The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s a backlash against charter schools. What’s happening and why.

Even dogs were protesting during the Los Angeles public school teachers strike in January. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

In the largest public school system in the country, New York City Chancellor Richard Carranza recently scolded charter school supporters for disparaging traditional public schools. The year before, he had struck a far friendlier tone.

In the second-largest public school district in the country, Los Angeles teachers ended a six-day strike in January with a key concession from pro-charter Superintendent Austin Beutner: a commitment to call for a districtwide cap on new charters until their effect on district schools can be assessed.

In the third-largest school district in the country, Chicago teachers at several charter schools are on strike, the second time within a month it has happened in the city. The December strike there was the first in the charter sector, which is largely (and intentionally) non-unionized and pays most teachers far less than district schools.

This country is nearly 30 years into an experiment with charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately operated, sometimes by for-profit companies. Supporters first described charters as competitive vehicles to push traditional public schools to reform. Over time, that narrative changed and charters were wrapped into the zeitgeist of “choice” for families whose children wanted alternatives to troubled district schools.

Today, about 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren attend charter schools, with 44 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico having passed laws permitting them. Some states have only a few charters while some cities are saturated. In Los Angeles, 20 percent of children attend charters. In New York, it’s 10 percent. Charter backers say the movement is an important and sustainable feature of America’s education landscape and any problems it faces are expected growing pains.

Yet the movement, which has enjoyed Republican and Democratic support — including hundreds of millions of dollars from the Obama administration — seems to be at an inflection point as supporters and detractors recognize that charters are not the panacea backers had long suggested.

Public support goes up and down, depending on the poll, and data suggest growth in charters is leveling off. Repeated financial scandals and other crises have tarnished the sector. While some charters are terrific schools that get better student outcomes than nearby district schools, others get similar or worse student outcomes. In cities with high concentrations of charters, such as Washington, where nearly 50 percent of students attend them, some parents complain that they can’t get their children into the “best” charters and the notion of “choice” is false.

What looks like a backlash against charters has been several years in the making.

The Obama administration ardently supported charters, pushing states to open them. But in 2016, with Obama’s second term nearly over and strong opposition to his education policies within both parties, the Democratic National Committee altered its draft platform to qualify its support for charters, calling for more transparency and accountability and opposing for-profit charters.

The election of President Trump and the appointment of his billionaire education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who once called traditional public schools “a dead end,” gave pause to some Democratic charter supporters. Trump and DeVos made expanding “school choice” — including charters and programs that use public money for private and religious school tuition — its top education priority.

Trump critics accused him and DeVos of seeking to privatize public education. Being connected to the Trump agenda in any way became a step too far for some Democrats who had called charters “a civil rights issue." Key Democratic groups began to call for moratoriums on charter schools, including the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the country, and the Black Lives Matter movement, one of the newest.

Some of the announced Democratic candidates seeking their party’s 2020 presidential nomination have been strong supporters of charters, including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who was the subject of a new Mother Jones magazine story titled, “Cory Booker Has a Betsy DeVos problem.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the union that operated its own charter school in West Virginia, noted the change in Democratic attitude in this tweet:

Last fall, Chicago’s centrist mayor, Rahm Emanuel, surprised the city when he said he would not run for a third time even though there was no heir apparent. One of the reasons that commentators said contributed to his decision was the growing unpopularity in Chicago of his education policies, which included closing some 50 traditional public schools, affecting mostly African American students, and his embrace of charter schools.

On Dec. 28, 2018, the Chicago Sun-Times published an editorial with this headline: “Why charter school supporters worry about the next mayor of Chicago.” It says in part:

When we read what 14 mayoral candidates had to say about charter schools, we better understood why wealthy supporters of charters are pouring money into the city elections.
They want to save a movement that’s in hot water and likely to get hotter. Only a handful of the candidates expressed much enthusiasm for charter schools.

Public support for charters oscillates depending upon the survey and wording of questions; a 2017 poll by the charter-friendly Harvard University journal Education Next found that charter school support had dropped 12 percentage points from the year before, to about 40 percent. But a 2018 poll said it bounced back by 5 percentage points. Among teachers, support had dropped from 40 percent to 33 percent, it said. In any case, support for charters has never been overwhelming.

And growth in the number of charter schools has been declining for a number of years, though there are varying statistics on whether it has leveled off. A new 117-page report by the consulting group Bellwether Education Partners, funded by the charter-supporting Walton Family Foundation, concedes the point.

This is happening amid growing awareness that charters in California and other states are draining vital resources from traditional publicly funded and operated school districts, which the vast majority of America’s schoolchildren attend.

