While the statewide assault on charter schools by politicians in Sacramento has garnered headlines, it is the effort to undermine specific successful local charter schools that really pulls at one’s heartstrings.
Take, for example, Willow Creek Academy charter school in Sausalito in Marin County. Willow Creek is a K-8 school that had more than 400 students in 2018-19. Of those students, four out of 10 came from low-income families. The school also has a high ethnic diversity score, based on California’s diversity index.
The majority of Willow Creek students are succeeding academically, with two-thirds of the school’s students meeting reading standards on the state test, while more than half meet state math standards. Both rates are significantly higher than the state average.
The school also scores a five-star parent-review rating from greatschools.org, the school rating organization, with one representative parent saying that the family moved to Sausalito because “the charter school was an option for public school learning” and the family “has nothing but praise for the school and it’s commitment to the community and diversity.”
Despite Willow Creek’s strong academics, high parent support, and broad student diversity, the school is caught up in a political whirlwind.
In August 2019, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced a settlement agreement with the Sausalito Marin City School District, which said that the District had discriminated against students at predominantly minority Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, the District’s other school besides Willow Creek. The District was said to have practiced racial segregation, plus failing to provide promised funding and resources to Bayside.
The Attorney General’s settlement press release, however, failed to note that per-pupil spending in the Sausalito Marin City School District has historically been very high relative to average per-pupil spending.
Back in 2012, Bill Evers, then a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a future U.S. assistant secretary of education, noted: “The Sausalito K-8 school district spends $42,302 per pupil every year – more than triple the national average.”
In the aftermath of the settlement, there is now a court fight going on to decide how much funding should be going to Willow Creek.
The school district wants to limit funding to Willow Creek to, according to a district memo, “the statutorily-mandated per-pupil amount under the state’s Local Control Funding Formula” and not give the charter school any additional discretionary district funding.
Yet, the funding disparity between the district’s Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy and Willow Creek Academy charter school is massive.
Paul Minney, an attorney representing Willow Creek, points out: “the District is violating provisions of the Charter Schools Act that require the District to provide ‘full and fair funding’ equivalent to a school district serving a similar student population (i.e., basic aid) and that the District has violated the state’s equal protection laws by the District’s stratification of two groups of public school students – the approximately 100 students attending Bayside MLK who are funded by the District at approximately $52,688 a student and the 80% of District students that attend WCA who receive approximately $11,772 a student in funding.”
That spending disparity bears repeating: $52,688 per student for the district school versus $11,772 per student for the Willow Creek charter school.
And unlike Willow Creek, where a large majority of students are meeting state reading and math standards, more than three-quarters of Bayside MLK students fail to meet reading and math standards.
And in the current legal proceedings, despite the district’s claims to the contrary, the court has yet to make any ruling about Willow Creek’s entitlement to additional funding.
Further, while the district claims that under the desegregation settlement that it does not have the power to provide Willow Creek with additional funding, the court has said that such funding authority still rests with the district school board.
In other words, the school district is trying to use the desegregation settlement as an excuse to financially starve a charter school that is doing well and meeting the needs and demands of the vast majority of parents in the district.
“The District’s decision,” says Paul Minney, “to disregard the interests of 80% of its students attending [Willow Creek Academy] and devastating impacts its defunding decision would have on those students without any consideration of alternatives, is the essence of arbitrary and capricious.”
What is happening to Willow Creek Academy and its parents and students is wrong and a terrible tragedy.
—Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of the 2019 book Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.