A Different Conversation on "Charter Schools"

Do critics truly understand why they oppose them?

a #BlackEdChat feature

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by Nadar Ali | Learn4Life

Why are people so resistant to “charter schools?” We’re at a pivotal moment, with growing doubts about the future of alternative, non-traditional or nonprofit public schools - widely known as “charter schools.” 

In cities across the country, charter schools are blamed for much of the fiscal hardships their school districts are facing. This heated political debate over school choice is threatening to destroy decades of positive student results created by the existence of these very schools.

Competition from alternative nonprofit public schools has drawn students away from traditional public schools. Yet, public dollars are being spent on district students who are attending publicly funded schools that are, simply, an extension of a district’s education system.  Parents didn’t decide to enroll their children outside the district; they simply wanted their children to attend a school that better supports their learning style – which is supported by taxpayer funds in that same district.  

The lack of options for many students, therefore, is to simply dropout due to overcrowded classrooms that simply cannot meet the needs of its student.  In fact, dropout rates among Black, Brown and economically distressed students continue to exceed those of White and higher income students. Indeed, some charters are actually reaching those very populations that the traditional school has failed.

Nonprofit public school enrollment only accounts for half the drop in student enrollment. The Independent Review Panel published a report in 2015 that concluded …

Over the past six years, LAUSD has lost almost 100,000 students and now serves about 550,000 students. About half of the loss of students is attributable to increased enrollments in charter schools, but about half of the students lost are no longer served by the District at all due to a decline in the birth rate as well as students dropping out of school or transferring to other school districts.

The last observation is key. The report projects that the district will continue to lose students at a rate of 2.8 percent each year.

A report published by Census Bureau Public Education Finances states that from 2001 to 2016, overall spending in the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, increased by 55 percent. Spending on salaries and wages has increased by 24 percent. Employee benefit spending has increased by 138 percent. Instead of passing these unsustainable collective bargaining agreements, why are they not focused on spending decreases - versus blaming nonprofit alternative public schools for their financial woes? Unions continue to insist on increased spending even though districts are under strain already. These conditions, coupled with a failure to maintain healthy reserves, can render crippling blows to any school district.

Alternative public schools put district leaders and principals on the spot. The original bipartisan idea of the nonprofit public school was to create viable options for students trapped in undesirable or less than optimal learning conditions, while spurring innovation that would inspire and inform improvements in schools and districts. In practice, when local alternatives outperform their districts, school bureaucrats resist pressure to adopt new approaches. However, the improvement in district school results over the past 12 years appears, on many levels, to have been spurred by the competition these alternatives provide.

Until honesty and good faith become part of the conversation, students and families will continue facing harm and the school districts will be in a free fall toward bankruptcy. We must adjust our thinking about alternative school models that are particularly good at helping underserved, diverse and economically distressed student populations.

NADAR ALI is Public Affairs Administrator for Learn4Life Concept Schools

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