That was brought into focus by major strikes during the past year by teachers in Republican- and Democratic-led states who were fighting for higher pay and more resources for schools. In Los Angeles, the rallying cry of striking teachers was the existential threat they said charter schools present to traditional districts.

A May 2018 report by a nonprofit group, In The Public Interest, calculated that charters cost several California districts millions of dollars: They cost the San Diego Unified School District $65.9 million a year, the Oakland Unified School District $57.3 million a year and East Side Union $19.3 million annually.

In California, the state with the most charter schools and the most charter students, newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) just told the state superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond, to create a panel to examine how charter schools affect the finances of districts. The California Charter Schools Act forbids school boards reviewing applications for new charters to consider how they might affect the traditional public school district.

California has sometimes been dubbed “the Wild West” of charters because there’s so little oversight. Another sign that California voters may be tiring of that dynamic was Thurmond’s election to the state’s top education post in November. He won against a candidate supported with millions of dollars donated by the charter school lobby. Thurmond had called for a temporary cap on charter growth and more accountability.

Why California’s charter school sector is called ‘the Wild West’

Charter supporters say the schools offer families choice and sometimes excellence they cannot get from troubled district schools. Many also deny that charters drain districts of resources and argue that imposing rigorous oversight tramples on the essence of the schools: to operate independent of school system bureaucracy.

Charter school critics argue that charters are fundamentally undemocratic. They do not have to operate by the same rules as district schools and in most places do not have to be as transparent about how they spend public money. They are run by private boards who do not have to be accountable to the public.

Charter critics also point to a drumbeat of financial and management scandals — which charter supporters don’t often talk about in public. Scandals are chronicled on a blog called #AnotherDayAnotherCharterScandal, which is the work of the public education advocacy group the Network for Public Education, co-founded by well-known education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch.

Here are just a few scandals from January:

— A Jan. 14 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that most of the state’s online charter schools were operated with expired charters, and the Department of Education had no good reason for why it hadn’t attended to the problem.

A Jan. 19 story from the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that “the former chief executive of the Los Angeles-based charter school network Celerity Educational Group has been charged with conspiracy to misappropriate and embezzle public funds — money that was intended for students at Celerity’s schools but was used for lavish travel and the purchase of a property in Ohio, according to court papers.”

A Jan. 22 story from St. Louis Public Radio reported that a charter school, St. Louis College Prep, had “lost tens of thousands of dollars in state funding amidst an investigation into whether the charter school’s founder over-reported attendance records.”

A Jan. 28 story in the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass., reported that state authorities were “investigating whether the director of a charter school proposed for a former mill building on Merrimack Street faked letters from several local nonprofit agencies professing their support for the state license needed to open the school.”

Yet even as calls for more oversight in scandal-ridden sectors are gaining urgency, some charter supporters keep trying to water them down. An Arizona Republic story says:

Legislation introduced by an influential Republican state senator would require charter schools to disclose more about their finances. But the bill contains a large loophole that would allow the state’s biggest chains like Basis Charter Schools and Great Hearts Academies to avoid revealing how they spend their money.

In New York last month, Carranza struck a different tone about charters than he did last year. In a May 30, 2018, New York Times article, Carzzano was quoted this way:

“Charter Schools are public schools,” Richard Carranza, the chancellor, said in the cafeteria of the Bronx Charter School for Excellence, as he wrapped up a day of visits to three charter schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx, to which he had invited reporters along. Even that simple statement was likely to make waves among charter school opponents, who prefer to describe charters as privately run, publicly funded schools.
“The question about charters versus traditional public schools,” Mr. Carranza added, addressing reporters around a cafeteria table, “is a red herring.”

Last month, Carranza told charter supporters to stop comparing the performance of charter schools to district schools.

And days later, at a meeting with parents in the Bronx, he urged them to fight the practice of traditional schools being forced to give space to charter schools on their campus. A state law requires the district to pay rent for charters if they can’t get space in traditional schools, and the New York Post reported in this story:

Carranza made his remarks after a parent objected to state law that obligates the city to pay rental costs for charters that are denied space in public school buildings.
The schools chief said he gets between 250 and 400 emails a day — and that many of them object to the financial and space burdens imposed by the sector.
“How many of the emails that I get are about ‘Why are you giving that space to charters?' ” he asked. “ ‘Why don’t you fight it?' "

Correction: L.A.'s superintendent, Austin Beutner, agreed to call for a district-wide cap on charters, not a statewide cap as an earlier version of this story said.