President of the California School Board Association (CSBA) Josephine Lucey
June 1, 2014
I’ve been extremely fortunate in my role as CSBA President to preside
in a year in which we are not talking about cuts in public education
funding, but rather about funding distribution methodology,
accountability and curriculum changes that are aimed at closing the
achievement gap. We’ve been talking about, and pushing for, continued
investment in the Local Control Funding Formula, development of the
associated Local Control and Accountability Plans, and implementation
of Common Core State Standards, which, if done well—with time and money
allocated and spent, and deliberate attention given to staff
development—have the potential to infuse our educational system with
academic rigor and provide our students with the critical thinking
skills they’ll need in this information- and technology-based economy.
It’s the right conversation to be having—and it’s about time.
So, as we enter the second half of this legislative year, I’d like to
focus on a topic that has been less prominent, but which I believe
should move to the forefront of our attention: charter schools and the
current statewide and national trends surrounding them.
It is time for educational and political leaders to revisit charter
school legislation and charter school law. As a state, and as a nation,
we have strayed far from the original intent of charter schools.
Originally designed to experiment with new ideas and approaches in
search of better academic outcomes for students, charter schools are
frequently being founded and directed by corporations and corporate
interests—which are not about improving academic outcomes for
students, but about maximizing profits for the benefit of management’s
or shareholders’ personal wealth.
I’m reading the research, I’m talking with school board members in
other states at National School Boards Association meetings, and I’m
more and more concerned by this privatization of public education. Yes,
corporate America is moving with increasing speed into the charter
school arena. According to an April 2014 Economic Policy Institute
Report (Lafer, Gordon; Briefing Paper #375), “the last few years have
witnessed a pattern of corporate consolidation [of charter schools]. By
2011, less than 17 percent of charter school students were in schools
run by companies that operated three or fewer schools. The majority
were overseen by corporations operating 10 or more schools.” And although
many charter corporations claim to be, or are required to be,
nonprofits, in fact, they are not. The nonprofit charter itself is
often nothing more than a shell corporation integrally aligned with other
for-profit business entities.
Here’s one example: the Rocketship chain of schools—“a low-budget
operation that relies on young and inexperienced teachers rather than
more veteran and expensive faculty . . . and replaces teachers with
online learning and digital applications for a significant portion of
the day” (Lafer, 2014). While Rocketship itself is a nonprofit, it is
closely aligned with two for-profit software companies, DreamBox and
Zeal. These schools, which use the blended learning model, put students
in computer labs for a quarter of the day, at minimum, every day and
the software used in the labs is purchased from DreamBox and Zeal. This
aggressive push for expansion of Rocketship schools is critical to
their business model. More schools equals more students, which equals more
software sold and more profits.
It goes further. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, and John Doerr, a
partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins
Caufield & Byers, are both on the Board of Directors of Rocketship. And
they are two of the primary investors in DreamBox. John Danner,
Rocketship’s co-founder, is Zeal’s primary investor. This type of
conflict-of-interest is illegal in public schools.
Additionally, Rocketship has a partnership with the for-profit real
estate holding company, LaunchPad. LaunchPad purchases school property,
then rents it to Rocketship. Their business model specifically states
“LaunchPad will charge relatively high facilities fees” and “the
profit margin will be used to finance new facilities” (Lafer, 2014).
Your tax dollars are being used by real estate trusts to purchase
property that is privately held and owned.
When a public school district wants to build or renovate a school, the
local community has a say. The community votes on whether to pass a
bond. The community pays for its local school, and the school remains a
community asset. Not so with corporate charters—the community has no
vote. And the local tax dollars are not purchasing a local asset; they
are helping shareholders purchase a private asset.
So why do we have charter schools? They have gained traction because
the public and many politicians believe, wrongly, that charters are the
magic bullet to academic excellence and that choice automatically leads
to better academic outcomes. But the data does not support this
perception. The National Charter School Study 2013, by The Center for
Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, shows
that charter schools on average do no better than public schools
serving the same student demographics. Even the subgroups on whom charters
appeared to have the most impact showed very modest differences from
their public school peers. And the latest Public Policy Institute study
of the Rocketship chain shows that student achievement in Rocketship
schools has declined steadily year over year. In 2012-13, all seven
Rocketship schools failed to make adequate yearly progress, with four
of seven schools found to be in “need of program improvement.”
Circling back to the original intent of charter schools, there are, of
course, examples across our state of charters that, when freed from the
oversight and regulation that each of you and your districts are bound
to, are focused on providing better academic outcomes for students.
Typically, these are stand-alone charters that were founded by the very
districts in which they reside. They are usually successful because of
strong working relationships with and support from the local districts,
and they generally rely on the local districts for management
infrastructure. For example, when I visited Kings County this year, I
toured Lemoore Middle College Charter High School. It has a strong
working relationship with its sponsoring district as well as excellent
academic outcomes for its students. The school is located on the
community college campus, which enables students to take community
college classes while in high school. This arrangement works well for
But we need to be careful, for corporate interests are governing an
increasing number of charter schools and the quality of our children’s
education is at stake. So what do we do? Here are three actions that
you and I and CSBA can take to refocus the discussion:
* We need to stop calling charter schools public schools. They are
privately managed publicly funded schools. They are an experiment in
moving tax dollars from the public sector to the private sector.
* Talk to your legislators and push back on the notion that charter
schools are the magic bullet. Talk about the successes in your
Remember, your constituents are their constituents, and you have
influence with your local voters.
* Be thoughtful and diligent in your decision making when a charter
petition comes before you. Don’t assume that a charter school is
synonymous with higher academic achievement. Do your research and base
your decisions on data, not ideology. This due diligence is especially
important for county board members reviewing charter petitions denied
by a local district.
It’s time for all in the education community to review the intent of
charter school legislation and to take a hard look at what exists in
the field today. Our public school system is one of our greatest assets.
It is the foundation of our American democracy and the door to
opportunity for all who live in our country. As educators and school
board members elected by our local communities to represent them, we
have an obligation to push hard for meaningful conversation that aims
to put charter schools’ focus back where it belongs—on achieving better
academic outcomes for students.