Charter Schools Don’t Drain Resources From Regular Public Schools

In their continuing war against charter schools, teacher unions have persistently argued that charter schools, which are mostly non-union, have a large negative financial impact on the regular public school system.  New research, however, contradicts this claim.

In Sacramento, the California Teachers Association is pushing a package of anti-charter-school bills, including AB 1505, recently passed by the State Assembly, which would allow school districts to deny an application for a charter school if it would supposedly produce a negative financial impact on the district’s regular public schools.

CTA president Eric Heins claims that charter schools, which are publicly-funded schools that are autonomous from school districts and have greater flexibility to innovate, are “a drain on many of our public schools.”

This union narrative is undercut, however, by a recently-released series of studies from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.

The CRPE studies specifically examined the financial impact of California’s charter schools on the state’s regular public school system since “critics in California and nationwide have claimed charter schools growth undermines school district finances and forces cuts in the quality of schooling districts can provide.”

The researchers’ findings tell a much different story than the claims of union leaders and other charter-school opponents.

They looked for a connection between enrollment in charter schools and county office of education-issued “negative certifications,” which are determinations that a school district cannot meet its financial obligations over a two-year period.

These negative certifications “represent the main indicator of fiscal distress in California school districts and trigger increased state oversight of district finances.”

The researchers found: “On average, charter schools enroll just 3 percent of students in school districts that receive a negative rating from the County Office of Education,” which is “statistically indistinguishable from charter enrollment in school districts that are not in fiscal distress.”

In other words, charter school enrollment does not differ between school districts that are in fiscal distress and those districts that are not, which leads the authors to conclude that there is “no evidence to support the claim that charter schools are to blame for fiscal distress in California school districts.”

Specifically, one of the studies found that between 1998 and 2015, “an average of just 1.5 percent of school districts where charter schools enroll 10 percent of all students entered fiscal distress,” which means that “districts with larger charter school enrollment shares are no more likely to enter fiscal distress.”

If charter schools are not the cause of the fiscal distress in school districts, then what are the real causes?

The researchers noted that the Vallejo City Unified School District had been in fiscal distress longer than any other district in the state.

They cited audit reports showing that Vallejo City Unified’s problems stemmed from “grossly overestimated enrollment figures, underestimated salary expenses and approved union contracts they couldn’t afford.”

More generally, the researchers pointed out, “While many school districts in the state have posted their largest budgets ever, thanks to historic state investments in K-12 education,” key factors such as rising “pension and health care costs, special education expenses, and teacher salaries are putting pressure on school districts’ bottom lines.”

Importantly, “Stopping the growth of charter schools will not address these issues,” which should be a warning to state lawmakers who think that banning new charter schools will somehow improve the fiscal health of mismanaged school districts.

Thus, rather than scapegoating charter schools, which have been shown to improve the achievement of students, especially African Americans and Latinos, school districts should seek to reform themselves.

“When families choose charter schools they do so for a reason,” say the CRPE researchers, and school districts “should be asking why, and what they can do differently to keep those families.”

In other words, the regular public school system should learn from the competition, not destroy it.

Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute and author of the 2019 book Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.

Educating Students Not #1 Priority of L.A. School Board and Teachers Union


LAUSD school busOn February 11, LA School Report released an internal Los Angeles Unified School District document which stated that just 54 percent of seniors in L.A. are on track to graduate. The drop off from 74 percent last year was immediately attributed to the new “A through G” requirements, which ensure that graduating students are ready for acceptance into California public universities.

The rather lame, “This is the first year of the plan, so we are just getting the kinks out” excuse does not hold water. The A-G plan was initially formulated in 2005, but the LAUSD school board didn’t pay much attention to it. So instead of ramping up the rigor, they decided that in 2017 students could pass with a grade of “D,” instead of the “C” as was in the original plan. (This year’s class had been green-lighted for a “D” passing grade all along.)

Oh but wait, there is some “good” news. Due to the district’s “credit recovery plan” – allowing students to take crash courses on weekends, holidays, etc. – the graduation rate has just been upgraded to a less cataclysmic 63 percent. Yeah, 63 is better than 54, but it still stinks. And the demise of the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) has been left out of the equation. The test was killed a few months ago by the California Legislature and, worse, the legislators chose to give diplomas retroactively (going back to 2006) to students who passed their coursework but failed the test.

