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Vantage point: It's time we revisit charter school legislation 

A corrected version of the article was posted on July 21, 2014:

I’ve been extremely fortunate in my role as CSBA President to preside in a year in which we are not talking about cuts in public education funding, but rather about funding distribution methodology, accountability and curriculum changes that are aimed at closing the achievement gap. We’ve been talking about, and pushing for, continued investment in the Local Control Funding Formula, development of the associated Local Control and Accountability Plans, and implementation of Common Core State Standards, which, if done well—with time and money allocated and spent, and deliberate attention given to staff development—have the potential to infuse our educational system with academic rigor and provide our students with the critical thinking skills they’ll need in this information- and technology-based economy. It’s the right conversation to be having—and it’s about time.

So, as we enter the second half of this legislative year, I’d like to focus on a topic that has been less prominent, but which I believe should move to the forefront of our attention: charter schools and the current statewide and national trends surrounding them.

It is time for educational and political leaders to revisit charter school legislation and charter school law. As a state, and as a nation, we have strayed far from the original intent of charter schools. Originally designed to experiment with new ideas and approaches in search of better academic outcomes for students, charter schools are frequently being founded and directed by corporations and corporate interests—which are not about improving academic outcomes for students, but about maximizing revenues for the benefit of management’s personal wealth and/or to fund future growth.

I’m reading the research, I’m talking with school board members in other states at National School Boards Association meetings, and I’m more and more concerned by this privatization of public education. Yes, corporate America is moving with increasing speed into the charter school arena. According to an April 2014 Economic Policy Institute Report (Lafer, Gordon; Briefing Paper #375), “the last few years have witnessed a pattern of corporate consolidation [of charter schools]. By 2011, less than 17 percent of charter school students were in schools run by companies that operated three or fewer schools. The majority were overseen by corporations operating 10 or more schools.” And although many charter corporations are nonprofits, they may be aligned with other for-profit business entities for the benefit of individuals associated with the nonprofit.

Here’s one example: the Rocketship chain of schools—“a low-budget operation that relies on young and inexperienced teachers rather than more veteran and expensive faculty . . . and replaces teachers with online learning and digital applications for a significant portion of the day” (Lafer, 2014). While Rocketship itself is a nonprofit, it is aligned with two for-profit software companies, DreamBox Learning and Zeal. These schools, which use the blended learning model, put students in computer labs for a quarter of the day, at minimum, every day and some of the software used in the labs is purchased from DreamBox and Zeal. The aggressive push for expansion of Rocketship schools is critical to their business model. More schools equals more students, which equals more software sold and more profits.

Additionally, Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix was on Rocketship’s National Advisory Board. Hastings, through his non-profit Charter School Growth Fund, invested in DreamBox Learning. John Danner, Rocketship’s co-founder and former CEO, resigned from the Rocketship board in 2013 to found Zeal, a for-profit company which Rocketship schools use. And, Rocketship’s school buildings are owned by its affiliate company LaunchPad Development Company, a non-profit real estate holding company. LaunchPad purchases school property, then rents it to Rocketship. Their business model specifically states “LaunchPad will charge relatively high facilities fees” and “the profit margin will be used to finance new facilities” (Lafer, 2014).

When a public school district wants to build or renovate a school, the local community has a say. The community votes on whether to pass a bond. The community pays for its local school, and the school remains a community asset. Not so with corporate charters—the community has no vote. And the local tax dollars are not purchasing a local asset; they are purchasing a private asset.

So why do we have charter schools? They have gained traction because the public and many politicians believe, wrongly, that charters are the magic bullet to academic excellence and that choice automatically leads to better academic outcomes. But the data does not support this perception. The National Charter School Study 2013, by The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, shows that charter schools on average do no better than public schools serving the same student demographics. Even the subgroups on whom charters appeared to have the most impact showed very modest differences from their public school peers. And the latest Public Policy Institute study of the Rocketship chain shows that student achievement in Rocketship schools has declined steadily year over year. In 2012-13, all seven Rocketship schools failed to make adequate yearly progress, with four of seven schools found to be in “need of program improvement.”

Circling back to the original intent of charter schools, there are, of course, examples across our state of charters that, when freed from the oversight and regulation that each of you and your districts are bound to, are focused on providing better academic outcomes for students. Typically, these are stand-alone charters that were founded by the very districts in which they reside. They are usually successful because of strong working relationships with and support from the local districts, and they generally rely on the local districts for management infrastructure. For example, when I visited Kings County this year, I toured Lemoore Middle College Charter High School. It has a strong working relationship with its sponsoring district as well as excellent academic outcomes for its students. The school is located on the community college campus, which enables students to take community college classes while in high school. This arrangement works well for all involved.

But we need to be careful, for corporate interests are governing an increasing number of charter schools and the quality of our children’s education is at stake. So what do we do?  Here are three actions that you and I and CSBA can take to refocus the discussion:

  • We need to stop calling charter schools public schools. They are privately managed publicly funded schools. They are an experiment in moving tax dollars from the public sector to the private sector.
  • Talk to your legislators and push back on the notion that charter schools are the magic bullet. Talk about the successes in your district. Remember, your constituents are their constituents, and you have influence with your local voters.
  • Be thoughtful and diligent in your decision making when a charter petition comes before you. Don’t assume that a charter school is synonymous with higher academic achievement. Do your research and base your decisions on data, not ideology. This due diligence is especially important for county board members reviewing charter petitions denied by a local district.  
It’s time for all in the education community to review the intent of charter school legislation and to take a hard look at what exists in the field today. Our public school system is one of our greatest assets.  It is the foundation of our American democracy and the door to opportunity for all who live in our country. As educators and school board members elected by our local communities to represent them, we have an obligation to push hard for meaningful conversation that aims to put charter schools’ focus back where it belongs—on achieving better academic outcomes for students.