Earlier this month, thousands of parents took to the streets of Los Angeles to protest the ongoing assault against their children’s charter schools by the powerful Los Angeles Unified School District.
“Families That Can,” the new parent organization and the first-ever statewide advocacy organization for charter school families, objects to the LAUSD’s disparate treatment of their children.
“Charter school students are public school students,” says founding parent Jackie Duvivier Castillo. “Yet they don’t have the same access to resources, funding, and facilities that traditional public schools do.” Ample evidence backs ups that claim.
State funding data reveal independently operated public charter schools receive about $3,000 less funding per student than district-run public schools – even though charter schools abide by the same admissions, accountability, and testing requirements as any other public school. This disparity is not new.
In 1992 California became the second state to embrace charter schools in response to overwhelming popular demand for alternatives to failing district-run public schools. Even opponents went along, preferring public charter schools to other proposed education reforms, including private school tuition vouchers. Back then, the Golden State was a trailblazer. Today other states are leaving California in the dust.
In California, public school districts are the primary authorizers of charter schools, and they control the purse strings. In other states, public school districts are one of many chartering entities, including universities, mayors, statewide chartering boards, and non-profit organizations. This helps ensure that charter schools maintain financial autonomy and do not fall prey to the whims of district officials or politicized agendas.
Absent such diversity, California charter schools become targets when they succeed in educating students in districts that failed to do so. Money is one of the most powerful weapons in a district’s arsenal. The massive LAUSD is a case in point.
Eight years ago, in 2000, California voters passed Proposition 39 to make it easier for districts to pass school bonds. Districts, in return, were required to lease facilities to charter schools, but Los Angeles Unified, the state’s biggest district, flouted the law. Eight years, a bitter lawsuit, and a court order later, the district relented somewhat and offered to squeeze 39 of its 54 charter schools onto existing district campuses.
Only 22 accepted, but when the local teachers union started squawking, the district rescinded a third of those offers in April, leaving those charter schools without a roof over their head. That was the final straw for parents in Los Angeles and across the state who are desperate for better quality schools for their children.
Over the past 10 years, charters have grown by an average of 50 schools annually. Today nearly 700 charter schools are educating more than a quarter-million students statewide. Superior performance is fueling this growth.
Independent public charter schools consistently outperform district-run schools, in spite of less funding and a more challenging student population, according to a 2003 RAND study. An in-depth analysis released last week by the California Charter Schools Association found that Los Angeles charter schools consistently outscore their district-run counterparts on state tests, and this performance advantage increases the longer a charter school has been operating.
During this season of budget cuts, Sacramento politicians should join with “Families that Can” instead of balancing the budget on the backs of charter-school students. They should also do everything possible to ensure children in their home districts do not become collateral damage of turf wars between special-interest groups. Enforcing the law would be a good place to start.
Ian Randolph is the Education Studies Summer Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco. He will be a junior at Yale University this fall, majoring in Cognitive Science.