The exam was hardly rigorous. According to the California Department of Education website, the English–language component addressed state content standards through tenth grade and the math part of the test addressed state standards in only grades six and seven and Algebra I. Hence, whatever the graduate rate actually turns out to be in 2016, it would have been lower had the state not knocked out a test that every high school grad should be able to easily pass.

So what’s a school board to do? Simply divert attention away from the problem.

The LAUSD school board’s major agenda item of late has been to slow charter school growth. According to Sarah Angel, managing director of advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association, “We are seeing an unprecedented uptick in the recommendation of denials of charter schools.” She pointed out that the L.A. school board approved 89 percent of the charter school applications it received in 2013, but that rate has been cut in half this year. The anti-charter push came about when the board went bananas over philanthropist Eli Broad’s plan to turn half the schools in L.A. into charters. Nothing will invigorate monopolists like a little old-fashioned competition.

Not to be outdone by the school board’s turf-protection moves, the United Teachers of Los Angeles has swung into action, joining a union-led national demonstration of support for traditional public school districts. Dubbed “walk ins,” these events were led in Los Angeles by UTLA and involved parents walking into schools with their kids at the beginning of the school day on February 17. What this was supposed to accomplish is anyone’s guess.

The union also just raised its dues 30 percent, claiming more money is needed to “battle foes of traditional public education.”

Then, UTLA boss and class warfare expert Alex Caputo-Pearl began beating the tax-the-rich drum at a fever pitch. In an obvious reference to Eli Broad and some other philanthropists, he recently averred, “If billionaires want to be involved, they should not undermine programs, they should contribute their fair share in taxes.” Wondering how he knew what taxes certain individuals paid, I sent an email to Mr. Caputo-Pearl and UTLA’s communication director, inquiring which billionaires he was referring to and how much they paid in taxes. They have not deigned to respond to my query thus far. (Note to AC-P: The rich pay plenty of taxes, but 44 percent of Americans don’t pay any, and rest assured, there are no billionaires in that group.)

As if the school board and teachers union’s effort to damage charters wasn’t enough, there is a plan afoot to get an initiative on the ballot this year that would make charter schools illegal. Why? Because, according to the “Voices Against Privatizing Education” website, charters are “racist  … cherry pick students, falsify records, commit enrollment fraud, close down community schools, destroy jobs, bust up unions and segregate students.” Not surprisingly this bundle of outright lies has the backing of several teachers unions and individual union leaders.

You see, charter schools are not being singled out for demolition because they haven’t worked; they are on the radar of the school board and the union precisely because they have been successful. At the same time that so many students in L.A.’s traditional schools are failing to meet graduation standards, students from the same demographic groups are thriving in charter schools. By the time they’ve graduated, students at charter schools are over three times more likely to have completed courses needed for college admission than students at traditional public schools.

Also, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) conducted an analysis of charter schools in LAUSD in 2014 and found that its students gain significantly more learning time than their peers in traditional public schools. Among its findings:

  • Charter school students gain 79 more days of learning than their traditional school peers in math, as well as 50 additional days of learning in reading.
  • Latino students gain 72 more days of learning in math and 43 extra days in reading.
  • Latino students living in poverty gain 115 additional days of learning in math and 58 additional days in reading.
  • African American students gain 14 extra days of learning in both reading and math.
  • African American students living in poverty gain 58 additional days of learning in math and 36 additional days in reading.

Evelyn Macias, mother of Julia Macias, one of nine student plaintiffs behind the Vergara lawsuit, recently penned an op-ed for LA School Report, in which she wrote:

We need to look at state policies, legislation and labor agreements that have, over the course of decades, eroded and diminished the rights of children, low-income working families, and ALL families, by claiming the higher moral ground for employees, while much of our leadership remains silent.

Our children are falling through the cracks, while we stand and watch. Who besides their parents and student advocacy groups will step up?

Who besides parents and certain advocacy groups? Who, indeed? Certainly not the obstructionist school board and teachers union. They are intent on protecting turf and maintaining their monopoly. Educating children is far down on their to-do list. Shame on them.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.