News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

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East Bay DSA

May 22, 2019

California needs a charter moratorium now

The reforms currently being considered by the California State Assembly will help stem the tide of school privatization. But they do not go far enough — we need a complete moratorium on charter school growth.

By Nick French

Thanks to the victorious teachers’ strikes in Oakland and Los Angeles, the catastrophic effects of charter schools — and their role in the billionaire-driven school privatization movement — are now front and center in California politics. The California State Assembly is considering two bills to reform the state’s laws regarding charter schools. Assembly Bill (AB) 1505 would make it easier for districts to deny new charter schools, and AB 1506 places significant restrictions on new charter growth. (The assembly just passed AB 1507, which closed a loophole that allowed charter schools to operate outside the district where they were authorized.)

Welcome as these reforms are, they don’t go nearly far enough to stop the existential threat that charter schools pose to public education. The new laws would still allow for the opening of new charters, which will continue to have a destructive impact on the functioning of all traditional public schools. California needs to impose a total ban on new charter schools in order to restore vibrant, democratically controlled and fully funded public education for all students.

The Trouble with Charter Schools

Charter schools receive public funds but are privately managed. Although they can masquerade as nonprofit organizations, they are not subject to the same regulations and democratic oversight as traditional public schools and can therefore generate millions in profit for their CEOs and owners. Often presented as a solution to the failures and inequities of traditional public schools, charter schools are in fact the tip of the spear of billionaires’ attempt to privatize public education. Seeking to destroy teachers’ unions, bring schools under corporate control, and reduce their tax burdens, the ultrarich have spent huge sums of cash to expand charter schools across the United States.

Charters undermine the public education system in many ways. They are a huge drain on the resources of traditional public schools, as Oakland can attest: The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) wasted $57 million on charter schools in the 2016-17 school year. When a student leaves a public school to enroll in a charter school, the funding the state provides to educate that child goes with them. Because the fixed costs of operating a public school, such as costs of building maintenance, don’t decrease on a per-pupil level, this results in a tremendous amount of waste. This financial pressure forces the district to make cuts — and because school boards are often controlled by billionaire-backed charter boosters — those cuts are made to classrooms rather than to central administrative budgets. OUSD, for instance, has attempted to balance the budget with disruptive school closures, which disproportionately affect low-income students and students of color.

The transfer of funds from public schools to charters is particularly harmful to students with special needs. Because charters often refuse to enroll them, special-needs students attend traditional public schools at a higher rate. Due to the funds lost to charter schools, public schools are serving more of these students with fewer and fewer resources.

As the share of a district’s students who are enrolled in charters expands, the district’s budget is crippled. Fiscal problems are then used as a pretext for even greater reliance on charter schools, as happened recently in Oakland. The end result, if charter growth is not halted, is complete privatization of public schools, as happened recently in New Orleans. A privatized school system is not democratically controlled by the public it is supposed to serve. Privatized schools are instead subject to the anti-worker, profit-driven dictates of billionaires and CEOs.

Charterization also undermines the power of teachers’ unions, one of organized labor’s last strongholds. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are usually non-unionized, allowing them to work teachers harder and longer for lower pay.

It’s no wonder, then, that calls to stop charter school growth were central demands of the Oakland and LA teachers’ strikes. Seeing the connection between the expansion of charters, on the one hand, and declines in both their working conditions and their students’ learning conditions on the other, teachers pressed their local school boards to declare support for a charter moratorium.

These strikes, and the mass parent and student uprisings that accompanied them, have led directly to the otherwise charter-friendly California legislature to consider AB 1505 and AB 1506.

What the Bills Accomplish and What They Don’t

AB 1505 and AB 1506 would restrict charter school growth in the state without stopping it altogether or reversing the damage done by years of unchecked charter growth.

Under current law, if a local board of education refuses to authorize a new charter school, the charter applicant can appeal the decision to the county or state board of education. This loophole means that, even if a local school board wanted to stop charter growth in its district, its decisions could be overturned by pro-charter officials at the county or state level.

AB 1505 restores power over charter growth to local school boards. Under the new law, charter schools must receive approval at the district level — charter operators can no longer go to the state to get around local elected school boards. County boards of education could grant countywide charters but only if the charter operator receives approval from each district where the charter school would be operated.

AB 1506 would cap the expansion of new charter schools. The bill would allow a new charter to be authorized in a district or county only if another charter in that jurisdiction shuts down. In addition, the new law would allow for charters to be opened only if 90 percent of the district or county’s students would still be enrolled in traditional public schools. In Oakland, new charters would not be allowed to open since about 30 percent of its students are enrolled in charter schools. But in Fremont Unified School District, where only about one percent of students are in charter schools, new charters would be allowed to open.  

AB 1505 and 1506 would slow charter school expansion. But they would not prevent it completely. New charters could be opened so long as they are approved by the district in which they operate and don’t bring the total percentage of charter-enrolled students above 10 percent. This means that, in some districts, local school boards can open new charter schools and even expand the proportion of students enrolled in charter schools.

Charter schools will continue to have a destructive impact on public school finances as long as they are allowed to absorb more students. That’s because funding is allocated to schools based on the number of students they enroll. For each student that moves from a traditional public school to a charter, the public school loses funding. But the school’s costs don’t decrease along with the lost revenue, since their overhead and staff costs remain the same. (You don’t fire one teacher or janitor every time you lose one student, but you do have less money to pay the teacher and janitor.) As charter enrollment expands, public schools have less money to serve students and are forced to shut down.

Even under the new laws, then, charters will continue to force school closures, and the chaos that charters cause will no doubt be used by pro-charter groups to argue for further privatization.

We Need a Charter Moratorium

If we want to stop the destructive impact of charters on California’s public schools, we need to go beyond AB 1505 and AB 1506. Educators, students, and parents should demand a moratorium on charter growth: not a single new charter school should be authorized anywhere in the state.

A moratorium would have the long-term effect of shrinking the overall number of charters in the state, as charters fail and are not replaced with new charters. Stopping charter expansion would therefore lessen the bleeding of public school funds to charters, giving public schools more resources to educate their students.

Only a moratorium is enough to prevent charters from wreaking further havoc on California’s public schools.

The idea is one whose time has come as public opinion is evolving on the question of charter schools. It was a popular demand of striking teachers, uniting them with their communities. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), a leading contender for the presidency in 2020, also recently announced an ambitious public education plan which includes a ban on for-profit charter schools and a moratorium on public funding for charters. When word got to the brave teachers of West Virginia that there was a law in the works that would make charters legal there, they struck again, having seen the catastrophic results of charter proliferation in the 42 states that allow them.

On May 22, educators from across the state are converging on Sacramento to demand action from the California legislature: stop school privatization and fully fund public education. At a minimum, teachers and their supporters will be pressing for reforms like those contained in AB 1505 and AB 1506.

But teachers, parents, and students are feeling empowered by the historic, militant, nationwide strike wave they’ve started. The teachers’ strikes are about more than pay: they are demands for an end to austerity politics and the restoration of democracy. Striking teachers have the power to stop charters and restore funding to public education — and fresh off their inspiring victories in contract fights across the state, they know it.