Monday, December 3, 2007

Hot topic: charter schools

I can't offer an intelligent explanation on charter schools or speak eloquently on the issues involving them—but I do know they're controversial and typically either praised or scorned.

In a nutshell, a charter school is a public institution, planned and organized by groups of educators, community members, parents, and others. They were initially conceived as laboratories for reform, meant to instill competition and choice in the public school system. As a result, charter schools were given more flexibility in exchange for greater accountability.

We have a few elementary charter schools in San Francisco. Those include:
Creative Arts Charter School
Edison Charter Academy

Have you toured a charter school? Does your child attend one? Do you think they're the savior or spoiler of public education in America? Please share your knowledge and viewpoints.


  1. Kate - Love the blog. Caroline and all - love the comments. Does anyone know anything about navigating charter schools within the SFUSD system? I apologize for my ignorance.

  2. On Mondays, I always introduce a discussion topic. This coming Monday, I'll make charter schools the theme. I actually know little about them so maybe we can learn from other visitors to the site.

  3. Well, it will be heated :-) but I look forward to it.

  4. I am a non-charter-school fan and will tick folks off if I express my views. So I'll refer you to a website I co-founded some years ago if you want to read the contrarian view. I'll stay out of the discussion.

    I'm having computer trouble today and can't get the exact link. Please go to (if it'll work for you; I can't get access right now) and scroll way down to PASA's views on charter schools.

    Sorry to sound like a grump.

  5. I am weirdly unable to get onto my own website; had to go to "cached" versions to get the charter page. I would just have e-mailed it to Kate if I had a way, but I don't, so I'm posting the whole thing here -- inflammatory alert for those who are uncomfortable with such things.

    Also BTW -- this is not to say that individual charters can't be good schools. Some are. Overall they're just like regular schools -- some great, some godawful, most in between. See below for the other issues. (Do note that whenever Bush, Schwarzenegger or any other Republican visit a school, it's a charter, always -- Jenna Bush taught at one too -- the right adores them.)


    How Charter Schools Harm Public Education and Kids

    Click here for an annotated archive of news articles on charter school problems.

    Oakland's University Preparatory Charter high school looked like an urban miracle. "A success story in progress … University's approach seems to be working," enthused San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson in August 2004.

    But nearly three years later, a July 2007 Chronicle investigation revealed just why University's approach seemed to be working. The school was cheating on standardized tests and faking its students' grades and transcripts. For good measure, it inflated enrollment figures and mismanaged its finances. And its rogue principal was accused of humiliating and abusing teachers and students.

    The oversight mechanism that supposedly keeps an eye on charter schools failed to notice the problems with Uprep, as it was known. Only when distressed teacher-whistleblowers contacted the press was the massive fraud exposed.

    It's impossible to know how many more Upreps there are in the world of charter schools. It doesn't take a hardened cynic to wonder if a system of giving public funds to just about anyone who wants to run a school, along with minimal oversight and freedom from burdensome bureaucratic regulations, would invite cheating and looting. And when a charter school can make a show of success, private money from the likes of Gates, Fisher, Walton and Broad comes flowing in on top of the public funds.

    Charter schools are unpopular with educators, a fact that charter backers scornfully attribute to "educrats' " fear of competition and choice. But experienced educators deserve more credit than that. They have sound reason for viewing charter schools as a destructive weapon wielded by those who want to undermine and privatize public education, and they see that charter schools harm the schools around them.

    Charter schools do damage in many ways.

    Charter schools undermine a critical job of elected school boards -- determining how many schools a district needs to serve its children. Even one excess school drains resources away from students' and classrooms' needs. Charter backers exert intense pressure on school boards to open additional schools -- and in many cases charters are forced upon an unwilling school district by a county board of education or the state.

    The charter movement promotes itself by attacking and disparaging public education, constantly citing charter schools' supposed superiority to traditional public schools (though academic studies show that charters perform no better than traditional public schools). This erodes support for public schools.

    In California, the law guarantees charter schools district-provided sites - even if they displace existing programs. Charter schools' search for sites is causing increasing disruption, divisiveness and conflict in school districts around the state.

    Charter schools tend to be far more segregated than traditional public schools, and some exist to cloister privileged white students away from low-income students of color.

    As school districts and elected school boards become more familiar with the drawbacks, they are less and less likely to approve proposed charter schools. Charter organizers can then go up the chain of power and get their charters forced into the unwilling school district. Even charter advocates admit that this creates a hostile working relationship between a district and a school that it oversees against its will. Conflict, tension and divisiveness impair school districts' ability to function smoothly.

