Charter schools’ have a destructive impact on public education

By Glenn Sacks, Special to CALmatters

In the wake of successful teachers strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, Californians are examining charter schools’ harmful impact on public education.

Some charter parents assert their children’s charter school experience is positive. I can believe it. But sincere charter parents need to understand that while for some students charters can be beneficial, their overall impact on public education is destructive.

A study conducted by political economist Gordon Lafer found that California’s Oakland, San Diego, and East Side Union High School Districts suffer annual losses of $5,705, $4,913, and $6,618 respectively for each student who goes to a charter instead of a traditional public school.

This loss of funds occurs because much of traditional schools’ expenses are “fixed costs” that cannot easily be scaled down upon declines in enrollment.

Moreover, in some areas, such as Los Angeles, charters open in the face of significant overall enrollment decline—an irrational use of public education funds.

Are charters innovative and superior? Their supporters cite their higher standardized test scores as proof. However, even the most inclusive, fair-minded charter operators still gain an enormous benefit from the selection effect.

When I taught in a traditional public school in Los Angeles, I would lose a student or two out of each class during the school year because they had been accepted to a charter. In each case, it was one of the best three or four students in the class.

The most challenged and challenging students are often left for traditional public schools to educate. Lafer found that while 28 percent of Oakland’s students go to charters, only 19 percent  of its special needs students, 8 percent of its autistic students, and 2 percent of its students with multiple disabilities attend charters. The more troubled the students, the less likely they’ll be in a charter school.

Charter schools can also rid themselves of troublesome students far more easily than traditional public schools.

I experienced this selection effect when I moved from our high school’s residential school to its magnet. Our magnet accepts everybody, just as any traditional public school does.

Yet in our magnet, major indices for student success, such as attendance, legal status, and parents who are educated and speak English, are significantly higher than in the residential school.

Magnet students outperform the residential students in practically all areas, and are greatly over-represented on academic and athletic teams as well as in student government. Yet the only thing that separates them is that our magnet students chose to apply and the residential students didn’t.

Charter supporters accuse teachers unions of creating an us-versus-them mentality. But consider a recent newspaper advertisement for Birmingham High School, one of L.A. Unified’s most prominent charters. The ad boasts of the school’s impressive modern facilities, smaller class sizes, and superior academic performance.

Do charter backers imagine that these are brilliant charter innovations that would never have occurred to us bureaucratic, unimaginative public school teachers?

Birmingham has better facilities and smaller class sizes because it has more funds available and can trim expenses in ways traditional public schools can’t. Birmingham has better test results because it acquires the most desirable students. It has advantages for students simply because the system places them in an advantageous position.

The solution is not to the take best and brightest out of public education and put them in schools enjoying special privileges. The solution is to do what we went on strike for: properly fund public education so it can best serve all students.


Glenn Sacks teaches at James Monroe High School in Los Angeles and is co-chair of United Teachers of Los Angeles at Monroe High. Deputy Superintendent Vivian Ekchian recently recognized him for “exceptional levels of performance,” [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters. See his previous commentary here.

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