Charter schools are a flashpoint in California’s teacher strikes—here’s where and how they’ve grown

Teachers and supporters picket outside of Manzanita School in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Oakland educators are seeking better wages and resources for their schools. (Randy Vazquez/Bay Area News Group)

As teachers picket in the streets of Oakland in their second high-profile strike this year in California, state lawmakers are hearing their battle cry loud and clear.

The state’s charter schools—privately operated public schools that are mostly non-union—are all over the Capitol agenda. Lawmakers are fast-tracking transparency legislation that would treat charter trustees like regular school boards. State education officials are studying their financial impact on school districts, a possible first step to curbing future expansion. In his State of the State address, Gov. Gavin Newsom lumped charter growth in with overcrowded classrooms, the achievement gap and understaffed schools as a “stressor” to be addressed.

Both Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond were backed by California’s powerful teachers’ unions. Both beat opponents who were heavily bankrolled by billionaire advocates of the charter movement in the November election.

But part of the attention also stems from the increased intensity, and national scope, of the war between unions and supporters of charter schools.

In California, that conflict has been portrayed as a sweeping fight for the soul of public education. But a CALmatters analysis of statewide charter enrollment data paints a far more nuanced picture, in which charter growth is more a collection of densely concentrated hotspots than a statewide phenomenon.

  • Though California’s charter school enrollment more than doubled during the past decade, from nearly 250,000 kids to about 630,000, only about 10 percent of the state’s 6.2 million public-school students are enrolled in charters, according to state data. From 2007-08 to 2017-18, the period we examined, more than half of California’s school districts—many of them suburban—authorized no charters at all.
  • Charter school expansion seems to correlate with poverty in California. More than half of the state’s charter enrollment is in districts where most students get free and reduced-price lunches. And many of the hotspots are in and around big urban areas with high concentrations of low income kids.
  •  In some districts where charter enrollment has spiked, the rise appears to be less about community demand than a loophole that, as state auditors have noted, let a few small, mostly rural districts make money by authorizing charter schools that draw enrollment from outside their boundaries.
  • And though claims abound, it’s hard to know how just much charter growth is impacting traditional schools’ budgets, in part because state law doesn’t let districts consider the potential fiscal drain when authorizing new charters. A forthcoming report from the Department of Education will examine the issue statewide.

Big cities, big impact

Much of the charter debate is arising from places such as Los Angeles and Oakland, and the data show why: Large urban school districts are where California charter schools have focused their efforts and seen the most growth.

At Los Angeles Unified School District, nearly 25 percent of the district’s 621,000 students were enrolled in a charter school last year, up from less than 7 percent in the 2007-08 school year.

In that decade, traditional district schools at LAUSD lost nearly 180,000 students, while charter schools authorized by the L.A. school board gained more than 106,000 students, as the district’s charter enrollment increased 225 percent.

Some 26 percent of Oakland Unified’s 50,000 or so students were enrolled in charter schools last year, compared with 16 percent in 2007-08. Among large urban districts, data show, Oakland has the state’s highest concentration of charter schools.

But L.A. and Oakland are exceptions. There were 73 school districts in CALmatters’ database with total enrollments higher than 20,000 students—a group that accounts for more than half of the state’s public school enrollment. Of those, only 18 (San Diego, San Francisco and Chula Vista Elementary school districts also were among them) had more than 10 percent of their total enrollment in charters. Dominating that list were districts in big cities and poorer communities.

In far more of California’s districts, charter schools are scarcely an option. Two dozen other big districts—in populous suburbs such as Irvine, Garden Grove, Fontana and Chino Valley in Orange and San Bernardino counties—authorized no charter schools at all in the past decade. This could suggest that there is either little demand or effort to establish charters in these communities, or intense resistance from districts toward authorizing them.

Overall, more than half of California’s school districts—650, of all sizes—authorized zero charters.

And where charters had been okayed, more than half of the statewide enrollment-—350,000 students —was concentrated in school districts where more than 60 percent of students get free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.

Far-flung charters

Complicating the charter picture are a handful of small districts that are augmenting their budgets by authorizing charters—in some cases, far beyond their boundaries—via an arcane legislative loophole.

California typically doesn’t allow charter schools to open unless a nearby district is willing to track their performance, for which the district can legally charge oversight fees. But a 2017 state audit pinpointed a handful of districts that had authorized charters as far as 50 miles outside their geographic boundaries—a lucrative arrangement that had increased revenue tenfold in at least one district, though the auditor also found that the districts weren’t necessarily delivering the oversight for which they were paid.

Nearly one-fifth of the state’s 2017-18 total charter enrollment came from schools authorized by the state’s smallest school districts, according to CALmatters’ analysis. Excluding county education offices, districts that had less than 1,500 students in traditional public schools accounted for more than 108,000 charter students, or about 17 percent, state data show.

