Backed by millions in spending by a handful of billionaires, the charter school movement has been on the march for years, nowhere more so than in California. As its momentum has grown, traditional public education has been on the retreat throughout the state, resulting in school closures, overburdened teachers, and fiscal crises for school districts.
Then came the Los Angeles teachers strike.
This week, the Los Angeles Board of Education passed a resolution asking the state to impose an eight- to 10-month moratorium on new charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The measure, which was among the demands on the bargaining table during the strike, was unprecedented for the school district and even more surprising given the school board’s pro-charter slant. The vote demonstrated the breadth of the victory achieved by the strike, which halted the charter school movement’s relentless advance in the second-biggest school district in the country.
Now, the front line of the fight over public schools is shifting to Oakland, where today, teachers are casting ballots on whether to strike as soon as mid-February. As in LA, the issues on the bargaining table in Oakland include higher teacher salaries, smaller class sizes, and more support staff in schools. And, also as in LA, looming in the background is a years-long fight between billionaires who aim to eliminate traditional, democratically controlled public schools and teachers who wish to preserve them.
The Oakland Unified School District is in a fiscal crisis. The school board has halted construction projects and is planning to cut over 100 central administrative jobs, impose across-the-board cuts to all of its schools, and close two dozen schools over five years in a desperate scramble to forestall a $30 million budget deficit for the 2019-20 school year.
The impact of the deficit at the classroom level is most apparent in the Oakland school district’s sky-high teacher turnover rate. Oakland teachers are among the lowest-paid in the Bay Area, and 1 in 5 of them leave the district annually, compared to just over 1 in 10 statewide. “We’re grinding them out,” said Ismael Armendariz, a 32-year-old special education instructor, of the churn rate for teachers in the district. Armendariz, who is currently on leave to do union work but is still employed by the school district, makes $57,000 a year in one of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the world. “I live paycheck to paycheck,” he said.
A major contributor to the crisis is the rapid and uncontrolled expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.
In recent years, the charter school industry and its supporters have dumped huge sums of money into elections in California in an aggressive bid to expand its presence in public school districts throughout the state. Last year, a record $50 million was spent in the race for state superintendent of public instruction, two-thirds of it on behalf of the pro-charter candidate. A state legislative race in the East Bay drew $1.4 million in spending from outside groups, much of it from the charter school industry. In 2017, the Los Angeles school board race became the most expensive in U.S. history, at a combined $15 million, with close to $10 million of it coming from the charter side.
But Oakland in particular seems to hold special significance for charter school boosters. The city has drawn a deluge of money from pro-charter billionaires that is rare to see in municipal elections. Last year, Michael Bloomberg donated $120,000 to an independent expenditure committee connected with GO Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that organizes and advocates on behalf of charter school expansion, which went on to drop more than $150,000 on a single 2018 Oakland school board race.
The investments have paid dividends. Out of the seven seats on the Oakland school district’s board, five are occupied by GO Public Schools-endorsed candidates. “Oakland is one of the cities where the charter school industry thinks maybe they can flip the whole district,” said University of Oregon political economist Gordon Lafer. GO Public Schools did not return a request for comment.
It’s extraordinarily easy to open a charter school in California. “Anybody minimally legally and financially compliant cannot be stopped from opening a school,” said Lafer, who has studied the growth of charters in the state. By law, school districts cannot deny a petition to open a charter school unless its educational program is unsound or it is “demonstrably likely” to fail at its educational mission.
According to Lafer’s research, the proliferation of charter schools in Oakland costs the school district $57.3 million per year, yet the district cannot take into account the impact a new charter will have on the finances of existing schools when deciding on an application.
Charter schools directly compete with traditional public schools; they fill their classrooms by drawing students away from district-run schools. In California, schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. That means that when a student leaves a school, her apportionment of funding goes with her, costing the school district money. The district also saves the expense of educating that student, but given the fixed costs of running a school, Lafer’s research shows, the amount of money lost to the school district always outpaces the amount saved.
