Some California charter schools are opening for the wrong reasons

Jan 5, 2014 by

SAN CARLOS, Calif. – In cities across the country, charter schools have become known for anxiety-fueled lotteries, bitter disputes over sharing buildings with traditional schools, and teaching methods that are sometimes unorthodox.

But in California, as well as some other states, charter schools have increasingly become associated with something more basic yet elusive: money.

Terra Linda Middle School in San Carlos is a charter school, even though most of its families don’t realize it. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

In a state besieged by budget cuts and where per-pupil spending is among the lowest in the nation, dozens of schools converted to charters in the 1990s and 2000s in search of a funding boost.

Across the country, charter schools have access to hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal startup grants. And in California, up until this year, all charters were given the state’s average per-pupil allotment; that meant schools located in districts with below-average funding could receive additional money by chartering.

Moreover, two years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District increased the percentage of low-income students schools needed to qualify for a federal aid program known as Title I, prompting another wave of schools to leave the traditional sector. As charters, they could keep access to the Title 1 funds even with lower percentages of low-income students.

But experts say many of these new charters have not changed much about their day-to-day operations after making the switch — for instance, by making use of the autonomy over calendar and curriculum afforded charter schools. The experience in California has caused some experts to question whether schools should be allowed to charter solely for financial gain.

“If a charter … is just a way of infusing a school or a group of schools with additional resources, that’s just a money grab,” said Margaret Raymond, director of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). “The charter movement doesn’t accept that as a legitimate charter.”

The experience in California has caused some experts to question whether schools should be allowed to charter solely for financial gain.

Most states allow traditional schools to convert to become charters, but nowhere are conversions as numerous as in California. More than 220 schools in the state have switched over, according to the most recent data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. About one-quarter of Los Angeles’s 284 charter schools are conversions. Several California school districts with only one school have become “charter districts.” And in at least five California districts with multiple campuses, charters now comprise nearly all of the schools. Many of these “dependent” charters retain close ties to their districts.

With the change in the formula for statewide funding, though, some of the financial incentives for chartering have been removed and the trend is slowing, according to the California Charter Schools Association.

“We’re seeing a precipitous decline,” said Jed Wallace, the association’s president and CEO.

“Charters in name only”

When charters started in Minnesota more than 20 years ago, backers envisioned them as experimental alternatives to the traditional system. However, in a growing number of communities in California and elsewhere they no longer constitute a fringe alternative.

In some cases, the change is part of a deliberate effort to create a decentralized system with largely autonomous schools. But in other cases, including some California communities, charter proponents like Stanford University’s Raymond worry that when schools convert solely for the money it could muddle the definition of charters and ultimately weaken the entire movement. They’ve even taken to calling some of the conversions Chinos, for “charters in name only.”

“There’s a subset of these conversions that aren’t charters and we shouldn’t think of them as charters,” said Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, an education reform group that works with policymakers, districts and charters. “It dilutes the concept and so it makes it less clear what a charter school really is.”

via Some California charter schools are opening for the wrong reasons, experts say | Hechinger Report.

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