Anti-Charter School Nonsense

I heard an ad for this clearly political campaign a few weeks ago, but tonight a postcard arrived in the mail from them. The claims being made are, in my opinion, exaggerated at best, but more often just false. 

I don’t have a lot of experience with either traditional or charter schools yet, but in researching schools for our five year old it was clear that the charter options near here had better results, and spent more of their money in their classrooms. 

Open to All

One of the falsehoods put forward in this postcard & on the associated website is that charters are not open to any students. Instead, they claim charters are discriminating to select stronger students. That was certainly not the case for the charter we selected for our now kindergartener. The selection process was explained to us in writing and at the information night; it was a lottery with priority being given to siblings of existing students. In fact, we had less information about the AUSD process, and had to take time off work (something that is not easy for all parents to do) to attend an in-person meeting at the AUSD offices (which was, frankly, a total waste of my time & could easily have been done online, or via the mail).

It appears that have been a few questionable charters, but that is as much the responsibility of the school districts that are meant to provide oversight of those schools, as it is of the schools themselves. I do agree that having charters overseen by their local district is a mistake, and was bound to lead to cases where that oversight was lacking. It was also bound to set up awkward situations, such as was demonstrated in Alameda where several school board members were decidedly anti-charter on principle. Moving the oversight to a central, state level body seems to make far more sense to me. 

Any charter that is discriminating in enrollment is already breaking the law. Proper oversight would catch that sooner & could have it addressed. 

For Profit Schools

As their domain name suggests, another blatant falsehood being pushed by this campaign is that charter schools are being set up for profit, and backed by “billionaires” for their own personal gains. 

The billionaires concerned, being successful business people & investors, might simply be horrified by the amount of money school districts are spending on overheads. By my estimates, roughly 25% of AUSD’s annual expenses goes towards non-teaching salaries and benefits (about 50% goes towards teaching salaries and benefits). Backing charter schools, which tend to have lower overheads, means more of the money will make it to the classroom. 

If they were looking to get into the business of for profit schools, starting a private school would seem to be a better choice than starting a charter. Perhaps they just care about improving the standards of education in California, which, when I compare it to my UK education is sadly lacking, especially in the sciences. 

Standards 

On that subject, one of the attractions of the charter we picked was that it claimed to be able to keep kids who have attended preschool & have basically covered the kindergarten level work already, interested by having different levels within the same classroom, or even by mixing K & 1 groups based on ability. I have yet to see that happen, but I am certainly going to be asking very soon if we don’t see evidence of it.

Ours also had capped classroom sizes & a full time teaching assistant in each kindergarten classroom in addition to the teacher. All of which leads to better standards. Right now, our five year old has an 11:1 teacher to child ratio.

Alameda Unified School District (Enrollment Process)

I don’t know if all school districts are this bad (I have a feeling it might be a common thing, if not universal), but my experience with the Alameda Unified School District doesn’t fill me with hope for future.

Online Registration

My first attempt to start the online registration was stymied by the insistence that I use Internet Explorer (impossible since I have only a Mac and an iPad). This is frankly ridiculous as a requirement too; it was bad enough a decade ago, but today there should be absolutely no need for something as basic a web based school enrollment system to require a specific browser or platform.

To further indicate the poor quality of the IT at AUSD, on the morning when enrollment for next year’s kindergarten grade was opened, their system crashed. All appointments issued before that were then canceled and we had to complete the process a second time. Alameda’s entire population is around 75,000 people. I don’t know how many of those would have been trying to enroll their pre-schooler in kindergarten for next year, but I can’t believe it was that many.

Enrollment Appointment

Once the online process was completed, the system generated an appointment for us (which happened to be today for me). The email that they sent out included the time and date, but did not include the address of AUSD’s administration offices.

When I mentioned that at the front desk while signing in, the lady there agreed that was something that should be fixed and asked me to point it out to the “enrollment counsellor.” At the end of the appointment, I mentioned it to her and she just said it has been suggested before but the address is all over their website and it is an IT issue. Or, in other words, “Not her problem.” Apparently no interest in doing a good job; just enough to get by.

Personal Information

As part of the online process we needed to upload copies of a utility bill and this year’s property tax bill. The online FAQ for what we need to bring to the appointment included these bills as well as my ID and the kid’s birth certificate & vaccination record.

I had assumed that she would simply check my ID to make sure I was who I said I was, but no. She wanted to make a copy of it. When I asked why, and how that copy would be secured, she said she didn’t know and if I wanted to find out I would have to contact the school. In the end, she got me a vague statement from the director that the copy would be locked up and not accessible to the public. Not much of a reassurance. I will be pursuing that further.

Printed Copy

Also on the list of documents to bring was a printed copy of the electronic enrollment. That seemed odd to me since they should have the electronic version. When I questioned that, I was told the printed copy was for the school and they didn’t have access to the electronic copy. There are problems I can see with this:

  1. If they need access to the information, why can they not be given access electronically? That seems like a flaw in the system. Far safer to have them access it electronically than keep a paper copy stored somewhere.
  2. If they do need a printed copy, why can the AUSD administration not print them one to put in this paper file. They were able to print copies of the bills I uploaded OK, and print other forms.

    Intradistrict Transfer

    Finally, since we were also interested in the possibility of a transfer to a school other than the one we would be normally assigned, I asked about that. That is also online, but unlike the rest of their site, the transfer request process is implemented using Google Forms and, apart from some of the questions not really handling the case of a transfer request for a pre-K student, it worked well. It is a shame the rest of the application process isn’t handled the same way.

AUSD & Charter Schools

I was sent an interesting email yesterday that mentioned that an Alameda Unified School District board member, in fact the board President, had made some pretty scathing comments about how she feels about California’s Charter Schools generally. The comments were made as part of the discussions surrounding the renewal of the charter for a school that has moved to Oakland (because it was unable to find a suitable space it could afford in Alameda, but is still authorized by AUSD). The renewal was approved, in a 3-2 split vote, with the president actually voting in favor of the renewal, which makes the comments even more odd.

What Ms Kahn said was:

I oppose Charter Schools generally because I think they’re predatory. I think they’re dishonest. I think they don’t give a hoot for the community that they’re in. I think their self-interest overrides everything that they do. I think they put themselves forward as a free, on the public dime, option for parents that would like to have, remove themselves from a public school into a private school, but they can do that for nothing by buying into a charter.

Obviously, Ms Kahn is entitled to her opinion on whether charter schools are a good idea or not, but as she herself said in an interview with The Alamedan prior to her election, “charter schools are here to stay.” She went on to say “like it or not, by law the district has to cooperate in the development of charters, while exercising oversight to guarantee that they are delivering what they promised.”

Predatory & Dishonest

Her comments at the board meeting on November 10, 2015 do not seem consistent with those pre-election statements. Furthermore, it is disingenuous to label charter schools generally as “predatory” and “dishonest.” From my own research, the charter schools in Alameda are committed to providing a quality education to their students, and are popular with both students and their parents. Like it or not, they are working (and, at least in the case of the Alameda ones, they seem to be working better than most of the district’s schools).

Private Education

I also found it personally offensive that Ms Kahn would imply that parents looking at charter schools are trying to get a private education on the “public dime.” Like most parents, I am looking for the best possible education for my children. If that is a charter school, then so be it. If it is a private school, then we will certainly consider it. I certainly can’t see anything that would suggest that AUSD’s schools stand out as being excellent by any measure! I can also say categorically that the charter schools we have looked at are nothing at all like private schools (I attended private schools from age 7 up, so I have some experience there).

Perhaps, if the AUSD board president feels that private schools offer a better education than the district’s schools (they almost certainly do), she should make it a priority to fix that disparity rather than making disparaging comments about parents looking at charter schools instead of district ones. Furthermore, if she feels that charter schools are able to deliver a better quality education on a public education budget, then perhaps she should look into how they can do that, and what can be improved in the district’s schools to achieve the same results. (To be honest, I don’t think the charter schools are delivering as much as they could

Bylaws

AUSD board members should probably also be aware of the section of the AUSD Board Bylaws that states:

Board members shall hold the education of students above any partisan principle, group interest, or personal interest.

(From BB 9200 – Board Bylaws – Limit of Board Member Authority)

Any attempt by AUSD board members to block a charter school’s existence based purely on a personal opinion about whether charter schools in general should exist, would seem to be contrary to that bylaw (and possibly to California state law). It also seems to me that the AUSD should be celebrating successful schools in its district, whether they are directly run by the district or merely overseen as a charter.