Why the Greedy Corporate Charter School Image is So Wrong

My school recently celebrated the end of the school year with a graduation ceremony. It was a moment of great pride and honor for me. After four years, our school now serves about 130 students and we offer a unique Spanish dual language immersion program — and adding Mandarin next year!

By Demi Brown
This moment of joy in our school community was a sharp contrast to how a recent report commissioned by In the Public Interest, “The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts,” would have you picture my school. They would present me as Scrooge McDuck trying to overtake the school district, rather than someone who spends most of her day coaching teachers to be their best and helping students navigate the ever-changing roadblocks that hit low-income families. The greedy corporate charter school image skimming students and lacking accountability is overplayed and in need of a reality check.

The fact is charter schools are public. Like traditional neighborhood schools, they are free to attend. Unlike traditional schools, they have no attendance boundaries and are run independently of the school district. As a public school, there is also nothing private about how charters are governed, with most following the Brown Act for open public meetings. Independent? Yes. Private? No.

This is not to say traditional schools are bad — they work for most, but not all. There are successful and unsuccessful schools in both districts and charters. To take a few bad charters and use them as evidence against all charter schools is a disservice to the truth, and ultimately to students. Most charters empower teachers as the leaders and professionals that they are. Charter schools can work outside of the system, shredding layers of bureaucracy so we can focus on learning.

Two big lies about charter schools: They are selective, and they aren’t accountable. These mantras have been repeated over and over to the point that they are taken as truth. But they are the easiest to dispute because the facts are the facts.

In California, charter schools are open to all. If a school has more applications than available seats, they must hold a random lottery. This is a law!

In exchange for flexibility, charter schools must meet high standards of accountability, even more than their traditional district counterparts. In addition to being required to meet state and federal education standards, they must also meet high student achievement goals and rigorous academic, financial, and managerial standards to be allowed to operate.

A new concern came up recently when In the Public Trust released a study stating charter schools are costing districts money. However, when calculating the “cost to the districts,” the study calculated a regional dollar value by the number of current charter students enrolled in each district. This is erroneous for many reasons. First, education dollars belong to the student, not the district. To suggest that the funding is lost presumes it was the district’s to begin with.

Second, charter schools have been around in California for 25 years, school districts should have been prepared to adjust to shifting enrollment due to many other factors, including declining birthrates, families moving out of the state and students choosing non-district schooling options. Furthermore, the San Diego Unified School District chose to stop offering services to charter schools, which is a big missed revenue opportunity. And, the math doesn’t add up. Charter school enrollment has been steady over the last few years in San Diego Unified, the state has increased its revenues to schools, but somehow the district faces a large deficit and charter schools are to blame.

Today, about one in 10 students in California attend a public charter school. Charters are one piece of the education puzzle. We are not billionaires running faceless schools. We are educators who care deeply about ensuring all students have an education that best serves their needs.

That is the simple truth. Unfortunately, the lies funded by anti-charter groups have been louder, so the truth gets lost. I encourage people to dig deeper, question, and visit a charter to see firsthand the innovative work we do to meet the diverse needs of all students.

Demi Brown is the founding director of Empower Charter School (www.empowercharter.org) in Linda Vista.

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