Recently every board member of the San Francisco Board of Education demonstrated what hypocrisy in action means. The entire Board of Education unanimously rejected an application for a new KIPP elementary charter school set to open in the Bayview next year. Never mind that hundreds of parents, teachers, and students showed up in support of the charter school. Never mind, also, that a large chunk of the KIPP supporters were African-Americans from the Bayview, which the Board purportedly wants to help, but when push comes to shove, you can always count on government bureaucrats to vote for the status quo and less individual choice. After all, they do know better.
The Board’s commitment to traditional government schools and bias against charter schools or any kind of “school choice” was obvious. “I worry regularly that as we start chipping away at the system of traditional public schools, that we start chipping away at those other options and opportunities that we are committed to providing to our young people,” lamented Board President Hydra Mendoza-McDonnell. “We have no choice but to find a space and place for them,” chimed in Commissioner Shamann Walton, and he also noted that charter schools encroach on the San Francisco Unified School District’s per pupil funding. “Revenue stream”—always an issue where government bureaucrats are involved—is clearly more important than the students themselves. The Board also used the phony excuse of suspension and expulsion policies to cut into KIPP even though KIPP has had no expulsions in the last two years. The rigorous curriculum was also blamed for the most challenged students being “counseled out,” and one commissioner complained that “There is no makeup policy if you miss the assignment and get a zero.” Imagine that?! A school with high academic standards—is that so terrible? The fact that more than 150 parents signed the petition expressing an interest in enrolling their children in the proposed KIPP school indicated that parents were looking for a school with higher quality options, yet it was precisely the higher academic standards and lower tolerance for misbehavior and disruption that upset the Board the most. Clearly the Board’s priorities are misplaced.
So, what exactly are charter schools and why do our government bureaucrats object to them so much? How are they different from traditional government schools? Charter schools are in fact government schools and are tuition-free, open to anyone, and no religious teaching is allowed. What makes them different from traditional government schools is how they are managed. They are independent and are not owned by the central school board, so the local school district cannot tell them what kind of curriculum to use, when to open or close their doors, whether they can require uniforms or not, and whether to hire a for-profit company to manage the school. Most important, charter schools are not required to hire union teachers. In the 43 states that do allow charter schools, approximately 15% of the nation’s 6,900 charter schools are for-profit. What also makes a charter school different from a traditional government school is that it has a limited contract, usually 3-5 years, to prove itself, and the entity that authorizes the charter school reviews the school’s performance, typically based on test scores, graduation rates, and the school’s finances. The charter school must really “perform” just like any normal business in the voluntary sector, or it will be shut down—unlike traditional government schools which go on and on for decades, whether they “perform” poorly or not. Another difference is that traditional government schools receive about 30% more funding per pupil than charter schools, mainly due to the fact that charters don’t receive the revenue from school construction bonds like traditional government schools. Lastly another difference is that traditional government schools provide school busing and charter schools do not, so the parents have to arrange transportation to and from charter schools if they want their children to attend.
Strangely enough, even with 30% less funding, no “free” transportation, and no guarantee that the schools will even be around in a few years, a study done by Stanford University found that charter schools perform on average about the same or better than traditional government schools. So much for the argument we always hear that California is 46th in the nation in per pupil funding, and that’s why the government schools perform so poorly (“If only we gave them proper funding…”). In fact, the real reason that traditional government schools don’t—and never will—measure up to schools that parents actually choose for their children is the one-size-fits-all approach treats all of its “customers” the same and not as individuals. Inevitably in the end, by trying to appeal to all, children with special needs, talents, and interests get lost in the shuffle to provide “equal opportunity to all.” Innovation is crushed and standards are definitely lowered. No matter how much money is thrown at government schools—and especially traditional government schools—the outcome is doomed.
Charter schools, even though fed by mandated compulsory education laws, at least offer parents significant advantages over traditional government schools. They give more choices and alternatives to children who don’t thrive in the one-size-fits-all setting. The neighborhood school may be too small or too large to have the right academic focus for some children. Charter schools also encourage much-needed competition since the money tends to follow the student, so charter schools must “perform” or risk losing their “customers” and being closed down. Most important, charter schools can decide what kind of student they are catering to and focus on developing innovative ways to teach. While they can’t pick and choose what students will attend—a lottery system is used when a charter school gets more applications than open slots—they can target a particular market, and parents can pick accordingly for their child. And because the parents have chosen a particular charter school, the chances are greater that parents will have a stronger commitment to make the students succeed by increased parental involvement.
The refusal of the San Francisco Board of Education to acknowledge the obvious benefits of charter schools reflects an obsession with “equal opportunity.” Because charter schools target a particular type of student, not all students will be able—or want—to attend a particular charter school. The bureaucrats view this as discriminatory and unfair and therefore a negative. However, children from low income families have tended to languish in traditional government schools, and the strongest support for charter schools has come from parents who have never gone beyond a high school education, and right now charter schools are tilted toward serving low income children. Why won’t the Board of Education give those at the lower end of the economic spectrum a fighting chance? Is it possible that the parents themselves are smarter than the elites?