Charter schools have become a politically complicated issue in recent years — highly contentious yet sometimes a little overblown.
But there’s no question that now is the time to slow down their growth, which has been fueled by many states allowing for a virtually unlimited number of charter schools to open.
Not because of anything about the schools themselves. Yes, charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, don’t compare well overall with traditional, neighborhood schools. They close more often and pay teachers less. They’re more segregated and less transparent about spending taxpayer money, while generally performing about the same on standardized testing.
It’s time to limit their numbers because they’re draining funds from already-starved public school districts. In cities such as Chicago and Oakland, California, they’re even beginning to threaten the existence of neighborhood schools, which, unlike charter schools, are guaranteed to all students by right.
We should listen to the teachers who’ve been saying this loud and clear in recent months, from Los Angeles to West Virginia.
Nationwide, funding for public education is drying up, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. Total state and local K-12 funding per student is still well below what it was before 2008.
Priorities have shifted as well, falling hardest on students from poor and working families. Spending on prisons and jails has increased at triple the rate of public education funding in the last three decades. Seventeen states send more education dollars to wealthier districts than to high-poverty ones. More than 1.5 million students attend a school that has a law enforcement officer, but no school counselor.
Yet, in states like California and Arizona, and cities like Washington, D.C., more and more public money is being invested in charter schools as alternatives to neighborhood schools.
The sharpest example might be Oakland, which has the highest percentage of students in charter schools in California with the most charter schools nationwide.
Striking teachers there recently achieved demands that you’d expect, like higher pay and more resources for students. Yet they also forced district leadership to hold a vote whether to demand that state leaders pass a moratorium on new charter schools.
In January, striking teachers in Los Angeles all but forced their district to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in calling for such a moratorium. Days later, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the creation of a statewide panel to study the fiscal effect of charter school growth.
Some of that work has already been done. Research by In the Public Interest has shown that charter schools cost San Diego’s school district $66 million a year. This has led to cuts at the city’s neighborhood schools in counseling, libraries, special education and other critical services.
In Oakland, where district leadership is proposing to close 24 of its 87 neighborhood schools, charter schools cost $57 million a year.
West Virginia’s teachers didn’t want to get to that point. Last month they walked off the job to protest now dead legislation that would have opened up the state to charter schools.
It’s difficult to explain in a simple way how charter schools drain money from neighborhood schools, but actual dollar figures can help.
When a student leaves a neighborhood school to attend a charter school, all the public funding for that student — say, $10,000 a year — leaves with the student. But all the costs do not. The student’s old school can’t reduce its expenses by exactly $10,000 — it can’t spend less on fixed costs, like air conditioning and toilet paper, and its principal can’t work part time.
As more and more students attend charter schools that continue to open whether or not a new school is needed, already-struggling neighborhood schools are forced to make cuts that take resources from students.
Most charter school leaders and supporters recognize this problem. They acknowledge that charter schools were originally intended to allow educators to test innovative ways to teach students.
Yet some supporters and funders openly aim to replace neighborhood schools. They fund school board candidates who support creating more and more charter schools. Like the Walton Family Foundation of Walmart fame, which has spent over a billion dollars nationwide pushing charter schools. And Netflix founder Reed Hastings, who wants charter schools to educate 90 percent of California’s students.
Ultimately, parents just want a great school for their children. Most don’t care whether it’s neighborhood or charter. Teachers want a living wage and enough school resources to best educate and care for their students.
States must learn from the now decades-long experiment with charter schools, and reform their laws to ensure that all public school students can attend great schools.