When it comes to the education of low-income children, classroom results often take a back seat to topics like money, jobs or race. And now that millions of families of color are choosing public charter schools to escape low-performing district schools, the money conversation is escalating.
A new study suggests charter schools in Oakland and Santa Clara County “cost” their school districts $76 million dollars per year. Among its dubious claims is that Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) could magically reduce class size to 18 by getting rid of charter schools. The media published this claim unchecked while glossing over Oakland’s long history of financial mismanagement. The report’s key recommendation could restrict parent choice.
It was also the message behind the anti-charter referendum in Massachusetts in 2016 when Bay State voters rejected a plan to increase the number of charter schools in the state. They bought the false argument that their schools would lose money, even though most of them live in communities without charter schools.
The losers in this debate are families of color who are tired of waiting for better educational options. The wait began in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared slavery illegal. Prior to that, education for slaves was illegal.
The wait continued in the middle of the 20th century, when the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools illegal. The promise of integration held out hope that schools might be more equitable. Instead, White people took flight, opened private schools for their kids or moved to all-White communities with strictly enforced neighborhood boundaries.
The integration push pretty much ended in the 1980s and just a few years later, the first charter schools opened. For a while, the sector grew modestly and teacher unions tolerated non-union schools. They even opened a few unionized charters over the years and, more recently, have tried unionizing existing ones.
Now, charter enrollment has risen to three million students and has become an existential threat to the education bureaucracy. In 17 school districts across the country, charters now serve 30 percent or more of the students; in 190 districts they serve at least 10 percent.
The best charters prove that even the most disadvantaged children can achieve at high levels. Not surprisingly, the bureaucracy is striking back, driving the narrative that charter schools are the cause of district financial problems.
Interestingly, urban school districts didn’t blame White flight for their financial problems. They didn’t blame private schools and Catholic schools that have always competed with public schools for kids and dollars and today educate some five million students.
They did not point the finger at the nearly two million home-schoolers or complain about magnet schools stealing dollars from neighborhood schools. The fact is, school districts lose or gain student population for all kinds of reasons. But now that Black and Latino families are choosing public charter schools, suddenly mobility is a problem.
There’s a legitimate discussion to be had about insuring that as charter schools grow they share some of the “stranded” costs borne by school districts. The Seattle-based Center for Reinventing Public Education issued a report that explicitly absolved charters of blame for district financial problems but encouraged them to be part of the solution.
Meanwhile, the voice of low-income parents is lost. They just want to know if their kids are learning. They don’t really care about issues like school governance.
They did not suddenly wake up one day and decide to become charter advocates. They just didn’t like their neighborhood school for one reason or another and were frustrated by the bureaucratic excuse that poor children or English-language learners can’t learn.
That’s why parents in San Jose successfully lobbied to open two new charter schools and why San Jose parent Heriberto Soto enrolled his daughter in a charter school. That’s why Oakland parent Robel Espino is already looking at charter schools for his young daughter and parents like Connie Williams formed Oakland Reach.
These parents are not school choice zealots. They simply want better schools for their kids, and now they are being indirectly demonized for that choice.
Blaming charter schools for district financial problems is dishonest. Restricting parent choice is unjust. Denying children the education they need and deserve is immoral.