Corrections to Myths of Charter Schools

 

I agree with one statement Patti Wilczek, the executive director of the charter management organization for NEA and ACLC) made in her op-ed piece (“Dispelling Charter School Myths,” March 17). There’s evidence of a new trend regarding charters. 

As mentioned, there’s the potential “Elimination of Charter Schools” ballot measure in California collecting signatures for November. Also, Washington State’s Supreme Court has become the first in the nation to decide that charters are unconstitutional. The court determined that charters aren’t truly public because the boards of these tax-payer funded schools aren’t elected and thus aren’t accountable to voters. 

While I agree there’s a new trend, I disagree with Wilczek’s “myth dispelling.”

“Myth 1: Charter schools charge tuition.” While I don’t think there’s a person out there who thinks tuition is charged by these tax-payer-funded schools, I have to disagree that there is ample oversight. Twice-yearly audits by the local school district aren’t enough to oversee our tax dollars. Additionally, district employees have no say in how charter dollars are spent. For example, the Academy of Alameda has threatened to use my tax dollars to sue my public school district, costing the district more of my tax dollars to defend itself. 

“Myth 2: Charter schools hand-pick the best and the brightest students.” Charters here in Alameda do chase after certain students. For example, the Academy of Alameda has targeted the families of students the school district has identified as “gifted and talented.” Also, their middle school recruiting postcards are more likely to be received by an East End family than by a Bayport one. 

When we look at the charter demographics, we can certainly see there’s something amiss. The greatest predictor for higher standardized test performance is higher socio-economic status. The percentage of ACLC charter students living at or below the poverty line was 12 percent for the 2014-15 school year. The average for Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) was 30.8 percent for the same year; 8 percent of ACLC charter students are English Language learners (a predictor for lower test performance), while the district average is 24 percent. 

The very nature of charter enrollment discourages economic diversity, discourages those families for whom English is a second language, encourages the higher-performers and targeted recruiting by a charter can widen the gaps.

“Myth 3: Charter schools take funds away from public schools.” Wilczek gives the most general explanation of the economics of school funding, not how it really works. The $7,000 ADA (per student) goes into the larger bucket of AUSD dollars. From the large bucket comes overhead, compliance and special education.

AUSD has a much larger fiscal duty to administer than a charter. Money taken out of the AUSD bucket takes money away from students and programs across the district, not just from the seat the one student would’ve otherwise occupied. One student at the Academy of Alameda elementary takes money from Advanced Placement courses at the public high schools. One student at NEA takes money away from math coach support at AUSD elementary schools. Enough students lost from the district to a charter equals one teacher layoff.

“Myth 4: Parents don’t want or need charter schools.” Wilczek states “support continues to increase, especially for historically underserved students.” In fact, the opposite is true; the numbers of “historically underserved” students is steadily decreasing at charters. At the Academy of Alameda charter, for example, the numbers of socio-economically disadvantaged students have dropped from 56.4 percent in 2012-13 to 38.0 percent in 2014-15. 

“Myth 5: there’s little difference between district and charter schools.” As choices within our AUSD schools grow, there’s less and less to differentiate the programs found at charter and AUSD schools. Our AUSD schools offer Art Integration, STEM, STEAM, hands-on project-based learning for the 21st century and beyond. “The range of school choices available to Californians- Alamedans in particular- is rare and wonderful” just as Wilczek says. These choices exist within the AUSD schools without any actual need for charters at all. 

 

Mark Irons has lived in Alameda since 1991. His wife taught public school here for 12 years. They have two adult sons who graduated from Alameda public schools and who went on to obtain four-year degrees, one from NYU and one from Cal Poly SLO.