Charter schools are proliferating where they aren't needed while state funding continues to support even those charters that violate state law, according to a report released Monday by a research and advocacy group.
The new research by an Oakland group called In the Public Interest looks at where charter schools are increasing in number and where schools are needed based on enrollment. The two trend lines do not correspond, researchers found — especially in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the number of school-age children has declined even as the number of charters has rapidly grown.
Charters are privately operated, taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses.
The report points out that traditional school districts can't build new schools when real or potential enrollment fails to justify expansion. But those rules don't apply to charter schools, which can open anywhere and qualify for state funding or subsidies to build or lease facilities. The report says public funds helped open and sustain at least 450 charters in areas with plenty of existing classroom space.
"Paying for more schools than are needed wastes taxpayer dollars," the report says. "Furthermore, an oversupply of schools serves to undermine the viability of any individual school."
The latter argument has been made repeatedly by L.A. Unified officials, who say that rapid and widespread charter growth is one of several factors threatening the solvency of the nation's second-largest school system.
The report's lead researcher, Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, attributes the problem to a lack of clarity and vision in state policy.
Charter supporters insist the need for such schools isn't based on a shortage of classroom capacity but on a shortage of classrooms providing a high-quality education.
They also believe parents should have more choices, especially in low-income neighborhoods where student achievement and graduation rates at traditional public schools have long been poor. Many charter supporters believe that the marketplace should determine which schools remain open, provided that all campuses meet state-defined standards.
The group that issued the report, which focuses on the privatization of public services and assets, has published much research critical of charter policy and charters, most of which are non-union. About 5% of the group's funding comes from labor unions, spokesman Jeremy Mohler said.
The California Charter Schools Assn. said labor, including the California Teachers Assn., also has separate ties to the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center.
"Today's report is likely just the latest tactic by CTA to not only stop charters from growing, but to shut down even the most effective charter schools," spokesman Jason Mandell said in a statement.
The new research also looks at the kinds of aid charters receive for facilities. It concludes that massive amounts of public dollars are helping charters acquire property that could end up being privately controlled should charters decide to sell their school sites or go out of business. Alliance College-Ready Public Schools has developed an especially large portfolio of school property through the use of state funding programs, the report says.
In the Public Interest also faulted California for continuing to provide funding to charters that violate state law. It cited a July report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Advocates, which concluded that at least 253 California charter schools, more than 20% of the state total, had enrollment policies that illegally excluded some students or discouraged them from applying, such as those with poor academic records, limited English-speaking skills or disabilities.
The ACLU told The Times last week that more than half the charters have maintained illegal enrollment policies since the report came out, although there is some dispute about its findings. Some of the charters denied they were operating illegally or insisted they'd already altered enrollment practices to conform with state law.
Regardless, In the Public Interest suggested that the state could compel schools violating the law to return public funds.
State officials said the more typical remedy would be to demand that a charter end an improper practice. Eventually, the state could shut down a school that failed to comply.
"In general, withholding money isn't really the way the state responds," said Nick Schweizer, deputy superintendent for the California Department of Education.
One exception might be federal start-up grants for charters, Schweizer said. The U.S. government, he said, could insist on the repayment of a grant, but that has not happened so far.
Some charter schools are authorized at the state level, and a few were named in the ACLU-Public Advocates report. Schweizer said that the state has determined that none of those charters are engaging in illegal enrollment practices.
9:35 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the California Charter Schools Assn.