Choking out Charters: The State’s Resistance to Alternative Education  

By Dr. Lisa Dunne

If you haven’t read Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Brave New World, add it to your summer reading list. It will clarify, with painful lucidity, precisely what’s happening across the state of California right now. From overly sexualized curricula to direct attempts at blocking academic accessibility, we are watching the prophetic novel play out before our eyes (see my blogs “Moral Miseducation” and “Hidden Hurt” for a glimpse at the bitter fruit from this unsavory root).

This week, the issue on the table is control. On May 28th, the San Diego Unified School District Board voted to support a bill that seeks to place significant limitations on state charter schools. Earlier this month, on May 22, the “Charter School” bill passed on the assembly floor with a narrow margin: 44 votes (41 required), 19 noes, and 17 abstentions (the abstentions are almost as sad as the 30% turnout of San Diegans in the last gubernatorial election – but I digress).

Louis Freedberg (2019), the executive director of EdSource, notes that the passage would make significant changes to the existing charter school bill. Charter advocates fear that it could drive them to extinction.

So why is California trying to choke out charters?

Let’s look at the two bills, AB 1505 and 1506. AB 1505, authored by Patrick O’Donnell, would allow local school districts to reject a charter because of its potential for negative financial impact on the traditional public school. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the local school districts would have “sole authority” to approve new charter schools. The bill would also prohibit charters from appealing to the State Board of Education if their petition was denied. What??

The second bill, AB 1506, died on May 30 – or is playing dead, at least: The bill’s author, Kevin McCarty, indicated that the fight was not over, and the bill would be addressed again in a later session. AB 1506  would have created a statewide cap on the number of charter schools, meaning a new charter could only be birthed when an existing charter dies. Wow. Since when did American education become a such a monopolistic regime?

(Yes, the scathing report on the A3 Education charter this month is an appalling, albeit post-1505, scandal. But so are the reports of almost 700 students who bribed their way into Yale, Stanford, USC, Wake Forest, and Georgetown, yet these schools do not face the same systematic shutdowns.)

So, let’s look at the reasoning behind these bills.

First, are charters under fire because they’re failing to educate students? No. In fact, many charter schools are dramatically outperforming their traditional counterparts. A 2017 study by The Alumni showed that charter students not only graduate from college at three to five times the national average, but, even more impressively, charters have actually bolstered college success rates for low-income students, an arena where public schools consistently struggle.

As The Alumni Founder Richard Whitmire (2017) notes, “The civil rights implications here are profound. No other kind of intervention to help marginalized students has succeeded at these kinds of rates.” In fact, only one group in American academia consistently outperforms charter and traditional public school success rates in this regard – and that’s homeschoolers. Are we beginning to see the pattern here? More governmental oversight does not equate to higher academic performance.

So, it’s clearly not academic failure or inflated socioeconomic stats driving the charter regulations. Maybe the simple reason is this: The powers that be want to choke out charters in order to control the competition.

Let’s contemplate that idea for a second. If you’re performing at the peak of your game, you know that a little healthy competition makes you sharper, stronger, better at your craft. But this isn’t currently the status of the public system in California (review the retention rates K to college). People shut out competition when they are either insecure about their own abilities or uncertain of the success of their product. In this case, it may be both.

And let’s think about that perceived need for control as well, what it represents. In interpersonal relationships, vying for control is evidence of a relational breakdown: Control is the opposite of trust, and it’s often rooted in fear. As Dr. Paul Zak (2017) has shown in his work on interpersonal and organizational trust, people (and even nations!) that exhibit more trust also reap more freedom, more success, even more financial prosperity. Trust is freeing, not constricting.

Charters represent a principle of freedom of choice, parental choice. When we lose the freedom of choice for the education of the next generation, for our own children, we run a singular but sobering risk: We lose our voice of input into the content and delivery of that education. As an educator for 20 years, I can say with great certainty that both content and delivery are vital vehicles of success.

So, it’s not academic failure or parental dissatisfaction. In fact, the shutdown is not really about the students – or even the public – at all. At the end of the day, the bottom line appears to be the almighty dollar sign. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, we cannot serve both God and money; we will hate the one and love the other, be devoted to one and despise the other. Since God was ousted from the public system during the 1970s Values Clarification Movement, the only logical driving force that remains in their battle, then, is financial gain. Where our treasure is, there our hearts will be as well.

In 2016, the United Teachers of Los Angeles released a statement saying that their “already financially strained” district had lost more than half a billion dollars to charter school growth. Since then, the district has consistently ascribed their financial failure to the 287% growth of charters over the previous 10 years. Instead of striving for organizational change, the district continued to point a finger at the charters, blaming them for their own potential bankruptcy. The district called for a temporary moratorium on charter schools in January 2019.

SD Unified District Trustee Richard Barrera, who helped draft the recent resolution for supporting the bill, told Channel 10 News that 16% of the San Diego district’s students attend one of its 50 charter schools at a cost of about $66 million a year. That’s $66 million that the traditional school didn’t get – and the charter did. But that money is funded by public taxpayers, the very same people for whom the schools are supposed to exist. If the public has no say, just how public are the funds – or the schools – in the first place?

And here’s the truly bizarre part: Charters are actually part of the same system as traditional government schools, state schools. Unlike private schools, charters receive state funding. They are required to follow the same protocols, the same academic standards, even the same contentious content that had parents up in arms in San Diego last month. But the train of thought here is worth considering: If the state would so frigidly cut off one of its own, what might be the end goal toward those outside their familial fold? To private schools? To homeschools? Despite the success of alternative programs, the state is seeking to secure an academic stronghold.

As numerous dictators throughout the course of history have demonstrated, the most effective vehicle for changing the heart of the next generation is academia: If you control education, you govern the thoughts, attitudes, and goals of the next generation. As Plato once remarked, the two most important questions any civilization must ask are these:

Who is teaching the children?
What are they being taught?

A monopoly on education is a threat to the moral, academic, and socioemotional flourishing of the next generation.

What can we do? Be a voice! Write to your senator, your assembly representative. Sign the petition. Talk about the cause on social media. Attend board meetings. Speak up: Silence makes us lukewarm, complicit. Parents in California need more educational choice, not less. When will the state recognize that educational effectiveness can’t be packaged in a one-size-fits-all model? We need more charters, more private schools, more homeschool support centers.

Let’s all do our part to ensure that this great country we call “the land of the free” is represented by a government that, as Lincoln reminded us, was created of the people, by the people, and for the people.