What’s wrong with charter schools? The picture in California*

Guest post created by a longtime Northern California parent volunteer education advocate

  • Charter schools take resources away from the public schools, harming public schools and their students. All charter schools do this – whether they’re opportunistic and for-profit or presenting themselves as public, progressive and enlightened.
  • Charter schools are free to pick and choose and exclude or kick out any student they want. They’re not supposed to, but in real life there’s no enforcement. Many impose demanding application processes, or use mandatory “intake counseling,” or require work hours or financial donations from families – so that only the children of motivated, supportive, compliant families get in. Charter schools publicly deny this, but within many charter schools, the selectivity is well known and viewed as a benefit. Admittedly, families in those schools like that feature – with the more challenging students kept out of the charter – but it’s not fair or honest, and it harms public schools and their students.
  • Charter schools are often forced into school districts against the districts’ will. School boards’ ability to reject a charter application is limited by law; and if a school board rejects a charter application, the applicant can appeal to the county board of education and the California state board of education. Then the school district winds up with a charter forced upon it, taking resources from the existing public schools. Often this means the district must close a public school.
  • Anyone can apply to open and operate a charter school, and get public funding for it. The process is designed to work in their favor. They don’t have to have to be educators or show that they’re competent or honest. They may be well-meaning but unqualified and incompetent, or they may be crooks. Imagine allowing this with police stations, fire stations, public bus systems or parks.
  • Part of a school district’s job is to provide the right number of schools to serve the number of students in the district. When charter schools are forced into the district, that often requires existing public schools to close. Again, that harms the district and its students.
  • California law (Prop. 39) requires school districts to provide space for charter schools, even if the district didn’t want the charter. Charter schools are often forced into existing public schools (this is called co-location), taking space and amenities away from their students and creating conflict. This is a contentious issue in other states too.
  • Charter schools can be opened by almost anyone and get little oversight, so they’re ripe for corruption, looting, nepotism, fraud and self-dealing. Corruption happens in public school districts too, but charter schools offer an extra tempting opportunity for crooks, and the history of charters in California and nationwide shows that wrongdoers often grab that opportunity.
  • Charter schools, backed by billionaire-funded pro-privatization support and PR machinery, have positioned themselves as an enemy to school districts, public schools and teachers, sending their damaging message to politicians and the media. These charter backers pour millions into electing charter-friendly candidates. Tearing down our public school system and our teachers, as the charter sector does endlessly, harms our public schools and their students.
  • The charter sector tends to sort itself into two kinds of schools. Charter schools serving low-income students of color often impose military-style discipline and rigid rules – hands folded on the desk, eyes tracking the speaker, punishment for tiny dress code violations, a focus on public humiliation. By contrast, some charter schools serving children of privilege are designed to isolate the school from a district so that lower-income kids aren’t assigned to the school. Charter schools overall have been found to increase school segregation.
  • Charter schools overall serve far fewer children with disabilities and English-language learners than public schools. Even those designed to serve children with disabilities serve far fewer children with the types of disabilities that are most challenging and expensive to work with, such as children with severe autism or who are severely emotionally disturbed.
  • Despite the many advantages charter schools enjoy, they don’t do any better overall than public schools. The rallying cry for charter schools used to be that the “competition” would improve public schools, but that hasn’t happened. In charter schools’ more than 20 years of existence, they haven’t overall brought better education to impoverished communities.

*Note: This commentary applies to California charter schools and California charter laws. Many of the issues apply to charter schools in most or all other states where they exist.

8 thoughts on “What’s wrong with charter schools? The picture in California*

  1. Jim McCall September 7, 2018 / 10:12 pm

    “Charter” schools are not all alike. For instance, Gateway Middle School and Gateway High School in San Francisco are public charter schools that have no link to any corporate entity. Students enroll via lottery, so there is no administrative involvement in deciding who gets in. They are diverse and pretty highly rated. They were designed with the goal of providing a school system for kids who might have some kind of learning disability. Do you suppose you might use some nuance when you trash the name of all charter schools? As you discuss, there are some really evil Betsy Devos type of corporate charter schools that hurt our communities. On the other hand, these Gateway schools are a huge plus for this school district.


