“Charter schools took a beating in the state capitol this year.” This is how Sen. John Moorlach’s December 12th opinion piece about charter schools begins. The insinuation that California’s charter schools have suffered a setback simply because the state passed a few pieces of legislation tells a highly biased, one-sided story. While the California charter school system has produced some notable successes, the system has also become littered with schools that have failed to live up to their promises. So, after 27 years of virtually no oversight, new pieces of legislation require charter schools to be more transparent and more accountable to students, communities, school districts, and taxpayers. Good charter schools will not find this newly required accountability and transparency to be a setback. Schools that have abused the system, failed to serve their students and communities, and misused taxpayer money might feel like they’ve “taken a beating,” and new charter schools might actually need to have all their ducks in a row to obtain school district approval, but as a highly involved parent, invested community member, and taxpayer, I’m okay with that. Addressing shortfalls, rooting out abuses ,and requiring more from our new charter school petitions is what is best for our students.
As for Sen. Moorlach’s attempt to prove charter schools do not have a negative financial effect on school districts, don’t be too quick to buy what he’s selling. Sen. Moorlach’s argument hinges on lumping all charter schools together into a collective whole. But we must look at the financial impact of each charter school locally, not collectively, to ensure each charter school does not produce negative consequences for its school district’s finances.
It is a fact that charter schools drain funds from the district’s coffers because when students leave the district schools, ADA funding leaves with them. If 30 students from varying grades leave their local schools to attend a charter school, the cost to run an individual classroom is not substantially decreased because a class of 30 costs essentially the same to run as a class of 29. Additionally, charter schools statistically educate fewer special education students. The average yearly cost for educating a student with special needs is $26,000, which is substantially more than the state and federal revenue received for the same services. When a charter school takes a disproportionate number of general education students because they are not prepared with a curriculum or sound budget to accomodate students with special needs, it is the school district that will bear the disproportionate cost of educating these students with higher costs.
Since Moorlach likes data, let’s talk about some stats. In 2017-2018, for every one charter school that opened, more than one charter school closed. This shows the inherent risks involved with charter schools. When a charter fails, the students must be absorbed back into district schools, making charter schools a costly and potentially disruptive experiment. So, before voting to approve a charter school’s petition, a responsible school board must have assurances the particular charter school at issue will be educationally and fiscally sound. Each charter school must be individually considered, intensely vetted, and properly scrutinized before the district effectively hands the school millions of dollars of taxpayer money and entrusts it with educating our students.
When we try to conclude that “all charters do not hurt school finances” or, on the other hand, “all charters cause districts to struggle financially,” we fall into a dangerous black and white way of thinking. We do a disservice to our students when we hold to these absolutes rather than looking closely at each charter school on its own merits. In my own school district, Orange Unified, a new charter school has submitted a petition that the school board will vote on today (Thursday, December 19). In past meetings, this school has paraded many speakers in front of the board who laud charter schools generally. Very few have actually been from our school district, and very few have spoken about this specific school. They treat all charters schools like they offer the same quality education and leadership. The staff analysis of this particular charter (OCCA) is quite clear—this charter school fundamentally lacks what it takes to serve our students and is fiscally unfeasible. It’s alarming, then, to see members of our school board and other local politicians, seemingly beholden to charter school special interest groups, ignore the educational and financial pitfalls of this specific charter school at the expense of our students and taxpayers. A charter school that has not demonstrated it can offer an educationally and fiscally sound future for our students is definitely a school that is destined to become a financial burden on Orange Unified despite what the general data shows.
Carrie Lundell is a small-business owner, former PTA president and current PTO president. As a mother of four school-aged children, she has been a highly-invested parent in the Orange Unified School District for the past 13 years.
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