California, the Wild West of Charter Schools, Needs Common Sense Reforms
By Donald Cohen
With more charter schools than any other state, California is ground zero for the “school choice” movement’s ongoing disruption of public education. Charter schools are opening statewide at a rapid clip, many supported by large charter chains, some based beyond state lines. In this year’s Los Angeles school board election, corporate reformers, including Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, and two members of the Walton family, poured millions into the campaigns of two charter school advocates, making it the most expensive school board race in U.S. history.
Unfortunately, California law is proving inadequate to protect many students, families, communities, and the public at large from the consequences of reckless charter school growth.
What’s happening can’t be what legislators had in mind when they passed the 1992 Charter Schools Act. They hoped to “improve pupil learning,” not create a parallel system of publicly funded but privately operated schools, many of which underperform nearby neighborhood public schools. They hoped to “encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods,” not enable large chains of schools where materials, methods, and evaluation are centrally dictated and teachers lack the power to set the curriculum. They hoped to improve opportunities for all students but particularly those that are “academically low achieving”—yet, as of April of this year, at least 134 of California’s charter schools had admission requirements that potentially excluded students who are low income, English learners, or struggling academically.
Meanwhile, as more and more public money is handed to the private groups that manage charter schools, districts like Oakland and San Diego are closing neighborhood schools, laying off teachers, and cutting programs to keep the lights on. At the same time, several small districts are using loopholes in state law to oversee charter schools outside of their districts because the fees they can charge help make up for budget shortfalls.
Clearly, California has a charter school problem—fortunately, more and more people are starting to realize it. Across the state, parents, community organizations, superintendents, and school district staff are coming together to demand reforms that protect students, communities, and the public at large.
My organization, In the Public Interest, is helping by elevating these voices in the charter school debate. We’re developing and advocating for common sense reforms. We’re performing research to reveal the consequences of unregulated charter school growth. For example, we found that much of the hundreds of millions of public dollars going to charter school groups annually to lease, build, and buy school buildings is spent with little oversight or accountability. We’re also documenting fiscal malfeasance, criminal activity, discriminatory practices, and impacts on neighborhood schools.
No one can deny that, in some ways, public education is broken in California. But it’s becoming clearer with every failed charter school, every student left behind, and every public dollar lost to private hands, that market-based reforms without strong protections are not the solution. Not only is “school choice” the wrong answer, it also creates its own challenges for education equity.
Like Network for Public Education members, we believe that every public school student, no matter how much money their parents make or what neighborhood they live in, deserves a high quality education. We’re working hard to help make that true in California, the Wild West of “school choice.”
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