    School boards are forced to devote increasing amounts of time and resources to dealing with charters' demands and the problems they cause, so the needs of the rest of the schools get less attention.

    It's a crushing, complex task for "grassroots" organizers to run an entire school on their own. So chains operate most charter schools. They wind up constituting their own separate school systems, almost entirely unaccountable.

    The successful "miracle" charters tend to achieve their gains through two practices that are unsustainable and aren't real solutions. One is screening out and getting rid of unsuccessful students; the other is making superhuman demands on initially willing teachers and administrators that rapidly burn them out. For obvious reasons, neither of these "solutions" addresses the real challenges facing public education.

    A school district's only means of imposing oversight is the threat of revoking the charter. But when the charter movement deploys its ample resources to fight back, destructive and divisive controversy is inflamed. That harms districts, schools, kids and all of public education. For that reason, it's very difficult to close even a disastrous charter school that chooses to resist.

    It sounds great to blast the "burdensome bureaucratic regulations" from which charter schools are joyously liberated. But actually, most of those "burdensome" regulations are there for a reason - to set educational and teaching standards, to combat patronage and favoritism, to ensure access for disabled students, to keep students safe, to gain fair wages and working conditions for teachers. If needless regulations exist, they should be lifted for all schools, not just charters.

    Looting, fraud, misconduct and abuse can happen at schools of all types. But as the Uprep scandal and many others have demonstrated, charters open up a whole new income stream for crooks and thieves, and a new hunting ground for predators and abusers. Charter crooks have stolen millions and millions of dollars from California schoolchildren. See PASA's archives for examples of charter problems nationwide.
    When charter schools were freed from the burdensome regulations constraining public schools, they were supposed to act as founts of innovation, devising creative new solutions to the persistent problems in education, which could then be adopted by the mainstream public schools for the benefit of all students. But more than 15 years after the first state law passed authorizing charter schools, public schools are still waiting for that fount of innovation to start flowing. Even the most passionate charter advocates can't name any innovative ideas that have originated within the charter school movement. While charter schools have harmed our school, districts and children in numerous ways, the promised benefit has never materialized.

  6. My website glitch got fixed, and I would like to remove the text (previous post) and just post a link, but I don't know how to remove my own previous post -- does anyone?

  7. To the first anon -- if by navigating, you mean how do you apply, here's what I know. We applied last year to Creative Arts. We toured (this was required) and then filed out a short application (only one page of basic information). As I remember the application was due a bit later than the general SFUSD forms. Also, applying to a charter school does not count as one of your seven choices. It's a completely separate process, although it is also a lottery. They sent out acceptance letters around the same time as the other schools. We didn't get in immediately, but within a few weeks we were told we had a spot if we wanted it. We liked a lot about the school, but ultimately decided to go to our neighborhood school which we had been assigned and which was one of our top choices.

  8. Lighthouse Community Charter is actually in Oakland. You can read more about it here:


  9. I've said my piece on the charter issue overall (would take down the full text if I knew how and just provide the link).

    But a factual point: Creative Arts Charter, a K-8, is the only elementary charter under SFUSD's auspices. Edison Charter Academy is overseen (or supposedly overseen -- I'm sure oversight is minimal) by the California state Board of Ed and is just a rent-paying tenant in an SFUSD site.

    ECA is run by the for-profit Edison Schools Inc., which was supposed to be the leader in showing that privatization was the solution to the challenges of public education. After being widely hailed for a time, Edison basically fizzled and now barely struggles along -- the company and the school itself. The rest of the charter movement generally views Edison as an embarrassment and keeps its distance.

  10. FYI a group of parents are trying to organize a Waldorf charter school in SF.

  11. previous poster...any way to connect with these parents working to start a waldorf charter??

  12. Bopper, to get on the mailing list and learn more about the SF Waldorf charter being planned, you can email waldorfplaygarden[at]

  13. Regarding a Waldorf Charter - good luck with THAT! As Board of Ed member Jill Wynns has asked: Which school are you going to close down to open a new charter? I don't see any new charters happening in SF any time soon. More school closures will have to happen before anything would be approved (although, it'd help if they were opening it in the SE neighborhoods - maybe a better chance.)

  14. Some charter schools come under fire for unofficially being elite havens, unrepresentative of their school district demographics.

    SFUSD's Board of Ed would especially shy away from a charter like that. A Waldorf charter is likely to be in exactly that category.

    The BOE voted down a Russian-language/culture-focused charter for a few reasons, among them the one cited in the Jill Wynns quote above, and also the fact that it was pretty clearly likely to be segregated.