Recently the county seems all abuzz about charter schools. Whether they should be approved by the parent district and where they should locate are leading to controversy. What’s this all about?
The San Mateo Union High School District has approved Design Charter School and plans to locate it at Mills High School. But many parents at Mills object. They don’t like the idea of students from outside the area attending their high school and they like Mills just the way it is. Meanwhile in San Carlos, neighbors objected to a land swap between the City Council and school district which would relocate the popular Learning Center, California’s first charter school, to the Crestview area. However, the San Carlos City Council could not muster enough votes to send the idea to the ballot.
In Redwood City, the school district recently approved two new charters, Rocketship Education and KIPP Bay Area Schools despite the objections of the teachers association and several parents.
The charter school movement started about 20 years ago. San Carlos Learning Center was among the first in the nation and the very first charter in California when it opened in February 1993. Ironically, the idea of charter or specialty schools may have originated with famous union leader Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers. Despite opposition, primarily from teachers unions, charter schools have grown in popularity. More than two million or 4.2 percent of students in 41 states and the District of Columbia attend charters while 610,000 more are on waiting lists. The schools are publicly funded but run by nonprofits or in some cases by the school district itself. Charter school teachers don’t have to be union members.
Overall data does not show that charters are better than public schools. But in some areas, especially where students are primarily from low-income and minority families, they have made a difference. According to a recent Silicon Valley study on student achievement for Latino and low-income students in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, charter schools topped the top 10 list (Innovate Public Schools January 2014).
Charter schools also were pushed by some educators as a better alternative than vouchers. At least charters remained in public schools. They offered a free education with advantages of longer school days, smaller classes, required codes of conduct to attend and parent choice. This was important in school districts in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, for example, where there were so many low-performing schools, and parents did not have the funds for private or parochial schools. In both cities, unions continue to fight charters primarily because they challenge union safeguards as tenure, seniority and job protection for ineffective teachers. Perhaps the recent court case on teacher tenure will solve one of these problems. But longer school days still have to be negotiated and cost more money. School districts pay for the operations of the charter school and must find them space. In turn, districts can charge the charters for the space.
Some charters, San Carlos Learning Center for example, were established to test different approaches to education without the hindrance of restrictive laws. The hope is that good charter schools will provide incentives for public schools to improve and set the standard. Districts complain that charters take away some of their funding. This was an issue in Redwood City. It’s based on how schools are funded. Charters are public schools so the tax dollars go to those students rather than the district. Of course, the district has fewer students to educate since some of their students are in charters.
Some educators worry that education for children in low-performing school districts will be worse if charters siphon off the best or most motivated students (parents). But is it fair to deny these kids a chance to succeed by providing them with better tools — a longer school day, a more academically structured curriculum and perhaps better teachers? It’s the perennial dilemma in education — equality versus achievement. Should a district with limited funds focus its resources on those who need help the most and leave those in the middle or on the top to fend for themselves? Or should districts raise standards for everyone to meet the new challenges of a global economy?
This is what the Common Core hopes to achieve but it is attacked by some as being too hard for too many students.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.