The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How messed up is California’s charter school sector? You won’t believe how much.

California Gov. Jerry Brown gestures during a community event in Sacramento.  (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Ohio and Utah are known in education circles for having extraordinarily troubled charter school sectors, and the same is true in  Pennsylvania, where Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a report this year and declared his state’s charter school law the “worst” in the nation.

But there is another place with a scandal-plagued charter sector that gets less national attention than it should: California, which has more charter schools and charter school students than any other state in the nation, and where one billionaire came up with a secret plan to “charterize” half of  the Los Angeles Unified School District.

There is a never-ending stream of charter scandals coming from California. For example, a report released recently (by the ACLU SoCal and Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy group) found that more than 20 percent of all California charter schools have enrollment policies that violate state and federal law. A Mercury News investigation published in April revealed how the state’s online charter schools run by Virginia-based K12 Inc., the largest for-profit charter operator in the country, have “a dismal record of academic achievement” but has won more than $310 million in state funding over the past dozen years.

There was the scandal involving a charter school principal who also doubled as a National Basketball Association scout, traveling first class to basketball games around the country — and charging his travel expenses to his charter school. Don’t forget the one involving a charter school that closed in 2014 after state auditors found a number of issues, including indications that administrators funneled millions of dollars in state funds to the schools’ operator and her family and friends.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, some of the allegations against the school operator were downright “bizarre.” Auditors questioned the use of school funds to pay a more than half a million-dollar settlement to a former teacher who sued, claiming she had been wrongly terminated after she was ordered by the school director to travel to Nigeria and marry the director’s brother-in-law so he could become a U.S. citizen. The operator’s penalty? She paid “a $16,000 fine for misconduct that includes using public education funds to lease her own buildings,” the Times said.

What these reveal is a state charter law that allows charter schools to operate loosely, with little if any accountability or transparency to the public. The charter lobby in California has successfully fought off legislative efforts to bring more accountability to the charter sector — at least so far.

Now there is a bill awaiting the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown which would require more accountability and transparency from the state’s charters schools. Brown, who has been a supporter of charter schools, has not indicated what he will do, though California’s treasurer, John Chiang, has said the legislation is vital to make charter schools more accountable to the public. Brown, who started two charter schools when he was mayor of Oakland, last year vetoed a bill that would have banned for-profit charters.

This is the first of four posts on the state of charters in California. It was written by Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education. She was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. Her four-part series will be part of an extended national report on charter schools that will be published by the Network for Public Education in 2017.

By Carol Burris

You can find a charter in a mall right near a Burger King, where students as young as 12 meet their “teacher on demand.” Or, you can make a cyber visit to the “blended learning” Epic Charter School, whose students are required to meet a teacher (at a convenient, to be determined location) only once every 20 days. There is an added bonus upon joining Epic: Students receive $1,500 for a personal “learning fund,” along with a laptop computer. The enrollment site advertised that students could boost that fund by referring others to the charter chain.

A superintendent can expand his tiny rural district of 300 students to 4,000 by running “independent study” charters in storefronts in cities miles away, netting millions in revenue for his district, while draining the sometimes unsuspecting host district of students and funds. If he is clever, he might arrange a “bounty” for each one opened, while having a side business selling services to the charters. Charters can even provide lucrative investment opportunities for tennis stars and their friends. And then there is the opportunity to “cash in” on international students at a jaw dropping $31,300 per student.

Exclusivity can be a magnet that draws families to charters. In districts with poverty, charters with a conservative and patriotic milieu, attract far fewer undocumented kids and students who need free lunch. For the “diverse adverse,” there are charters such as Old Town Academy, whose students are 65 percent white and 6 percent poor, in a district where only 23 percent of the public school students are white and 61 percent receive subsidized lunch.

These examples (and there are many more like them) are not happening in Ohio or Pennsylvania, infamous for their “loosey goosey” charter laws. They are examples from the beautiful and blue State of California, where flowers and charters grow wild.

California has the most charter schools and charter school students in the nation. In 2000, there were 299 charter schools in the Golden State. Last year there were 1,230. Twenty-percent of the students in San Diego County attend its 120 charter schools.

Of the San Diego charter schools, over one-third promote independent learning, which means the student rarely, if ever, has to interact face to face with a teacher or fellow students. One of the largest independent learning charters, The Charter High School of San Diego, had 756 students due to graduate in 2015. Only 32 percent actually made it. The Diego Valley Charter School, part of the mysterious Learn4Life chain, tells prospective students that they “are only required to be at their resource center for one appointment per week (from 1-3 hours), so it’s not like having a daily commute!” The Diego Valley cohort graduation rate in 2015 was 10.8 percent, with a drop out rate of 45 percent. The San Diego School District’s graduation rate was 89 percent.

Sixteen percent of the students in Los Angeles attend charters, which has cost the district half a billion dollars in the last 10 years. Los Angeles County is home to 26 “independent study centers,” including the California Virtual Academy (CAVA), run by the for-profit K-12, which enrolls 3,634 students in Los Angeles County alone. CAVA just agreed to a $168.5 million dollar settlement with the state for false advertising and “cooking the books” with attendance. Over 25 percent of all students in Oakland attend charters, in which African American students are dramatically underrepresented.

How many is enough when it comes to charters, given the scandals and problems, and the lack of  evidence of overall success? It appears as if there are more charters than California needs, but there are certainly not as many charter advocates want.

