Voices From The Community
Charter Schools Are Not The Answer
Guest columnist Emiliana Dore makes the case for preserving public schools as a way of fighting racial injustice in our communities.
“We have a long way to go before we reach an equitable education system in this country, but charter schools are not the answer.”
- Emiliana Dore
New Year’s Day is celebrated as a chance to move on from past mistakes and take the opportunity of a fresh start. After the year that was 2020, this is needed now more than ever. In this spirit, I have asked representatives of communities throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to express their concerns about the district and how they would like to move forward.
In this first article in the series, parent Emiliana Dore writes about the role of public schools and the fight for racial equity. Dore is a Los Angeles copywriter and longtime public school advocate who is grateful that her kids have grown up with an incredible and diverse group of anti-racist role models at their local public schools…
In a recent op-ed piece for education blog The 74, Rebecca Nurick explained why she created a school to teach her children about kindness, caring, and an awareness of diversity. A founding parent of Citizens of the World West Valley Charter School, Ms. Nurick asserted, “My daughter will grow up to be an anti-racist role model. She, and the peers in her generation, will unify us rather than divide us. She will soon be a first-grader at CWC West Valley, where she’ll be taught to engage with, listen to, and learn from students different from her. Because of our school, I am confident my child will grow up to be part of the solution. I only hope that more parents will have an opportunity to enroll their children at schools that offer the same promise.”
I would like to introduce Ms. Nurick to some incredible anti-racist role models from our communities. There is Tyler Okeke, who served as our LAUSD Student Representative, before moving on to help lead youth support for Proposition 15. Andrew Charroux started a group on his campus called Lunch Bunch to help students overcome the social isolation that many teens feel at school. Eloise Lau is another example. Her drawing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was recently featured on a special ice cream container at Long Beach Creamery to help get out the vote. Finally, there is Mya Edwards–Peña, a Students Deserve activist who has helped lead the movement to divest from school police in order to invest in education for Black students. Like many other anti-racist, social justice youth leaders here in Los Angeles, all of these students come from public schools.
I agree with Ms. Nurick that kindness, caring and an awareness of diversity are very important qualities to teach in our schools. I also believe that we should be doing more to integrate our schools and communities. But demonizing our public schools and creating carefully curated charter schools that cater to a few select students is not the way to nurture future social justice leaders. We have a long way to go before we reach an equitable education system in this country, but charter schools are not the answer.
According to a Washington Post article from August 2020, a recent study found that a quarter of charter schools closed after just five years of operation, and about half of them closed after 15 years. Together, these charter failures have displaced a total of more than 867,000 students — mostly in BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) and low-income communities. These fly-by-night charter schools not only cause harm to the students and families they leave in the lurch, but they also weaken the surrounding public schools as it is often these schools that pick up the responsibility of educating these children, sometimes while the charter school keeps the funding.
Charter schools also receive very little financial oversight, which has led to an astounding amount of fraud. A Forbes article from 2019 calculated that we have wasted over a billion dollars nationally on charter failure and fraud. As an example in California, a recent charter fraud case in San Diego cost our state $50 million dollars. In Los Angeles, the founders of the Celerity chain of charter schools and the Community Preparatory Academy each pleaded guilty to embezzling millions of dollars. All of that is taxpayer money that could — and should —have been invested in education for all of our students.
Yet, despite these clear bad faith players in the charter industry, charter advocates fought tooth and nail against all of the charter accountability bills. If you really want to create schools that foster greater equity, why fight against transparency and accountability? In memos uncovered via a recent public records request, two charter advocacy groups, Los Angeles Advocacy Council (LAAC) and California Charter School Association (CCSA), gleefully celebrated their role working with pro-charter school board members to remove the Office of the LAUSD Inspector General’s (OIG) oversight of charter schools. The memo claims that this “should be seen as a major win by and for the charter community.” It may be a win for the “charter community”, but it is not a win for the BIPOC and low-income communities that are so often targeted by questionable charters.
Both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter conducted studies about the impact of charter schools on BIPOC communities. The hope was that charter schools might be the silver bullet that they promise to be. Instead, the studies concluded that while some BIPOC families do benefit from charter schools, on the whole, charter schools do not outperform public schools, and they are causing a great deal of harm to minority and low-income neighborhoods. The NAACP study also found that charter schools were causing our schools to be more segregated. The Students Deserve group here in Los Angeles has also called for our leaders to invest in public schools and stop charter expansion. When will our local leaders start to listen?
In addition to the harm that charter schools are causing in BIPOC communities, they also enroll a smaller percentage of Special Needs students than traditional public schools. Equally troubling, according to a 2016 article by Capital & Main, many charters push out low-performing students; including students with disciplinary problems and special needs. Public schools, which by law accept everyone, are often forced to re-absorb these students without adequate funding to provide the services that they need and deserve. It was easy for the pro-charter board members to vote to decrease the LAUSD school police budget since charter schools effectively police themselves.
