California progressives 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. If Democratic leaders really cared about the plight of poor kids, Assembly Bill 1505 would have died in committee given that it will keep low-income kids from escaping ill-performing and even dangerous schools. Instead, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it this week amid much fanfare.
There’s no way to reform public schools, in California or elsewhere, given that they are government monopolies that are dominated by unions. They will put kids first, as one former teachers’ union official reportedly said, after the kids start paying dues. People who think that such schools can be improved through new reforms and more money probably believed that the Soviet economy could have been fixed with a better-developed five-year plan.
The only way to deal with that reality is to escape. In 1992, California passed one of the nation’s most far-reaching school-reform experiments, by making it easy to create publicly funded alternative schools where kids could flee. The original law authorized the establishment of 100 charters. The state now has more than 1,300 of them, and they educate 11 percent of the state’s students. The original law tilted the balance of power in favor of charters by providing myriad ways that charters could get around union-controlled school boards that opposed the competition.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown had started charter schools in Oakland and served for eight years as a backstop against increasingly aggressive efforts by the California Teachers Association to stamp out charters or at least significantly curtail their growth. Brown’s state board of education was filled with charter backers, who could legally overrule any anti-charter decisions made by the locals. Brown was replaced by Newsom, who wasn’t particularly hostile to charters as San Francisco mayor but wasn’t known as a champion of them, either.
The state’s main charter-school group, the California Charter Schools Association, went all in during the governor’s election for former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a liberal Democrat — but one who took on his city’s teachers’ unions over the charter issue. It seemed unlikely that Villaraigosa would have pulled an upset over the Democratic establishment’s main choice, but that didn’t stop the charter proponents from depicting Newsom as an “unprecedented threat” to charters. If he wasn’t then, he certainly has morphed into one now.
Fast forward to the recent bill-signing ceremony, where CCSA and CTA officials — the main adversaries in the charter fight — stood by the governor and called AB 1505 a win for California students. It was no such thing. The charter-schools group succeeded in amending the bill so that it would not totally destroy charter schools, something that no one — not even public-school officials — really wanted. If the state closes charters outright, traditional public schools would have to suddenly come up with the space to house these students. But the bill will stop the growth in charters. Existing charters will become just like public schools, even if they have the word “charter” or “academy” in their name. It was a nearly total victory for CTA. As the Orange County Register opined, “[T]he charter school group’s participation at the signing was more reminiscent of General Robert E. Lee’s appearance at Appomattox. It was surrender, not compromise.”
“The new law will revamp important sections of the charter school law covering approvals, renewals and appeals of renewals,” explained EdSource. “The biggest change will permit charter authorizers — school boards and county offices of education — to consider for the first time the potential financial impact of charter schools as a factor in turning down a proposal.” The legislation also allows these authorizers to reject a school based on it being too close to other schools that offer similar programs. It also makes it far tougher to appeal a rejection.
That will be the death knell for new charters and the expansion of existing charters. School districts will be operating well within the law as they issue wholesale rejections of charter applications. Money should always follow the children. When parents take their kids to charters rather than their local school, those schools will necessarily receive less money, and that will be a financial harm. Public schools certainly deserve less money given how poorly they often operate, but now that “financial distress” will be an easy button that school boards can push to deny any charter application.
With so much new leverage, school districts and unions will be able to coerce existing charters to accept regulations and conditions that force them to follow the same rules that traditional public schools follow. Charters have succeeded because they are exempt from most of the tenure rules and other red tape that stop innovation. Unlike regular public schools, they can actually reward good teachers and get rid of bad or mediocre ones.
The new law might take some time to play out, but California’s experiment in school choices is drawing to a close. That’s too bad, especially for poor and minorities. A report last year by Stanford University and PACE (Policy Analysis for California Education) concluded, “Students who were economically disadvantaged, especially those who were African American or Hispanic, made significantly greater progress in charter schools than their matched peers in traditional public schools.… For students learning English, the charter school advantage is particularly large and significant.”
None of that really matters to California’s Democratic leaders. The legislation served its purpose of helping teachers’ unions solidify control of the schools. They apparently don’t care what happens to poor and disadvantaged kids in the process.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.