Across the U.S., state and local tax revenues are down. This fiscal trend is hammering traditional public schools. Just ask students and their teachers coping with layoffs and larger classroom enrollment in Sacramento and statewide. A decidedly different picture prevails for tuition-free public charter schools. They operate with a contract (charter) from a public entity. Stephanie Grisham, with Larson Communications, is a spokesperson for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a non-profit advocacy group based in Washington, DC. Public charter school operators range from charter management organizations, such as Aspire, KIPP, and Rocketship, to education management organizations like the for-profit Academica and Mosaica.
Last but not least are the freestanding independent public charter schools, or “mom and pops.” According to the Alliance, over 2 million students were enrolled in about 5,600 public charter schools in the U.S. in 2011, representing a 13 percent year-over-year increase. In 2010, California led the nation in public charter schools with 983, serving over 412,000 students (7 percent of the overall enrollment of 6 million pupils statewide). The next 4 states—in order of total public charter schools—are Arizona, 524; Florida, 520; Ohio, 360; and Texas, 284.
According to Grisham, NAPCS compiled the 2010 figures from state education departments and state charter school groups. Asked why California has the most public charter schools, Grisham noted its 1992 law establishing public charter schools with 31 in 1993, the biggest state populace nationwide and a “great” California Charter Schools Association (a private firm). “CCSA actively advocates for the promotion and access of public charter schools, academic achievement, and increased accountability,” according to its website. The CCSA focuses in part on state governance bills and policies under the Capitol dome in Sacramento. The CCSA seeks to increase funding for charter schools at the state and local level, which includes revenues produced by parcel taxes—according to Vicky Waters, CCSA director of media relations.
What are the most recent year- over-year state budget figures for spending on public charter schools as part of the overall budget for traditional K-12 public schools? Such data is unavailable, said Cindy Chan, a spokesperson for the Charter Schools Division of the California Education Department. According to her, figures for state funding of traditional public school and public charter counterparts exist, but as separate data sets.
What, if any, are the funding inequities between public charter schools and traditional public schools in California? “Large funding gaps do exist between public charter schools and traditional public schools,” Waters said. “On average, according to studies by Bellwether Education Partners and Ball State University, the gap in funding between public charter schools and traditional public schools is higher than 19 percent ($2,247 per pupil) in California. Charters receive funding primarily through block grants, which are significantly less on a per pupil basis than the funding provided to traditional public school students.
“Also, charters usually don’t have access to local school bonds or parcel tax revenues, despite the fact that charter parents in those communities are paying for them. Deferrals (state imposed delays in entitlement payments to schools), lack of access to short-term borrowing, and facilities inequities also exacerbate charter’s financial situation.” Waters continues: “Education Code 47630 (a) states that ‘It is the intent of the Legislature that each charter school be provided with operational funding that is equal to the total funding that would be available to a similar school district serving a similar pupil population’.”
One prominent critic of what she terms corporate school reform is author and education scholar Diane Ravitch. She spoke before 3,000-plus people at the Sacramento Convention Center on January 20. In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Ravitch cast a skeptical eye on the economics and politics of education reform and reformers.
For Ravitch, the function of private money in public education leads to what she terms, “The Billionaire Boys’ Club.” This club includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft Inc.) and the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart Inc.). Both of these well-heeled foundations fund CCSA.
Meanwhile in Sacramento, funds from the Gates Foundation in 2003 helped the non-profit St. Hope Foundation under current mayor Kevin Johnson—a Democrat and past NBA all-star guard for the Phoenix Suns—to obtain a charter to operate the formerly public Sacramento High School. The Gates Foundation is also a donor to Capitol Impact, LLC, a “Sacramento-based consulting firm dedicated to improving policy and practice in California, with a particular emphasis on public education,” according to its website.
Private interests and government intervention loom large in the growth of public charter schools. The trajectory of a former CCSA employee to state government service is instructive. Ting L. Sun, co-founder and educational program director of the Natomas Charter School, worked for the CCSA from October 2003 to December 2006. Former GOP California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) in December 2007. At the California CTC, Sun served as a public representative until December 2011 and was Commission chair from January 2010 through December 2011. In a phone interview, she confirmed her employment as a senior consultant with Cambridge Education, LLC, a privately-held management firm, from 2007 until 2009.
Kathy Carroll of Sacramento, a former state CTC employee, questions such public-private relations in education. She was an attorney for the California CTC from October 2006 to November 2010 and a whistleblower who alleges that her employer fired her for speaking out on misconduct such as violations of statutory mandates (providing for fair and impartial decision-making). In a wide-ranging interview, Carroll criticized officials like Sun who serve the public interest and a private enterprise like Cambridge Education, LLC. That particular example creates a situation that fosters the potential for financial and political conflicts of interest, according to Carroll who is opposed to such activities between public officials, private interests, and public charter schools.
Organized resistance to public charter schools is underway. Sacramento labor organizer Karen Bernal joined 50-plus protesters from the Sacramento Coalition to Save Public Education, Sacramento City Teachers Association and Occupy Sacramento in a silent rally at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria in downtown Sacramento on January 25. Inside the library, education reformer Michelle Rhee—past head of schools in Washington, DC, (and wife of Mayor Johnson)—presented her ideas on reforming public education. Rhee’s StudentsFirst group, which, according to Ravitch, vows to pit students and teachers against each other, is opening an office to advance a slate of education reforms that include restructuring public school teacher unions. Hence, the significance of protesters wearing tape on their mouths, re-enacting Rhee’s alleged classroom directive to tape shut students’ mouths who spoke when instructed to be silent.
The United Public Workers for Action held a conference at Laney College in Oakland to “look at how the destruction of public education is taking place in California—who is doing it and how to stop it and defend the right to a public education for all working people.” Carroll joined a slate of speakers there addressing K-12 and higher education issues impacting those public institutions.
According to January 27 Federal Commerce Department figures on GDP, 2011 saw the steepest drop in state and local government spending since 1944. Consequently, the nation’s traditional public schools face a worsening budget crisis. Such tumult, plus big dollars from the wealthiest families in the country, nurtures the growth of public charter schools. It’s unclear what impact the opposition can muster to change this equation in 2012. It’s us against the Billionaire’s Boys Club led by the Gates and Walton families. Then again, nobody said that class struggle would be easy.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento, California. Photo: Labor organizer Karen Bernal (right) speaks to youth at a Sacramento rally against corporate school reformer Michelle Rhee; photo by Seth Sandronsky.