Charter school advocates have claimed charter schools are “under assault from coast to coast, especially as union-led teacher strikes pound states and localities.” In reality, it is public education that has been under attack. Charters have siphoned off badly-needed funds while enrolling the most desirable students and leaving those they don’t want in underfunded public schools.
A comprehensive study conducted by University of Oregon political economist/professor Gordon Lafer, Ph.D., found that California’s Oakland, San Diego, and East Side Union High School Districts suffer annual losses of $5,705, $4,913, and $6,618 respectively for each student lost to a charter. Lafer cautions that these numbers “should be considered a “conservative, minimum estimate.”
Similarly, in a 2016 study, the MGT consulting group estimated that the diversion of students to charter schools costs LAUSD$508 million a year — $4,957 per each student lost to a charter.
This occurs because much of traditional schools’ expenses are “fixed costs” that cannot easily be scaled down upon declines in enrollment. These expenses — which Lafer estimates at 50 percent — include maintaining, repairing, heating and cooling school buildings, operating cafeterias, and managing many administrative functions.
Traditional schools also must retain facilities and services that can quickly be deployed in response to an unexpected influx of students, such as 2014’s Central American child migration crisis or when a charter suddenly closes. Charters bear no such responsibility. Yet despite traditional schools’ additional, long-term obligations, when a student leaves for a charter, the district loses all of the funds appropriated for that student.
As prominent charter supporter Robin Lake acknowledges, “School boards and superintendents are faced with a situation where they lose enrollment so quickly that the only thing they can do is close schools, lay off teachers…increase class sizes, and slash their central office staffing and support levels.” This is a key factor, she says, that “often triggers a slow
Moreover, in some areas, such as Los Angeles, charters open in the face of significant overall enrollment decline — an irrational use of public education funds.
Charter advocates also assert such schools “raise student achievement more than traditional public schools,” and proffer research citing their higher standardized test scores as proof. Google “charters outperform” and you will be deluged with similar claims.
However, even the most inclusive, fair-minded charter operators still gain an enormous benefit from the selection effect.
Longtime charter advocate David Osborne acknowledges “families have to choose charter schools, so kids with disengaged families are more likely to remain in district schools … this gives charters an advantage.” At the same time, charter schools can and do rid themselves of troublesome students far more easily than traditional public schools.
I experienced this selection effect when I moved from our high school’s residential school to its magnet. Our magnet accepts everybody, just as any public school does. Yet in our magnet, major indices for student success, such as attendance, legal status, and parents who are educated and/or speak English are significantly higher than in the residential school. Magnet students outperform the residential students in practically all areas, and are greatly over-represented on academic and athletic teams and in student government. Yet the only thing that separates them is that our magnet students wanted to apply and the residential students didn’t.
Moreover, according to journalist Stephanie Simon, a Reuters study found that “charters aggressively screen student applicants, assessing their academic records, parental support, disciplinary history, motivation, special needs and even their citizenship.” She noted some of the barriers Reuters found:
- Lengthy application forms often printed only in English, that require student and parent essays, report cards, test scores, disciplinary records, teacher recommendations and medical records.
- Demands that students present Social Security cards and birth certificates for their applications to be considered.
- Mandatory family interviews.
- Assessment exams.
- Academic prerequisites.
How can one possibly compare the test scores at such schools with those of traditional public schools, who accept all students?
Sometimes unwittingly, even the most sincere charter advocates support policies which serve to write off many traditional public school students. Charters as currently operated amount to a rescue mission to liberate the best and brightest from the struggling ship of public education. That ship, once relieved of the only passengers deemed to be worth saving, can then be sent on its way or allowed to sink.
It has fallen to teachers’ unions to fight for public education. Our strikes and protests have been inspired by a simple belief — all students deserve a quality education.
Glenn Sacks teaches at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District and is co-chair of United Teachers of Los Angeles at Monroe.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.