The idea of charter schools in California when they first popped up many years ago was to free schools and teachers from what was billed as the bureaucratic miasma of the public system. Schools would be free to teach pretty much how they wanted and what they wanted, as long as the general curriculum followed the state Department of Educations general guidelines. Teachers could be hired at will, no tenure, no seniority, and so on. They wouldn’t have the massive fixed costs of traditional schools. The entire idea was to create a new and much better way of learning, especially for children and families who needed something other than what the public system offered. Charter schools would be paid the same amount per child as in the public system.
All this would lead to a far better system where children excelled and everything was wonderful. Except it’s not. Reality is almost always different than dreams, no matter how wonderful the dreams are. The charter system is actually no better or worse than the public system in California. It’s run into predictable problems. Families did not wholesale abandon the public system, some charter school outfits were plagued with fraud and corruption, others ran afoul of the rules governing charter schools.
Charters do offer families an alternative to the traditional public system. They allow children to learn in a variety of settings, at a far different pace, and at hours that fit into the family needs. It’s actually a decent alternative for many families who participate in charter schools, which come in many different forms.
Not surprisingly, since there is an enormous amount of money involved in the charter school business, and it is definitely a business, politics entered into the formula early on. Recently, in a Sacramento Bee article on Friday, June 3, by Jim Miller, those politics were once again brought to the forefront. The amount of money involved in simply getting the agenda of the California Charter Schools Association onto ballots during this years elections season is massive, unless you think that $9 million is small change.
Who are these people who are willing to front that much money for charter schools? One is EdVoice, an organization that starts out on their “about us” tab with the statement that “The California public school system is broken. The outcome is dismal student achievement at almost every level, where even the highest performing students lag behind their peers in the rest of the nation. And the persistent achievement gaps between racial and economic subgroups are more troubling still.”
That’s a stretch, and more than a little too all encompassing. According to Miller they dropped $6 million, since April 1, into the political arena. They did so to support candidates that they believe are leaning towards the EdVoice position. That position, in general, seeks to change the system in California through more charter schools wrapped in protective legislation, or to change the public system. It’s important to note that the traditional public system is always seeking to make the system better, despite the rhetoric that says it doesn’t.
Other contributors to that $9 million total, which may well be larger now, GAP co-founder Doris Fisher, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Eli Broad, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who builds housing developments, Texas billionaire John Arnold, a former hedge fund manager and Carrie Walton of the Sam Walton family. Miller says that an additional five people have coughed up cash as well. Bill Bloomfield, a businessman in Southern California, Arthur Rock, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, William K. Bowers, a financier, and Alice and Jim Walton, also connected to the Sam Walton family.
These people are smart. They are involved. They don’t just give money away. This amount of money is an investment. There is a massive amount of money involved in the California public school system, and the charter system would like as much of it as they can get. It’s not weird, it’s just what business does, which is to make money. Some of that investment may truly be geared toward making schools better.
Neither side of the debate has a corner on being correct. The charter schools aren’t the saintly saviors of education by any stretch of the imagination. The traditional public system isn’t the best that it can be either. Education is not, and never has been, a static endeavor. It is always evolving. How it evolves seems to the question here. How much money stands to be transferred to the already wealthy remains a question, a big question.
As always, assume nothing, verify everything.