    • maestramalinche September 8, 2018 / 10:17 pm

      Jim, thank you for reading and commenting. First, I would like to clarify that I did not write this piece, but I agree with how it describes the problems with charter schools in a way that is easy to understand. I think that there is a lot of confusion about what charter schools are. This article helps to define them and how they do business differently from public schools. In the Public Interest recently published a report on how much charter schools cost our local school districts and our students. https://www.inthepublicinterest.org/report-the-cost-of-charter-schools-for-public-school-districts/

      Charter schools operate in a way that is not fair or equitable, and even if one particular charter school seems to be doing good work, there is always a cost to other students within the same district. This inevitable cost should be at the forefront of our discussions of inclusion, integration, and equity among the local stakeholders of each public school system. Due to charter schools being under the auspices of the charter friendly State Board of Education, local school districts have no control over how a charter school will affect the leftover budget for the rest of the students in the public schools.

      Second, I live in San Francisco, but work in a basic aid district on the Peninsula. I am well-versed in the inequity of funding for students across different districts throughout California. Charter schools do not address this deeply entrenched financially inequity, which allocates more per pupil spending on students residing in richer areas. However, charter schools do benefit from a lack of funding in ADA funded districts, such as SFUSD. Our district serves a large population of economically poor children, foster youth, and unaccompanied refugees. At the same time, our district receives quite a bit less money per pupil than wealthier children in the district that I work for. There is nothing that SFUSD can do about this; only California lawmakers, and possibly voters, can fix this. When resources are scarce and the needs are high, it is easy to cause consternation at what our schools should be doing more of and can’t. Charter schools are able to pick off highly motivated parents and their children by focusing on one or two issues that appeal to a subgroup of families in an underfunded district, while not attending to the needs of the more vulnerable populations.

      I too know many people who have worked at Gateway, and many families who attend Gateway, both middle and high school. One way that Gateway works with the district in support of its special ed students is that it reports to our county’s own SELPA, in conjunction with SFUSD. Many other charter schools, such as KIPP, refuse to do this, and have chosen to report to the El Dorado County SELPA for special ed students. Parents have much less access to the El Dorado County SELPA, and if there are problems with their special ed programs, they will likely not have their concerns heard. Many teachers and parents, including the San Francisco Special Ed parents, are fighting to have much more accountability within the boundaries of our local district for all students, in charters or in public schools. I hope that Gateway supports more local accountability for its schools and students.

      Lastly, I will say that not all families have had success stories for their special ed students at Gateway, and this is concerning. While many families may be happy, many others may not be, and there is no way to know who has left Gateway for a lack of attention to particular special ed students, as the district is not allowed access to this information. My own experience at Gateway was in attending a middle school information open house. The only way to get on the list for the open house was to fill out an on-line form in English. This was very upsetting to me as I work with English language learner families, and I know from experience that many of the families that public schools serve would not be able to fill out an on-line survey in English. It struck me that it was an entrance requirement of an exclusive private school and not at all a genuine public school that teaches and serves all students. Additionally, at the open house, the director of Gateway Middle School stated that there was no English language program available at the school and no program for high needs special ed students. No public school is legally allowed to bar certain students from attending. But Gateway, in making such a statement publicly, certainly is.


    • Alec Timmerman February 11, 2019 / 9:05 pm

      Just because there is a lottery doesn’t mean they don’t make it onerous for the “undersiables” to get in. We live in a city where it is 70% minority, over 50% English language learners. 70% free and reduced lunch, etc. Our charter schools, that have a lottery, find ways to be almost all white, or have no english language learners in a city of immigrants, or have no special ed. You know, anyone who might be more expensive to educate. They all claim to have a lottery, so what can they do if no children of color or immigrants apply. It is bs and a cover for exclusionary practices.


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