During the impassioned Los Angeles teachers’ strike earlier this year, one of the chief disputes was whether charter schools were a lifeline to students who deserve an alternative to low-performing district schools, or a leech that insidiously siphons money from a public school system struggling to fulfill its obligation to educate the vast majority of L.A.’s students. After the strike ended in January, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for a task force to study that question and other charter-related issues to inform future policy decisions.
Now the task force has wrapped up its work, and it is depressing to find that it didn’t accomplish what was supposed to be its overriding goal. The group’s report included several reasonable recommendations for overdue reform of California’s charter schools. But we still don’t know whether charters are draining vital resources at publicly run schools or having a minimal impact on them.
That question has been at the forefront of anti-charter complaints across California. Enrollment has been shrinking significantly in the Los Angeles Unified School District, with a hefty amount of that caused by the growth of charter schools, which enroll more than 100,000 students within the district. State funding for those students follows them from the district schools to the charters.
The answer is key to the hot topic of how strictly to control charter expansion in California, if at all. Many charter schools offer an educational lifeline to students who otherwise would have to attend low-performing district-run schools. But the state also has an obligation to keep the money drain associated with charters from harming traditional public education, which will always be needed and which serves the vast majority of students.
Supporters of charter schools say that districts don’t need the money because they no longer have to educate the students who leave. Charter skeptics point out that districts still have fixed costs, such as buildings and administration, and that students don’t always leave in numbers that allow a school to shrink their roster of teachers.
What’s been needed is an objective analysis that serves as the foundation for considering any policy changes, such as whether to let districts consider the financial impact of a new charter school when deciding whether to grant approval, or whether to place a temporary moratorium on charters. There are various pieces of legislation designed to address these issues; all of them are controversial, and some are making more progress through the Legislature than others.
One proposal in the report calls for continuing to pay schools for each student they lose to charters for one year to help them adjust to the shift in revenue. Is it too much money? Too little? Taxpayers who would pick up that extra tab of paying twice in one year for the same student have no way of knowing because the research hasn’t been done. Who decides what the financial impact of charters would be in the absence of a state analysis of the actual effect? Allowing school boards, which have a vested interest in the outcome, to do that would be like handing the hen house keys to the local fox.
The report is on shaky ground when it comes to financial issues because it simply didn’t do its homework on them. It had a few school districts make presentations; it looked at analyses compiled by others. But school districts are of course not disinterested parties. And the outside analyses were conducted by groups or people with pro- or anti-charter leanings.
It’s not surprising, then, that the most useful recommendations from the task force have nothing to do with charters’ fiscal impact. Those include having a state body set the standards for authorizing and overseeing charter schools, given that better oversight has been needed for years; taking away the State Board of Education’s authority to approve charter applications on appeal, because people on both sides of the debate agree that the board provides little oversight; and banning school districts from approving charter schools outside their own boundaries.
Thanks to the task force for providing some useful ideas. But if the state wanted to learn the facts about the financial impacts of charter schools, it might have been better off asking the Legislative Analyst’s Office to do the work, or the state auditor. With nothing more than this report to guide policy, California will be arguing charter school finance well into the future.