California’s traditional public schools have never done a particularly good job educating poor and minority students for all the obvious reasons that government union-run monopolies do a lousy job providing any service. Nearly 78 percent of California’s public-school students are minorities, so they obviously suffer the most from this dysfunctional system. Wealthy parents — including the governor — tend to send their kids to private schools.
The coronavirus lockdowns, which have lasted longer than necessary because the state’s powerful teachers’ unions were perfectly happy having their members paid for doing little, have only highlighted this disparity. The public schools struggled to get up and running in distance learning — with many teachers incapable of mastering the basics of at-home learning — even as charter schools and private ones managed to adapt to the new reality.
“Grades of D and F have increased in the Los Angeles Unified School District among middle and high school students in a troubling sign of the toll that distance learning — and the coronavirus crisis — is taking on children, especially those who are members of low-income families,” according to a November report in the Los Angeles Times. Recent studies reinforce that point: Poor kids fell even further behind their peers during this health crisis.
So what are lawmakers doing about this travesty? New legislation would clamp down on all charter schools — and would target those schools that specialize in providing distance learning. Why would they do such a thing? That’s easy. The public-school establishment hates competition. Boosting the prospects of poor and minority kids is only a talking point to extract more money from taxpayers.
For all his many flaws, former Gov. Jerry Brown was a strong supporter of the state’s far-reaching charter-school system and was himself the founder of the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School for the Arts, two charter schools in his home city. Brown vetoed various teachers’ union attacks on charters, but Gov. Gavin Newsom’s view of charters more closely aligns with the unions.
During the 2020 gubernatorial campaign, charter activists depicted Newsom as an “unprecedented threat” to charters. Their ads were hard-hitting and politically clumsy given that Newsom was likely to win the election, but their warnings have largely come true.
Newsom already signed a package of union-backed anti-charter laws, including Assembly Bill 1505, by teachers’ union ally Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach. That gave local school districts, which often are hostile to charter schools, the ultimate authority to approve charter petitions. Under the previous law, charters could appeal their decisions to charter-friendlier county and state boards of education. Now the locals can halt the competition.
AB 1505, along with some other charter restrictions and oversight provisions, “will be the death knell for new charters and the expansion of existing charters,” I argued for The American Spectator in 2019. “School districts will be operating well within the law as they issue wholesale rejections of charter applications.” These laws didn’t kill charters outright, but would slowly strangle them. Now the unions are tightening their grip.
Those new laws weren’t enough for the teachers’ unions. This session, Assembly member O’Donnell has introduced Assembly Bill 1316, which uses one scandal in a San Diego charter school to impose a variety of “accountability” measures that are nothing more than attempt to limit distance-learning charters and limit the operation of all charter schools.
The legislation creates new auditing and accounting standards designed to make charter schools operate more like public schools, imposes dramatic fee increases on charters, and limits the ability of small school districts to authorize additional charter schools. The bill prohibits multiple-track schools that provide flexible student schedules and “would essentially eliminate non-classroom-based charter schools,” according to its charter-school opponents.
Apparently, parents ought to just send their kids to the local public schools — the same ones that have dug in their heels at reopening and have failed miserably at teaching kids while they’ve been stuck at home. The California Teachers Association argues that the legislation promotes oversight. But what accountability measures do unions promote when public schools can’t perform incompetently or leave unfit teachers in the classroom? You got it: send more money.
In 1992, California passed one of the nation’s most far-reaching charter-school laws. The Legislature’s intent was to “improve pupil learning,” encourage innovation in the classroom, improve accountability of the existing school system, and “provide vigorous competition within the public school system to stimulate continual improvements in all public schools.”
The law has largely accomplished that task and provided many lower-income families and special-needs students with a way out of their oftentimes unsafe and poor-performing local schools. It has offered a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of California students.
I’ll reiterate what I wrote in that two-year-old American Spectator piece: “California’s progressive claim to be the champions of the poor and downtrodden, but their vocal support for legislation that obliterates the state’s charter schools reinforces that they mainly are the cat’s paw for the state’s powerful public-employee unions.” They should be called out for their hypocrisy.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.