Compounding this dynamic is the requirement that traditional schools take in all students who come their way, while charters have no such obligation. Through the enrollment process, charters often filter out students whose education would require more resources, including special needs students, homeless youth, students learning English as a second language, and those who recently arrived as refugees. “They recruit kids and they say, ‘We want you to write an essay; we want your parents to write an essay; we want your parents to volunteer in school,’” Lafer said, which has the effect of pushing away less self-motivated students and children of parents who are, by habit or circumstance, less focused on their children’s education. “You have a system where the neediest and most expensive kids to educate are concentrated in traditional public schools.”
The disparity is particularly pronounced with special needs students. In California, funding for special education is based on the overall student population, not on the percentage of special needs students a school enrolls. By enrolling fewer special needs students, charter schools are able to receive funding for services they do not provide, while public schools’ efforts are underfunded.
As a special education instructor, Armendariz experienced the consequences of this shortfall. “We wouldn’t get the support we needed,” he said. “When we reached out [to the district], we were at the bottom of the list. Mental health support, slots with counselors — it was hard to get people with experience working with kids with disabilities.”
“All of those burdens fall on our district, because we have a moral and a legal obligation to serve them,” Armendariz said. The system, he added, seems “designed to fail.”
The growth of Oakland charter schools has been so explosive it has led to a fear among charter school operators that in their competition to recruit new students, charters are cannibalizing not just traditional schools, but each other. That concern is one impetus for an effort by charter school advocates to establish a new model of overseeing the district, called the “portfolio model,” under which the school board is transformed from a governmental oversight body into something more like an investment portfolio manager. Rather than determine rules and regulations and allocate budgets based on need, under the portfolio model, the board evaluates school performance and invests and divests from them accordingly, like publicly traded stocks.
The model could rationalize and streamline the explosion of charter schools in Oakland and bring a measure of order to a largely unregulated market. It could also lead to further expansion of the charter school sector at the expense of traditional public schools, weaken the city’s teachers union, and undermine democratic control of the city’s schools.
That’s what happened in New Orleans, where after Hurricane Katrina, the state took over the public school system and converted it almost entirely into nonunion charter schools. Last year, control was handed back to a locally elected school board, but unelected staffs of charter management organizations maintained power over financing, personnel, and pedagogy.
In 2014, when the district was still under state control, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings attributed what he believed to be the success of New Orleans charter schools to the fact that “they don’t have an elected school board.” He described school boards as an impediment to long-term education planning and charter schools as a vehicle to “evolve America” beyond them.
Elected school boards — where advocates for district schools, including teachers unions, can exercise political power — have traditionally resisted the expansion of charter school chains, whose growth can benefit tech industry moguls like Hastings. Charter management organizations such as the Knowledge is Power Program, whose board Hastings sits on, are known for “blended learning,” an approach to teaching that puts a heavy emphasis on integrating screens and internet into classroom instruction. This pedagogical method has helped fuel a booming $43 billion market in educational technology, which tech giants like Google, Apple, and Microsoft have battled to dominate, and in which Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, has invested heavily, with mixed results.
Hastings has spent eye-popping amounts to move California school boards in his direction, including $7 million on LA’s 2017 school board race, which resulted in the city’s first ever pro-charter majority. The portfolio model would solidify these gains by permanently transferring school boards’ power over key areas of decision making to privately held, nonprofit charter management organizations — essentially deregulating charter schools. It is the vision behind GO Public Schools’s Oakland initiative, which has proven divisive even among charter school advocates and has been excoriated by defenders of district schools. Keith Brown, the president of Oakland’s teachers union, said the plan would “put the nail in the coffin for democratic control of our public schools.”
Even without the portfolio model, Oakland public school teachers are faced with a school board that largely favors the partial privatization of public education, which has put their district in chronic fiscal crisis, bled their schools of resources, and overburdened them with the most expensive students to teach. With the conventional political process effectively controlled by pro-charter billionaires, teachers are turning to their most direct and foundational source of power: the ability to withhold their labor.
“We have exhausted all of our options,” said Armendariz. “Teachers feel that the only way we’re going to make any change is to take the fight to the privatizers.”
Correction: February 1, 2019, 3:05 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article misstated the size of the Los Angeles Unified School District and misstated Ismael Armendariz’s employment status and salary. It has been corrected.