“Isn’t it reasonable to have some regulations on charters?” asked Ingrid King, a kindergarten and dual language teacher at Latona Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles. She and two of her colleagues spoke to me from the picket lines during the recently resolved teacher strike in her city. When she and over 30,000 teachers and school personnel walked off the job, it closed the nation’s second-largest school system of nearly a half-million students for six days and filled the streets with huge protests.

The strike ended when the district conceded to give teachers a 6 percent pay raise, limit class sizes, reduce the number of student assessments by half, and hire full-time nurses for every school, a librarian for every middle and high school, and enough counselors to provide one for every 500 students.

But the concessions teachers won that will likely have the most impact outside of LA are related to charter schools. The teachers forced the district leader to present to the school board a resolution calling on the state to cap the number of charter schools, and the teachers made the district give their union increased oversight of charter co-locations — a practice that allows charter operations to take possession of a portion of an existing public school campus.

Los Angeles Unified has 277 charter schools, the largest number of charter schools of any school district in the nation. The schools serve nearly 119,000 students, nearly one in five students. The vast majority of charters are staffed by non-union teachers. (Teachers at a chain of unionized charter schools in the city that joined district teachers on the strike are still on strike.) So the quick takefrom some is the teachers’ union made curbs on charter schools part of their demands because these schools are a threat to the union’s power.

But when you talk to teachers, that’s not what they say. They tell you they want to curb charter school growth, not because it threatens their union, but because charters threaten the very survival of public schools.

Teachers see an existential threat

Latona teachers I spoke with described competition from surrounding charter schools as an existential threat to their school and an undermining influence on the public system.

“Charter schools are popping up everywhere and siphoning money and taking away students from our public school,” said King.

“I’ve had a lot of friends teach at charters,” said Linda Butala, an English language and Title I coordinator. “These schools often mean well. But charters have become another level of haves and have-nots in our system.”

The “haves” these teachers referred to are the “more savvy” parents who take advantage of what many charters offer, including smaller class sizes and newer resources and technology.

The disparity is especially acute when the charter is co-located on the same campus as an existing public school. Traci Rustin, a second-grade teacher, recalled that at a previous school where she worked, the charter co-located on the campus “had much fewer teachers and students of color.” The charter students had more abundant and newer technology, the school lunches were more nutritious, and the classroom supplies were up-to-date. And when students returned to the public school when the charter “didn’t work out,” the new technology and resources, along with the funding that had left her school, didn’t transfer back.

“In neighborhoods that are more racially homogeneous,” explained Rustin, “you see more well-abled children in the charter. You see a two-tier system going on.”

“Charter schools are set up to target certain populations of students and aren’t even set up to meet the needs of some students,” said King. And some parents who can’t meet the expectations set down by the charters know they shouldn’t bother trying to enroll their children in charters. Meanwhile, her school has to serve all students and parents and gets the families and children the charters aren’t interested in serving. “This leads to a more segregated system.”

Butala, who also previously worked at a school with a co-located charter, recalled when the charter moved in, her school immediately had to devise ways to place students in more crowded classrooms and share common areas — such as the playground and cafeteria. But it was never clear to her what the charter was being asked to share with her school. She watched the new charter lure students away from her school, often to see them return months later after the funding was lost.

She claimed her school’s test scores were better than the charter’s, but advocates for the charter were adept at convincing parents “the charter was better.”

Charters take their toll

Latona is experiencing a similar fate. The school doesn’t have to deal with a co-located charter, but competition from surrounding charters has taken a toll on the school.

The school’s student enrollment is virtually all Hispanic, with a quarter of the students being English language learners, and 90.6 percent are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Yet, despite this challenging student population, the school significantly outperforms the state on academic measures of English language arts and mathematics and has been steadily improving, boosting proficiency levels by 12 points in ELA and nearly 19 points in math on the most recent assessments.

Nevertheless, Latona’s student enrollment has long been in decline, according to state data. In the 2017-18 school year, the school enrolled 170 students. Five years ago, it was 267; ten years ago, it was 336, and the student body was more racially diverse.

The enrollment declines have resulted in the school having to let go support staff, such as counselors and nurses, who are essential to the health and well-being of the students.

“I see more kids with social-emotional needs we simply are unable to meet,” said Butala. “If the child isn’t okay socially and emotionally, then we can’t be the best teachers we can be. But too often, we’re called upon not just to be teachers but to be parents and psychologists. We’re having to wear too many hats.”

“Maybe if we had the resources and staff we need, we wouldn’t see so many parents transferring their students to charters,” Rustin conjectured.

