California Charters Are A Poor Investment

April 14, 2017; Salon

There are cracks in the charter school system in California.  I grew up there.  We used to be arrogant enough to think we got everything right.  The charter school explosion, however, has caused cracks in the system.

California has twice the numbers of charters than Florida.  They have enough to see the serious consequences when there is unregulated growth and little accountability.

Meredith Machen sent this Salon article.  It spells out the quandary in which California finds itself.  Florida and others states are going down this road.  Read it and don’t weep, tell people!



During Elizabeth DeVos’s contentious confirmation hearing, Senator Tim Kaine asked her if she would “insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter, or private?” A new report from In The Public Interest, “Spending Blind: The Failure of Policy Planning in California Charter School Funding,” should give educational leaders a reason to take this question seriously. ITPI’s findings tell us that California is recognizing the price they are paying for they have made:  unlimited expansion, too little accountability,

How do you evaluate the need for charters?

ITPI examined $2.5 billion spent for the facilities used in California’s public charter school sector over the past 15 years. In evaluating how wisely these funds had been spent, it asked several core questions, which would establish the basis for responsible and accountable funding.

  • Were the funded facilities located in areas where additional classrooms were needed?
  • Did the schools using funded facilities perform better than other schools serving the same geography?
  • Were these schools developing new and innovative educational models that could be replicated more widely?
  • Did these schools offer content not available in other neighboring schools?

On all of these measures, the report says, California has not gotten the results that this investment should have garnered.  California has 161 charters that are the ‘worst of the worst’.  These schools collect $ 44 million in lease payments, $57 million in general obligation bonds, $40 million in tax credit investments, and $85 million in conduit bond financing.  There are 450 charters in areas where there are empty seats in public schools.  Those charters also receive about $650 million in public money or tax credit funding for facilities.

In Florida, we are seeing the same picture emerging.  Our public school facilities are in need of repair while charters lobby for more and more facility funding in areas where charters simply duplicate what already exists.

Charters cost money and do not produce positive improvements

Concern over the poor quality of education provided by many traditional public schools has been a major rationale for building a new, market-based, public education system. But ITPI found that public funding was not supporting a superior educational product. In three-quarters of California public charter schools, “the quality of education on offer is worse than that of a nearby traditional public school that serves a demographically similar population. Taxpayers have provided these schools with an estimated three-quarters of a billion dollars in direct funding and an additional $1.1 billion in taxpayer-subsidized financing.” Almost 20 percent of these funds went to schools whose performance was ranked in the bottom 10 percent of all publically funded schools.

There are too many charters where they serve no need

Across the country, school boards are challenged to align their facilities with the demographics of their districts, placing new schools in neighborhoods with growing student populations and closing facilities where the student population has fallen. ITPI found the California charter sector was not being asked to use this logic. “Nearly 450 charter schools have opened in places that already had enough classroom space for all students—and this overproduction of schools was made possible by generous public support” totaling more than $670 million. What’s more, a large number of these schools were also not performing well academically. ITPI concluded that “one of the key policy judgments normally at the heart of education planning—how to balance a district’s school portfolio to meet the needs of the overall student body—has been declared off-limits for state and local elected officials.”

Charters create under enrolled public schools and reduce funding needed to help students

While ITPI used facility funding as its metric, the impact of unwise spending on charter schools goes well beyond the circle of capital funding. Every unwisely sited public charter school bleeds funds from the underlying public school system. With fixed costs estimated at between 35 and 55 percent, shifting students from existing schools to newly created but unneeded public charters forces cuts in educational programs for the students remaining in the traditional system.

Competition does not improve schools, but it does improve profits.

The problem is not limited to California. Charter and choice advocates have extolled the virtues of school choice and competition with little consideration for the impact of growth with limited accountability.  According to Salon, the findings are “significant on national and statewide levels, especially since California has more charter schools than any other state, and the Trump administration has proposed spending $20 billion for a range of ‘school choice’ initiatives.   Charter schools are privately run K-12 schools and have become an industry dominated by corporate franchises seeking rapid growth.”

The debate now taking place in statehouses across the nation is often posed as binary: pro-market versus anti-market. ITPI’s analysis suggests that policymakers need to consider a different angle.

How is the overall effectiveness of our national, state, and local educational systems being held to account? Who is responsible for the whole, and not just one of the system’s many pieces? If the debate could be reshaped, we might see better outcomes for all.—Martin Levine

Martin Levine is a Principal at Levine Partners LLP, a consulting group focusing on organizational change and improvement, realigning service system to allow them to be more responsive and effective.

Posted in Achievement, California, Charter School Management, Charter Schools, Facilities, Funding.

One Comment

  1. Remember when Eli Broad announced that he opposed the nomination of Betsy DeVos’s nomination. Who was he kidding, they are as thick as thieves and on the same page when it comes to privatization. For some time he has been trying to gain control of half the children in Los Angeles for privately run charter schools , and she approves.

    For a while I thought Gov. Brown really saw the big picture of the corporate reform movement. But he started two charter schools when he was mayor of Oakland and it is clear he still has a weak spot for charters. He vetoed a bill to prohibit for-profit charters.

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