The California Charter School Fiasco

13 Mar

In 1992, California became the second US state to pass a charter school law. Today, twelve percent of all schools in California are charter schools with 9% of all state supported students attending charter schools. In these more than two decades; charter schools have enriched some people – have harmed public schools – have not improved publicly financed education – have increased segregation – have increased the cost of publicly financed education – have paid foreign based entities to operate schools in California – have generated massive fraud.

The California charter school experiment should be ended and these undemocratic publicly financed institutions should be carefully transitioned into the public schools system.

Peter Greene is a prescient commentator and observer of education policies and trends. Every day he posts at least one editorial about some education related claim or movement on his blog, Curmudgucation. Last week he wrote this comment about charter schools:

 “One of the great lies of the charter-choice movement is that you can run multiple school districts for the price of one.

 “A school district of, say, 2,000 students can lose 75 students and with them about $750,000 dollars of revenue, and somehow that district of 1,925 students can operate for three quarter of a million dollars less. And how does the district deal with that loss of revenue? By closing a building– because the more school buildings you operate, the more it costs.”

 I live within the boundaries of the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). It is the second largest school district in California and eighth largest in the nation with 140,000 students. Former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, wrote in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “San Diego was a surprising place to launch a major reform effort, because the district was widely perceived in the 1990’s as one of the nation’s most successful urban school systems.”

Today SDUSD is 20% charter. So, in San Diego we have a dual school system and that is one of the reasons many classes in both the privatized system and the public system must run such large classes. The money to pay for an extra layer of administration and in some cases to pay profits for investors must come from somewhere. It is coming out of the classrooms of what was once the envy of other urban school systems.

Steven Singer is a leader in the Bad Ass Teachers (BATs) movement. He writes a blog focused on education called Gadflyonthewallblog. A few weeks ago he published an article called “Top 10 Reasons School Choice is No Choice.” Reason four resonated with me:

 “4) Voucher and charter schools actually give parents less choice than traditional public schools

 “Public schools are governed by different rules than charter and voucher schools. Most public schools are run by a school board made up of duly-elected members from the community. The school board is accountable to that community. Residents have the right to be present at votes and debates, have a right to access public documents about how tax money is being spent, etc. None of this is true at most charter or voucher schools. They are run by executive boards or committees that are not accountable to parents. If you don’t like what your public school is doing, you can organize, vote for new leadership or even take a leadership role, yourself. If you don’t like what your charter or voucher school is doing, your only choice is to withdraw your child. See ya.”

Today, the charter school movement is nearly unregulated. Charter schools claim to be public schools but if you ask to see how they are spending public money, they claim in court that they are private businesses and we the public have no right to that information. In other words, charter schools are given tax money without any oversight. Of course that is a recipe for fraud and abuse.

Old Town Academy (OTA) made the news in January when it was able to have its charter renewed by SDUSD despite the restraining order against Tom Donahue its founding principal or the fact that OTA had not informed SDUSD that it was now being run by an out of town charter management organization called Tri-Valley.

In the Voice of San Diego’s report we read:

 “Chris Celentino, OTA’s current board chair and one of the school’s founding members, said when the school opened with a class of 180 students, half came from families that would otherwise send their kids to private schools. He attributes OTA’s ability to attract college-educated parents to its challenging and innovative curriculum.”


 “Whether it’s a product of innovative instruction, or has more to do with the fact that unlike at many traditional district schools, few OTA students live in poverty, test scores have remained consistently above the district average.”

 In addition to being unstable, Old Town Academy is really a publicly financed private school. Many parents do not want their children in school with “those people” so the poorly written charter school law made it possible to set up what is essentially a private school but charge its operating expenses to taxpayers.

In February the San Diego Union reported on the final stage of the Steve Van Zant charter school corruption trial:

 “Steve Van Zant, a key figure in the expansion of charter schools in San Diego County and elsewhere in California, pleaded guilty Thursday to a felony violation of the Political Reform Act. Van Zant’s financial interests in growing independent charters, and his efforts getting them into school districts without notification, have raised questions about widely perceived shortcomings in state law that now even advocates say allow for exploitation. While superintendent of the rural Mountain Empire Unified School District, Van Zant received a stipend through his contract for each charter school the district authorized. The arrangement was in violation of conflict-of-interest laws, said Deputy District Attorney Leon Schorr, who heads the public integrity unit.”

There was no effort here to improve education in California. It was simply greed driven corruption that used a poorly written charter law to purloin tax dollars.

College Preparatory Middle School was one of those out of district schools granted a charter by Steve Van Zant’s Mountain Empire School District. It opened with 83 uniformed students in a church in La Mesa. They now appear to be trying to execute the infamous charter school real estate scam.

The San Diego Union reported on January 31, 2016 that College Preparatory Middle School wants to build a major new facility in Spring Valley. The Union describes the financial proposal:

 “Under the financial arrangement, a Utah charter school developer and a Delaware subsidiary of a real estate trust headquartered in Missouri would finance the project with millions of California education dollars. College Prep would lease the new campus from the financiers for more than $620,000 a year, or 9.5 percent of the project cost. The charter could buy the campus after five years for 125 percent of the projected $6.8 million cost of the project.”

This is not about improving education or providing choice. This is solely about profits.

This year I wrote about the schools controlled by the Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen withdrawing its request for a charter in Oceanside. In California, his schools are called Magnolia Public Schools. There are eleven of them including one at 6365 Lake Atlin Avenue in San Diego, the site of the old Cleveland Elementary School.

Foreign nationals are literally running our schools and it is hard to find a mall that does not have some form of charter learning center trying to lure children into sitting at computers in the mall school. Most of the new charter schools in San Diego are mall cyber schools with some tutoring. They are notoriously poor schools but they are sprouting everywhere because they are profitable.

The charter school movement (aka privatization of public schools) is dangerous for children and for society. It is time to pull the plug on profiteers and fools raiding public coffers.

8 Responses to “The California Charter School Fiasco”

  1. Roxana Marachi, Ph.D March 20, 2016 at 12:22 am #

    Thank you for writing about this important issue. I’ve re-shared your post on this collection that includes over 100+ articles on the harms of corporate charter proliferation. Charter Schools & Choice: A Closer Look:


    • tultican March 20, 2016 at 3:43 pm #

      Because I follow your work I have seen most of the material you collected here, but having them all in one place is amazing. Thank you for leading the fight to save education and the teaching profession.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ciedie aech April 8, 2016 at 7:34 pm #

    It’s beginning to look like “raiding public coffers” is the ONLY endgame of a standardized testing and the invasions brought by school “accountability.” Everybody looks for a way in to get their own slice of the Big Money Pie — and then get out, having to hold no responsibility for what their greed has done to children, teachers and neighborhoods.


    • tultican April 26, 2016 at 7:28 pm #

      I am reading your amazing book. why-you-always-be-trippin is a gem.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ciedie aech April 26, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

        WOW. You just made my day! 🙂 🙂



  1. Thomas Ultican: Time to Abolish Charter Schools! | Diane Ravitch's blog - March 19, 2016

    […] writes here that the charter experiment has been a disaster for public schools. California was second in the nation to pass a charter law in 1992, and now 9% of the children are in […]


  2. The California Charter School Fiasco | tultican – Teaching On Edge - March 19, 2016

    […] Source: The California Charter School Fiasco | tultican […]


  3. Ed News, Tuesday, March 22, 2016 Edition | tigersteach - March 22, 2016

    […]             Thomas Ultican, on his TULTICAN blog, has had it with charter schools and thinks they should be totally abolished in California.  Ultican is a high school physics and math teacher in the Golden State.  He […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: