to be segregated, even when controlling for local ethnoracial demographics” (Page 1) and discovered that “Many of the nation’s charters can even be classified as ‘apartheid schools’” (Page 2)—a term coined by UCLA Professor Gary Orfield for schools with a White student enrollment of one percent or less.

A 2016 Brookings Institute study of segregation in schools reported:

“Charter schools are more segregated than TPS [traditional public school] at national, state, and metro levels. Black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings.” (Page 32)

My personal 2019 study of Washington DC charter schools revealed that 64 of the 116 charter schools would be classified “apartheid schools,” using Professor Orfield’s definition.

Since their inception, charter schools have been taking less special education and English language learners than public schools. A look at the data from any section of the country supports this statement. I made the following 2018 graph from San Diego County data.

The most glaring problem for charter schools is instability, closing and going out of business at extremely high rates. Parents sometimes get a Friday notice about a Monday school closing. Carol Burris and team at NPE produced three reports, Asleep at the WheelStill Asleep at the Wheel and Broken Promises, detailing this tragedy with significant documentation.

The following graph presents the charter school failure rates within 15 years of opening.

How Charter Schools Continued to Expand

With a well-documented legacy of instability, corruption and segregation, it seems unreal that this privatized system still expands. Boatloads of billionaire dollars keeps it growing along with large incentives from the federal government.

The charter school movement in California was designed to create market-based solutions for public education, cut taxes and develop profit streams. Don Shalvey’s San Carlos Learning Center was the first charter school in California and site of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s 1997 roundtable discussion. At the meeting, Reed Hastings introduced himself to Shalvey; writer, Lily Geismer, claims Hastings needed Shalvey to give his education plans credibility. (Left Behind Page 249)

Two organizations, developed to accelerate and sustain charter schools, are NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF) and California Charter Schools Association (CCSA).

The history tab at the NSVF website states:

“NewSchools Venture Fund was created in 1998 by social entrepreneur Kim Smith and venture capitalists John Doerr and Brook Byers.” (Byers and Doerr are colleagues from the Kleiner Perkins venture fund.)

“We were among the first and largest investors in public charter schools and the first to identify and support multisite charter management organizations, which launch and operate integrated networks of public charter schools.”

Philanthropy Magazine notes that Reed Hastings helped “launch the NewSchools Venture Fund.”

While there is little doubt Bill Gates and The Walton Family Foundation are the largest individual donors to NSVF, $226,881,394 of grants documented in Organized to Disrupt represents only a fraction of the total billionaire largess. Besides receiving help from Reed Hastings over the last 20 years, billionaires John Doerr, Laurene Powell Jobs and John Sackler also served on the board.

The hundreds of millions of dollars from these billionaires have have financed the startup of many charter schools, including Reed Hastings’ and Don Shalvey’s first-ever charter management organization. It created a continuous inventory of replacement schools for all of the schools that go out of business. To the billionaires, this churn looks like a good thing but it is a nightmare for students and parents.

CCSA was formed as a nonprofit in 2003 with Caprice Young as CEO. John Walton, head of the Walton family, was an original board member. After John died, his niece, Carrie Walton Penner, joined the board in 2006. The next year Reed Hastings came onto the board. Penner and Hastings served until 2016 when both of them left and were replaced by employees.

Carol Burris conducted a yearlong study of the California Charter School Industry and published a lengthy report called Charters and Consequences, noting:

“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.

“The 2017 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; and Christopher Nelson, the Managing Director of the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund. …

 “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.”

It is through CCSA Advocates that much of the huge spending on recent Los Angeles Unified School District board elections has been directed.


With billionaire funding, it is difficult for the charter industry to fail.

Some people viewed charter schools as an experiment to prove how much better businesses could run schools than the public school system. There is a big lie being told that charter schools soundly outperform public schools. They do not. The fact is this 30-year old experiment has been a damaging and disruptive failure.

Reed Hastings, the Walton family, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates and other billionaires may never tire of trying to prove they were right.

It is past time to stop harming public schools.

Join NPE in the call for:

  • An immediate moratorium on creating new charter schools, including no replication or expansion of existing charter schools
  • End the federal charter school program that subsidizes and encourages charter expansion
  • Require certification of all charter school teachers and administrative staff, in accordance with public school requirements
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