Eli Broad, who made his fortune building tract housing and selling insurance, is a Los Angeles multibillionaire who has given a fortune to charterize the city and the state. His involvement drew national attention when his foundation’s plan for charter school expansion in Los Angeles was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. It proposed the following goals “(1) to create 260 new high-quality charter schools, (2) to generate 130,000 high-quality charter seats, and (3) to reach 50 percent charter market share.”

The term, “market share” refers to children.

The Broad plan is to be actualized by a nonprofit called Great Public Schools Now, which keeps its funders hidden on its website. However, the leaked report included a list of billionaires both within and outside of the state from whom it would solicit funds. Despite public outcry when it was leaked, Great Public Schools Now is raising money and pushing its agenda.

No organization, however, better exemplifies the aggressive push to charterize the state of California than the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). The theme for their 2016 California Charter School Conference was March to One Million by 2022. Their conference goal was to “unify the charter community, whatever role they play.” Every kind of charter, regardless of effectiveness, can join the parade.

And that parade is well-funded indeed. In 2014,  CCSA reported its income to be $22,120,466. Although it is a membership organization, only $1.6 million came from charter school dues. That year, CCSA received nearly $17 million in gifts, grants and contributions. CCSA also has another name, the California Charter School Consortium, and under that name it received a $5.8 million grant from the multibillion dollar Silicon Valley Community Foundation in 2014.

CCSA does not disclose its funders on its website nor on its 990 form, but given its board of directors, who makes the list of big donors is not difficult to guess. This year’s board includes Joe Williams, founder of Democrats for Education Reform; Gregory McGinty, a director of the Walton Education Coalition; Gregory McGinty, executive director of policy for the Broad Foundation; Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of the Hastings Fund[1]; and Christopher Nelson, managing director of the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund.[2] Prior board members include Reed Hastings of Netflix and Carrie Walton Penner, an heir to the Walmart fortune.

The real power, however, sits in CCSA’s related organization, CCSA Advocates, a not-for-profit 501(c)(4) whose mission is to increase the political clout of charter schools on local school boards, on county boards, and in the state capital of Sacramento. In California, charter schools can be authorized at all three of those levels — local, county and state. Both CCSA and CCSA Advocates work together to thwart legislative efforts that would increase charter oversight, such as AB 709 that would make charter board meetings public, allow the public to inspect charter school records, and prohibit charter school officials from having a financial interest in contracts that they enter into in their official capacity. All of the above are expected of public schools.

AB 709 is on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk awaiting action.

The California Charter Schools Association also fought the SB 322 bill, which would give charter school students the same reasonable due-process rights afforded students who attend public schools, as well as SB 739 which would put some restrictions on the ability of a district to open up “resource center” charters in other counties, which led to the abuses described earlier in this report.

The efforts of the California Charter School Association Advocates do not end with the opposition to bills such as those described above. CCSAA is a conduit for hundreds of millions of dollars that influence California elections, both big and small.

The primary function of a not for profit 501(c)(4), according to the tax code, is to promote the social welfare. Although a 501(c)(4) may participate in some political activities, such expenditures cannot exceed 50 percent of the organization’s budget.

Does CCSAA promote the social welfare as its primary mission? Although its website has general information promoting charters, its donate button deposits donations directly into two political action committees (PACs).

In addition to those PACs, CCSAA also runs a super PAC, known as the California Charter Schools Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee, which has raised nearly $16.9 million since it began in the summer of 2011.

The list of big donors to CCSA Advocates’ Super Pac will not surprise those who follow the California charter world: Doris Fisher, $3,400,000; Eli Broad: $1,205,000; Reed Hastings, $3,684,500; members of the Walton family, $2,092,500; John and Regina Scully, $1,529,500; and Barbara Grimm, $1,236,400. Ms. Grimm, whose family fortune was made in agriculture, stepped up her donations after her blended learning (computer-based instruction) charter, with its “edible education program,” won an award from CCSA.

Then there are the PACs that donate to the Super Pac, as well as the individual donors outside the state, such as John and Laura Arnold of Houston, $1 million; Michael Bloomberg of New York City, $425,000; and Stacy Schusterman of Tulsa ($75,000), who is the chairman of Sansone Energy and who also sits on the board of The Charter Growth Fund.

Does this massive spending make a difference?

Carl J. Petersen is a candidate in next year’s Los Angeles Unified School District 2 board election. He became a public education activist while fighting for his two daughters who are on the autism spectrum. Petersen had this to say about the influence of CCSA in Los Angeles:

The California Charter School Association and their allies poured nearly $2.3 million into last year’s LAUSD election, helping to make them the nation’s most expensive school board election. Given this influence, is it any surprise that the LAUSD Charter School Division, which is responsible for overseeing the largest charter system in the country, is headed by a former staff member of the CCSA or that the district has only revoked one charter in the past three years?

The spending by CCSA Advocates and its PACs, one of which goes by the acronym PTA (Parent Teacher Alliance), has affected primary races across the state. No doubt November will bring another influx of cash and spending.

And so the citizens of California stand at the crossroads. Do they follow the Broad Plan and trust in billionaires to shepherd the education of their children in loosely regulated charters? Or do they slow down and create responsible policies and rules that serve both the taxpayers and children of the state well?

Another state-funded $28 million grant cycle to start new charter schools has begun. No doubt the school entrepreneurs will be lining up to grab the $575,000 in start-up cash, generously provided by the taxpayers of the Golden State.

[1] a private foundation of Netflix’s Reed Hastings.

[2] a San Francisco-based philanthropy created by Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of the Gap, Inc.

(Correction: The introduction to the guest post said Brown was mayor of Sacramento. It was Oakland. Also changing $169 million to 16.9 million. The crucial period was missing.