I recently published a four-part look at charter schools in California, which can be summed up by the title of the first piece: “How messed up is California’s charter school sector? You won’t believe how much.” The author, Carol Burris, a former award-winning New York high school principal who is now executive director of the advocacy group Network for Public Education, documented problems with accountability and transparency with some charter operations in the state. Now a new report details another problem with those schools.

Over the past 15 years, the state’s charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately run — have received more than $2.5 billion in tax dollars or taxpayer-paid subsidized funds to lease, build or buy school buildings. The report, titled “Spending Blind: The Failure of Policy Planning in California Charter School Funding” and published by the Oakland-based research and policy center In the Public Interest, finds that public funding for California charters “is almost completely disconnected from educational policy objectives, and the results are, in turn, scattershot and haphazard.” It says:

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent each year without any meaningful strategy. Far too much of this public funding is spent on schools built in neighborhoods that have no need for additional classroom space, and which offer no improvement over the quality of education already available in nearby public schools. In the worst cases, public facilities funding has gone to schools that were found to have discriminatory enrollment policies and others that have engaged in unethical or corrupt practices.

The author of the report is Gordon Lafer,  a political economist and an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center. He has served as senior policy adviser for the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce and has testified as an expert witness before the House, Senate and state legislatures.

Today there are more than 1,000 charter schools enrolling nearly 600,000 students in California — nearly 10 percent of the students in the state — up from less than 200 such schools 20 years ago — and the California Charter Schools Association has set a goal of enrolling 1 million students by 2022.

Lafer looks at where charter schools have been given permission to open in California and where more schools are needed due to increasing school-age populations, and he found that there is no real connection to the two.

The California Charter Schools Association, not surprisingly, took issue with Lafer’s work, saying in a statement that “charters are growing due to parent demand for high quality public school options for children” and that it believes the report was issued “to help garner support for one of the most aggressive anti-charter bills California has seen.” It is referring to S.B. 808, legislation supported by the California Teachers Association that would change the way charter schools are authorized in the state.

Currently, charter operators who are denied permission to open a new school or keep operating by a local school district can appeal to the county or state boards of education. The law would let the decision rest with local districts, which would be in line with the notion that public education is a local issue. Charter operators say that they want to provide school choice, but, apparently, they aren’t interested in letting local school boards in California decide what choices to offer in their own district.

The report says that “nearly 450 charter schools have opened in places that already had enough classroom space for all students — and this overproduction of schools was made possible by generous public support, including $111 million in rent, lease, or mortgage payments picked up by taxpayers, $135 million in general obligation bonds, and $425 million in private investments subsidized with tax credits or tax exemptions.” These amounts are based on only a portion of the state’s charter schools for which data was available, so the true funding amounts given to charters in communities that don’t need more classrooms “is almost twice as great.”

In California, traditional school systems can’t build new schools if enrollment demands it because of the way the state decides when it will give state bond funds to build a new school. According to the report, it does this by comparing existing classroom space with the student population projected over the next five years. Charter schools don’t have such a requirement.

Traditional public school officials and advocates have said that charter schools, if they are going to be approved, should be required to serve communities that need schools. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest traditional school system and the one with the most charter schools and charter school students, officials have for years expressed concern that they are losing money to charters that they need for programs such as those educating students with disabilities.

Charter supporters say that parents should have choice, and the report notes that charter advocates sometimes “insist that no regulation whatsoever is warranted for charter school construction — that schools function best in a free market with no barriers to entry.

But the charter sector is not a free market — it is heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars. A decision to open the spigot of public funding with no plan and no limitations would be an abrogation of fiduciary responsibility. Indeed, such a suggestion is inconceivable in almost any other type of public services. To put such a proposition in context, imagine if the transportation department announced that it would no longer plan what roads to build, but instead would allow any private contractor to build a road wherever it wanted. Cars would be tracked by GPS and the state transportation budget would be doled out on a per-car-mile basis to whatever privately owned roads people chose to use. Let them vote with their steering wheels! If six different companies all decide to build a freeway from Los Angeles to San Diego — even though travel data showed that traffic was sufficient to sustain only two such roads — no problem; whoever ends up being most attractive will win, and the others will gradually be abandoned and crumble to dust. It’s inconceivable that the state might distribute hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in such an untargeted fashion. But this is frighteningly close to what we are doing in our school system.

It also takes issue with claims by charter school supporters that charters are offering high-quality educations to students who enroll, saying that “because legislators’ vision for charter schools has not been incorporated into funding formulas, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually on charter facilities have not created the hoped-for incubator of innovation and continual improvement.”

While some charter schools have proved exemplary, much of the industry has become dominated by the same types of organizations legislators had sought to reform: large chains of schools where materials, methods, and evaluation are centrally dictated and teachers lack the power to set the curriculum; Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) that replicate a single model over and over again with little variation; and schools whose quality of education is no better than that of nearby public schools, and who do not serve to spur improvements in the wider system.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including:

Weighing charter school construction against other educational needs:
At a time when schools across the state face increasingly severe financial needs, many millions of dollars each year flow to schools whose added value to the education system is dubious. These funds are earmarked for facility purposes and cannot be easily redirected by agency staff to classroom instruction purposes. Instead, legislators might conduct an annual review weighing the volume of funding for charter facilities against competing needs in the school system, in order to ensure that funding priorities align with student needs.
Avoid paying for overbuilding:
The simplest step in this direction would be to put a moratorium on funding new charter facilities in districts where the overall student population is in decline. This is the type of charter expansion that is most harmful to the instructional programs and fiscal stability of school districts.
In addition, lawmakers might take steps to ensure that if the state is funding charter school in districts where the CDE has determined there is no need for additional classroom space, this only happens in the case of promoting charter schools with truly unique or exemplary programs that the district is incapable of providing. In such districts, lawmakers might choose to fund a new charter facility only if it has a track record of educational performance (however that may be measured) at least 30% better than local public schools.

Here’s more: