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California Legislature Advances Bills to Limit Charter Schools

September 23, 2019

More than 10 percent of all California K-12 students are enrolled in charter schools.

The California State Legislature is considering several bills that would restrict the popular charter school option in the Golden State.

Proposed bills would cap the number of charter schools, move authorization of new charters to school districts, and close some charter schools—including some that have waiting lists to get in.

The flurry of legislation is a reaction to the growing popularity of charter schools, says Vicki Alger, research fellow at the Independent Institute and author of The Federal ‘Misedukation’ of America’s Children.

“Today, more than 10 percent of all California K-12 students are enrolled in charter schools—around 650,000 students—and charter schools have gained more than 100,000 students in the past five years alone,” Alger said.

Anti-Charter Bills

Though none of the anti-charter bills has become law, two have passed the state Assembly and could be considered in the state Senate when the legislature reconvenes in January 2020. This year’s session ended on September 13.

A.B. 1505, introduced by Assembly Member Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), would place charter authorization decisions solely in the hands of local school districts and counties, by eliminating appeals to the State School Board. It passed the State Assembly on May 22 and is pending in the Senate.

A.B. 1507, introduced by Assembly Members Christy Smith (D-Santa Clarita),  Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), and O’Donnell, would remove the authority of a charter school to operate outside the chartering school district’s boundaries. It passed the Assembly on May 13 and is pending in the Senate.

Unions’ Active Opposition

The powerful California Teachers Association has lobbied hard against school choice, Alger says.

“In August 2016, the CTA launched a campaign against charter management organizations (CMOs), called ‘Kids Not Profits,’ Alger said. “Since April [2019], the CTA has spent more than $1 million per month lobbying against charter schools.”

Unions oppose this choice because most California charters operate outside of union control, says Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.

“Most charter schools are not unionized,” Sand said. “It is especially difficult to unionize individual charters and even small networks—too costly and time-consuming.”

The CTA wants to place power over charters in the hands of local school boards, Sand says.

“All too often, unions control local school boards,” Sand said. “By removing the option to appeal, the local board is in full control.”

‘Political Targets’

In Los Angeles, 26 percent of K-12 students are enrolled in charter schools, making them a special focus of union opposition, Alger says.

“The Los Angeles charter-school sector is one of the most successful in the country, despite receiving less money [than conventional government schools],” Alger said. “However, because most charter schools are not unionized, they’ve become political targets of the CTA and local unions. Additionally, when parents choose charter schools instead of district schools, districts receive less associated funding.

“So, there are powerful financial motives behind union and district opposition to charter schools, despite the fact that they are the preferred option for significant numbers of Los Angeles and California families, particularly low- and moderate-income families who cannot afford to move or pay for private-school tuition,” Alger said.

Governor Backs Teacher’s Unions

The power of the lobby includes strong support from the current governor, Sand says.

“Gov. Gavin Newsom is very friendly with CTA,” Sand said.

“His predecessor—former governor Jerry Brown—was also an uber-liberal, but he was very pro-charter and locked horns with CTA on this issue,” Sand said.

Newsom has received support from the teacher’s unions, Alger says.

“The CTA endorsed [Newsom] and was a major financial donor to his inauguration,” Alger said.

Charter Schools’ Success

The past five years have brought declining enrollment in traditional California K-12 government schools, while charter school enrollment continues to increase.

A 2014 Stanford University study found students attending schools operated by organizations managing multiple campuses received the equivalent of about 36 additional days of learning in reading and 28 more days in math, over a four-year period.

“Not only do California charter-school students perform better overall compared to their district public-school peers, disadvantaged California charter-school students also outperform their district public-school peers,” Alger said.

A second 2014 Stanford study on Los Angles found black charter-school students do better academically than students in the LA Unified School District (LAUSD). The black students gained an average of 36 extra days of learning in literacy and 43 extra days in math over a four-year period. Low-income Latino students in charter schools averaged 22 extra days of learning in literacy and 29 extra days in math, compared to their public-school counterparts.

Los Angeles Charter Success

Los Angeles charter school students do better academically than LAUSD students at a significantly lower cost, says Alger.

“LAUSD will spend around $591 million on charter schools serving 138,000 students this year,” Alger said. “In contrast, it will spend nearly $1 billion on retirement costs, which don’t serve any students.

“LAUSD is one of the country’s largest school districts, and the superior performance and efficiency of L.A. charter schools is an embarrassing reality check to the claims that more money and more unionization are needed to improve student achievement.”

‘Power, Pure and Simple’

Anti-charter legislation is not about educating students, says Alger.

“The assault against charter schools in California has nothing to do with their performance,” Alger said. “Nor does it have anything to do with ‘accountability.’ The current assault is about power, pure and simple.

“If charter schools are being set up to fail, then charter school operators will seek more welcoming areas to operate, which is a tragic outcome given the demand for more charter schools in the Los Angeles area,” Alger said.

Ashley Bateman (bateman.ae@googlemail.com) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.

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