The Danger of California Charter Schools

Students in the hallway between classes at a charter school in East Los Angeles. (Photo by David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images)
Students in the hallway between classes at a charter school in East Los Angeles. (Photo by David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images)

Black and Latino students in California are attending schools as racially segregated and unequally funded as those of the “separate but equal” era of late 19th-century America. And parents eager to give their children a better education are responding by enrolling them in charter schools.

But although charter schools are intended to offer students better educational opportunities, they also pose a danger of making inequities worse than they were.

That’s according to a new study by Preston Green, professor of education and law at the University of Connecticut, and Joseph Oluwole, associate professor of counseling and educational leadership at Montclair State University.

In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Transformative Leadership & Policy Studies, Green and Oluwole compare charter schools, which by design have greater latitude from state rules and regulations than traditional public schools, to the “schools of excellence” established by the African-American community in the wake of the 1869 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson.

Those schools – so-called “separate but equal” – were characterized by high-quality teachers and administrators determined to prepare students for the racism they would face as adults in a segregated society, a stern but caring educational environment, and a partnership with their communities to overcome the deprivations caused by unequal funding.

I think we are not taking seriously the dangers that privatization creates. — Preston Green

While charter schools can offer black and Latino students a modern-day version of that opportunity, there are outside entities that put financial gain ahead of educational quality looking to open charter schools in these communities, warn Green and Oluwole.

Unfettered expansion of the schools driven by these groups could further drain the educational resources of these communities, creating conditions even worse than those in the Jim Crow-like era after Plessy.

“A lack of restrictions in California’s charter school regulations could potentially create a situation that would be even worse than Plessy, as a result of  black and Latino communities losing control of education funding allocated to them,” says Green.

California is certainly not the only state attempting to offset segregation and funding inequality with charter schools, but a complex set of factors in that state has heightened the risks associated with them. A series of court decisions and ballot initiatives have limited the ability of local school districts to raise taxes to pay for education. That has left the funding of schools largely up to the state, but the state failed to adequately do so.

In 2013, state lawmakers enacted a funding formula aimed at correcting that, funneling $18 billion in supplemental grants to school districts, based on their population of English language learners and low-income students – an initiative that a study shows has increased math scores and graduation rates among poor black and Latino students.

That’s where the danger lies, says Green. If outside organizations are allowed to develop charter schools without restrictions, they could drain these resources away from already underfunded traditional public schools serving poor minority students, he says.

In 2017, the state supreme court shut down one such strategy: resource centers.

Before that ruling, rural districts fueled the growth of resource centers – non-classroom-based independent study programs typically housed in office buildings, strip malls, and even former liquor stores located outside the authorizing school district’s borders. Rural districts would create resource centers to generate revenue for themselves from the authorizing fees, even though students attending the centers were not in the authorizer’s district.

The authorizing district would in turn hire Education Management Organizations, nonprofit or for-profit entities that provide educational services to charter schools, to manage the resource centers. But Educational Management Organizations don’t always do that as they should, Green says.

“There were instances where we had entities who were maybe a little more concerned with their financial benefit than the education of these students,” says Green, citing one such center with an enrollment of 2,000 students and a graduation rate of only 11.5 percent. Even worse: more than 42 percent of students who should have graduated that year dropped out of school completely.

While resource centers have been banned by the court, Educational Management Organizations are still engaging in another scheme that is legal – the use of public funding to purchase charter school buildings, says Green. Thus far, charter schools have received more than $2.5 billion in tax dollars and subsidies to lease, build, or buy school buildings through California’s Charter School Facility Grant Program.

In previous studies, Green has shown how Educational Management Organizations can charge schools exorbitant rents that siphon away money that would be used to educate students. And in California, those organizations are frequently building charter schools in districts that already have enough seats for their students.

“They are doing this to benefit from the real estate. They are thinking, ‘We can place a school here and then get people to attend those schools.’ There is no real need where these schools are located,” says Green. “These additional schools also create a financial stress on poor school districts.”

California charter school regulations lack sufficient protections and need to be tightened, Green says. And it is hardly the only state in need of doing so.

Teacher strikes and walkouts protesting insufficient funding for existing schools are becoming common. One example is a  Washington, D.C.-area district with a thriving charter school sector, where teachers recently walked out because they had no working bathrooms in their public school.

Green and Oluwole call on states to consider banning Educational Management Organizations from operating charter schools, permitting only school districts to be charter school authorizers and allowing school districts to base chartering decisions on the economic impact they will have on all of the students they serve, not just those attending charter schools.

“People see charters as a chance to overcome problems in education in the same way that many African Americans saw the efforts to overcome the problems of separate but equal education. While charters might provide that opportunity, there is still a danger,” says Green. “I think we are not taking seriously the dangers that privatization creates.”