California opinions on charter schools are divided—and more complex than portrayed

The growth in charter schools has become one of the year’s most contentious issues in California. Now a statewide poll shows that not only are state lawmakers divided on the issue, but California voters are as well.

In a survey on education issues released late Wednesday, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that public opinion on charter schools was about evenly split in the state, with 49% of respondents favoring and about 46% opposing the publicly funded schools that mostly operate separately from school districts and with non-union teachers.

Charter school enrollment has more than doubled over the last decade, and this year more than 10 percent of California public-school students—660,000 kids—attended a charter school. In recent years, teachers unions and charter advocates have battled over proposed charter legislation, with both groups casting each other’s efforts as highly detrimental to the other.

But the survey’s results captured some of the complexities in the public’s opinion on charters.

For example, while 75% of respondents who took the poll said they felt California’s publicly-funded charters provide an important alternative for low-income families, 64% of them also said they were concerned that charter schools take away funding from traditional public schools. And a majority seemed to favor a recent law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom that calls for more transparency among the state’s 1,300 charters.

“People are concerned about the fact that charter schools might be taking away resources from traditional schools, but at the same time they’re concerned that lower-income parents might not have the kind of choices they need for schools,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.

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“This is a topic in which the public is divided, to some degree along traditional political lines, but also because they don’t know a lot about the topic, and what they hear brings up mixed feelings.”

A majority of respondents—6 in 10—also supported recent strike efforts from teachers in Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento, believe that teachers aren’t well-paid and want more money for public schools.

The Los Angeles teacher strike in January captured the nation’s attention and amplified teachers unions’ claims that charter schools have grown exponentially at the financial expense of traditional school districts. In response to the strike, Newsom signed fast-tracked legislation that requires charter schools to follow the same open meeting and conflict of interest laws as traditional district schools.

“That suggests that people at least appreciate that first step that policymakers were making toward trying to resolve some of the differences that exist between proponents and opponents of charter schools,” Baldassare said.

Since then, legislators have advanced a cluster of bills that would impose the most significant regulations to charter schools since their inception. Combined, the bills would give local school boards sole authority and more discretion over charter school approvals, enact local and statewide caps on charters and prohibit the authorization of far-flung charter schools.

A fourth bill, Senate Bill 756, that would impose a five-year moratorium on new charters unless the Legislature passes specific reforms passed the Senate Education Committee Wednesday.

At Newsom’s request, state superintendent Tony Thurmond is also leading a study on the financial impact charter school growth has had on school districts with a policy recommendations expected July 1.

Still, charter schools seem to be an opaque subject even for voters who are most likely to be civically engaged. About 75% of them said they heard “a little” or “nothing at all” about California charter schools.

Other highlights from the poll:

  • 7 in 10 likely voters favor the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, which distributes more funding to schools with higher concentrations of disadvantaged students, even though nearly 75% of respondents also said that they hadn’t heard about the formula.
  • While the survey found broad support for boosting school funding, 6 in 10 likely voters don’t support lowering the threshold for local parcel taxes from two-thirds to 55%.
  • And the Los Angeles Unified School District’s proposed parcel tax on the June ballot faces an uphill climb, as 51% of L.A. respondents said they wouldn’t vote to boost school spending through a local parcel tax measure.
  • 38% of likely voters rated the quality of their local public schools an “A” or a “B,” with the percentage of approval significantly decreasing among African American respondents (19%).
  • 80% of parent respondents expressed some concern about the threat of mass shootings in their communities. School districts are equally concerned: More than 50 districts had bond proposals on last November’s ballot to improve school safety and security.

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