“Past the tipping point”

The argument Latona teachers make is not lost on parents, many of whom supported the teacher demands and joined them on the picket lines because they see how their schools are being slowly depleted of funding and resources due to charter school expansions.

“We’re past the tipping point on charters in Los Angeles,” Julian Vasquez Heilig told me in a phone interview. Heilig is a professor at California State University, Sacramento and the author of numerous studies on the impacts of accountability-based and market-based education reforms.

Heilig is not doctrinairely opposed to charter schools, as some proponents of charter schools accuse their critics of being. On the contrary, he formerly worked as an instructor in a charter school, was a charter school parent and donor, and at one point served as a charter board member.

“But the situation has changed,” he stated.

The “situation” he referred to is the long-held claim that charter schools, by their very nature, are a positive force in the public school system. The preferred narrative is that charter schools are just another form of “public” school, that competition from charters makes public schools up their game, and when “parents vote with their feet” and choose to transfer their children to charters, money that “follows the child” out of the public school has no negative effects on the remaining students because the school can adapt to a lower student head count.

Heilig and other charter school critics argue that theory of charter schools in no way resembles the realities of charters on the ground. And striking teachers in Los Angeles have opened people’s eyes to that reality.

“Now that class sizes and lack of resources and school support staff have grown intolerable in Los Angeles public schools, teachers are bringing the public’s attention to the reality of what charters have helped create,” Heilig explained.

“Five years ago, we weren’t talking about the financial impact of charter schools. Meanwhile, poor performing charters have been allowed to proliferate in the state,” and the public is largely unaware of the negative impact this has on the public education system. Until now.

The bad math of charter schools

Truth is, the financials of charter schools have never added up.

A 2017 report authored by Gordon Lafer, a political economist and an associate professor at the University of Oregon, looked at the spread of charter schools in California and found “hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent each year without any meaningful strategy.”

Because charter operators often get permission to set up new schools wherever they want, “far too much of this public funding is spent on schools built in neighborhoods that have no need for additional classroom space,” Lafer concluded.

While public school districts can’t build new schools unless increases in enrollment or an influx of school-aged children demands them, charter schools can make the case based on subjective arguments having nothing to do with numbers, and when local school boards deny charter applicants, charter operators can appeal to the county or state board that, more often than not, overrules the local board.

As a result, the report found, “nearly 450 charter schools have opened in places that already had enough classroom space for all students.”

Los Angeles is the poster person of having too many schools chasing after too few students.

District enrollment peaked in 2004 at just under 750,000 and has been dropping ever since, not just due to the growth of charters. A combination of factors — including declining birth rates, population flight to the suburbs, the exorbitant cost of child care, and skyrocketing housing prices that discourage young couples from having children — has led to a steep decline in the population of school-aged children in the district.

Another flaw of charter school financials is that they add layers of administrative and infrastructure costs that public schools are expected to pay for, even though public school budgets are already under stress, and government leaders are unwilling to provide new funding.

“Charters contribute to the funding problems because we’re paying for two school systems,” argued Heilig: the local public one and the privately run charter ones operating like parallel districts to the local schools, with their own duplicative layers of administrative staff and infrastructure. “There’s an incredible amount of waste and inefficiency” in this arrangement.

“Changing our minds about charters”

“Charter proponents aren’t acknowledging these problems,” Heilig said.

Indeed, after news of the LA strike resolution spread, proponents of charter schools and choice responded angrily to limits put on charters.

Nina Rees, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told the New York Times that placing a cap on the growth of charter schools is a constraint “we cannot stand for.” And U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, an ardent fan of the charter industry, declared teachers’ unions were “the only thing standing in the way” of the spread of school choice.

But the stark contrast of the rhetoric from charter school hardliners to the reasonable requests of Los Angeles teachers, like Ingrid King, changes a conversation that has long been one-sided and clouded in lofty claims about charters.

“The strike has made me consider how charter school expansion is harming the city,” wrotecharter school teacher Riley McDonald Vaca in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times after seeing how the strike played out.

“As more money is invested in new ideas and new campuses, fewer resources and students are left for the many great programs still trying to gain their footing in our current district and charter schools,” she stated. “I believe in my charter school, but I don’t believe that the charter industry’s mission to increase its share of the educational marketplace in Los Angeles can solve the problems we all face educating children.”

“These issues with charters are coming from the bottom-up,” said Heilig. “Legislators are starting to take notice, and so has the public. We’re clearly changing our minds about charters.”

(Photo credit: Jeff Bryant)