The state’s directory of public schools shows that some of the charter schools authorized by small districts with the most dramatically disproportionate charter enrollments have addresses that are far outside their boundaries. But state auditors noted that it is difficult to tally exactly how many charters operate with far-flung authorizers. The state does not require charter schools to report the locations of all of their classrooms.

In any case, some of these small districts, such as Acton-Agua Dulce Unified in rural Los Angeles County and Dehesa Elementary School District in eastern San Diego County, experienced dramatic charter growth in the past decade.

Dehesa, which enrolled 145 traditional district kids in 2017-18, grew its charter enrollment from 676 students in 2007-08 to more than 8,500 last year. Acton-Agua Dulce, which enrolled 1,080 students in its district schools last year, grew the number of charter students it oversees from 165 in 2012-13 to nearly 14,000.

Prior to 2012, the Acton district—in the isolated high desert between Santa Clarita and Palmdale—had not authorized any charters. Now it has, on paper, a larger charter enrollment than Oakland Unified.

The cost question

Among the arguments that make charter schools such a potent political issue is the contention by unions and some districts that rapid charter expansion is draining traditional public schools financially.

“There has been a concentration of need in the traditional public-school system that charter schools are not helping to finance,” said Carmelita Reyes, a principal at Oakland International High School, which specifically targets newly arrived immigrant students.

Reyes was among 30 Oakland principals who drove to Sacramento on Wednesday—the day before the strike—to ask legislators for more school funding, oversight of charter schools and forgiveness of a $36 million debt the financially-distressed school district owes the state resulting from a previous bailout.

“If you just have one or two charter schools in your community, that’s probably fine,” Reyes said. “But when [as much as] a third of the students are in charter schools, as is the case in Oakland, it has really financially destabilized programs that we need to support our neediest students.”

But the degree to which charter growth impacts district budgets is difficult to pinpoint, and the issue has become so loaded that hard numbers are difficult to obtain.

In L.A. and Oakland the fiscal problems are longstanding and complex: Both districts for years have been in financial distress stemming from factors that range from rising employee pension and healthcare costs to shifting demographics. Oakland is mulling whether to close two dozen district schools amid a $22 million budget deficit that follows a state takeover and two state bailouts.

State funding for California public schools is based on the average number of students who attend school each day, meaning, in general, less money for districts with lower enrollment. But  it’s tricky to accurately isolate the costs of enrollment lost to charters; according to the California Charter School Association, about a quarter of charters are “district dependent,” meaning they operate within a district’s financial and governance structures.

Students listen as guest speaker Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, speaks during the opening ceremony for the new KIPP Excelencia Community Prep, a public charter school, in Redwood City, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. (John Green/Bay Area News Group)

Students listen in 2015 at an assembly at KIPP Excelencia Community Prep, a public charter school, in Redwood City. Unions and some districts say charters siphon critical funding from traditional public schools. (John Green/Bay Area News Group)

Also, a 1998 state law prevents districts from considering the financial impact when determining whether to authorize a new charter, so those cost analyses aren’t part of the approval process.

A spokeswoman for Los Angeles Unified, where tensions have inflamed following January’s teacher strike, told CALmatters that “we do not have a revenue impact calculation for independent charter schools.” A spokesman for Oakland Unified did not respond to a similar inquiry.

Meanwhile, neutral estimates are hard to come by. Teachers unions have been citing reports by the left-leaning Bay Area policy center, In The Public Interest, estimating that charter growth cost L.A. Unified more than $508 million in 2014-15 and Oakland Unified $57 million in 2016-17.  In The Public Interest is affiliated with the Partnership for Working Families, an advocacy group that lobbies against income inequality and whose funders include organized labor.

The California Charter Schools Association says whatever financial impact charter growth has had on school districts is overblown and a scapegoat for issues outside of charters’ control. They criticized both of the In the Public Interest reports when they came out, saying the latest one was “commissioned by a biased organization with a political agenda and conclusion in mind.”

The forthcoming report by the state Department of Education has promised to delve into the numbers with a report due July 1, but it, too, is politically controversial. State schools chief Thurmond, who is overseeing the study, won office on a platform that partly called for a pause on charters while the state examined their financial impact on districts.

Charter advocates fear that focus on fiscal impact—combined with the anti-charter rhetoric of striking teachers—could lead to recommendations that slow the growth of charters. In any case, they say, it’s unfair and distorts their intentions.

“This villainization of charters driving districts to brink of insolvency is salacious,” said Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the state’s charter school association. She touted the growth of charter schools in California, saying it reflects the sector’s broad goal of giving needy students equitable learning opportunities.

Charters in Oakland and L.A. educate similar proportions of low-income students as traditional district schools, according to the association.

“Not for a second will I apologize for the growth of charters that are meeting the needs of parents and are contributing to lifting up our brown and black kids, our disadvantaged students and providing them a lifeline of opportunity for greater success in our great state,” Castrejón said.

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