Here in Los Angeles, big money charter supporters also have a long history of spending huge dollars to influence our school board races. Billionaires like Eli Broad, the Walton family (Walmart), and Reed Hastings (Netflix), have poured millions of dollars into our recent school board elections. They backed Nick Melvoin, who attracted a lot of bad publicity for the district last year when he attempted to start a boutique school at Fairfax High School that would have displaced a program that served mostly Latino children with Special Education Needs, in order to make room for mostly affluent white families. The charter millionaires also supported pro-charter candidate Ref Rodriguez, who resigned over fraud charges, right after casting the deciding vote in a secret backroom deal to hire pro-charter superintendent Austin Beutner. According to an October Capital & Main article, pro-charter Independent Expenditure (IE) groups spent over $5 million dollars on negative campaigning alone during our recent school board election. Marilyn Koziatek’s campaign consisted almost entirely of negative attack ads against popular incumbent Scott Schmerelson, including a particularly vile anti-Semitic mailer sent out by an Independent Expenditure committee.
Tanya Ortiz Franklin recently won her seat on our school board with help from charter backers. Hopefully, Ms. Ortiz Franklin and our newly elected LAUSD School Board President Kelly Gonez will learn from the mistakes of their charter-backed predecessors and will stand up for all LAUSD students. In a recent interview with the L.A. Times, Ms. Gonez promisingly affirmed her commitment to equity and social justice. Since 70% of students in Los Angeles Unified attend public schools — including the vast majority of BIPOC and students with Special Education needs — anyone concerned with equity and social justice must represent our public schools.
People are starting to wake up to the damage caused by charter schools. #AnotherDayAnotherCharterScandal is a trending hashtag. Money wasted on charter fraud was also a rallying cry for opponents of Proposition 15. A position on the LAUSD School Board was once seen as a stepping stone to higher political aspirations, but pro-charter board member Monica Garcia finished a dismal fourth in her recent bid for City Council. Ms. Garcia’s poor showing was primarily driven by strong opposition from activists and public school families who feel she has caused a great deal of harm in her district. Nick Melvoin would likely face similar opposition should he ever choose to run for a higher office.
The problems with charters extend beyond politics. Due to the ill-conceived Prop 39, charter schools like Citizens of the World can co-locate on public school campuses. In theory, two small schools sharing space on one campus might not sound so bad, but when all of the advantages are on the charter side, it becomes a much more questionable practice. Prop 39 requires the district to provide charter schools with a list of schools that have available space. By law, that means any part of a school that isn’t actively used as a classroom is up for grabs — computer labs, gardens built by the community, after school enrichment programs — can all be taken away from local public school kids to make way for a charter. Public school families have zero say in this process. Even worse, co-location requests are based on prospective charter school enrollment. Many charters have been caught posting on local parent boards asking parents to sign up for their school, even if they do not intend to enroll. This practice of inflating enrollment means that imaginary charter school kids can take away space from actual public school kids. Charter schools are supposed to pay an over-allocation penalty for space they take from public schools but do not use. Within the LAUSD many charters are woefully behind on payments with one charter school openly scoffing at the idea of paying funds that it legally owes to the LAUSD.
Co-location isn’t the only threat public schools face from charters. Five years ago, a group of parents in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles formed Eastside Padres to fight off a KIPP charter being built next to their public schools. With their “no excuses” philosophy, KIPP charter schools have a particularly bad track record of social justice violations. After watching the predatory practices of several charter schools that had moved into their neighborhood, the Eastside Padres decided to fight back. Fortunately, they successfully stopped that KIPP charter, but Cudahy families have not been as lucky. The Cudahy City Council recently approved the construction of a new KIPP facility, despite strong opposition from the community, including serious environmental concerns. Considering the amount of money the charter lobby spends to influence our politicians and elections, it is not too surprising that local politicians often greenlight charters against the wishes of their constituents.
I don’t want charter school parents to feel attacked. When my kids were little, I felt like I was lucky if I remembered to put my pants on in the morning, let alone figuring out how to navigate the minefield of school choice. I don’t think anyone picks a school for their child thinking, “I really want to harm other kids.” But we cannot keep ignoring the fact that the simple choice of where to send our children to school can have a huge ripple effect on our communities. We cannot teach children to be kind, caring, and aware of diversity when we are literally invading and weakening BIPOC children’s schools.
My big hope is that we can start working together to make education better for all of the kids in our neighborhoods — not just the lucky few who are selected by lottery. To my fellow white parents, especially, please consider sending your child to a local public school. Ignore Great Schools, which was founded with charter money specifically to seed doubt in our local neighborhood schools. Join the Integrated Schools community and listen to podcasts like Nice White Parents or Season 2 of The Promise. Instead of creating our own schools, imagine if we pooled all of our resources and worked hard together to support and strengthen our neighborhood schools. Imagine providing exceptional learning opportunities for every single child.
Charter proponents have long pushed a narrative about our public schools failing, but maybe we need to reframe that discussion and realize that we are the ones who are failing our public schools. We have been shamefully underfunding them for years — especially here in California where we spend close to $8,500 less annually per student than New York City. I am encouraged that President-elect Biden has committed to reigning in charter failure and fraud, and has appointed public school educator Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education. If we truly want to build an education system that works for everyone, the answer is not privately run charter schools. The only true solution is fully-funded, equitable public education.
Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD’s CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a “strong supporter of public schools.” For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.