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Commentary: No surprise, Carol Burris misses the mark on California charter schools

Guest contributor | September 12, 2016

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Carol Burris

Carol Burris

Note: This post originally appeared on Education Post.

By Caroline Bermudez

Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, writes about “a never-ending stream of charter scandals coming from California” in Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet, a blog more slanted than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

But as is typically true with Burris, her writing is long on bloviation and short on accuracy and reason. It seems as if she’s setting the stage for a report on charter schools her organization, the Network for Public Education, will publish next spring.

She mentions a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Public Advocates contending 253 charter schools in the state, or approximately 20 percent, have illegal admissions policies.

Since the report’s release, Southern California Public Radio reported more than 50 charter schools have been removed from the list. A number of the violations were the result of poorly worded language or outdated documents posted on schools’ websites, hardly nefarious orchestrations.

An ACLU attorney, Victor Leung, said, in the same SCPR article, “the vast majority of schools contacting us have been in a really constructive way.” He added, “Most of these schools were quite concerned they had bad policies posted on their websites and they all wanted to change them pretty quickly.”

Contrary to Burris’ assertion that they shun accountability, charter school officials have called for better oversight instead of the hodgepodge system in place whereby 324 local, county and state agencies act as authorizers.

Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association (a group that draws Burris’ particular ire), has written about the need to close failing charter schools. Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, penned a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, explaining how the current system of oversight falls short:

Charter schools are not the primary focus of any of these agencies. Instead, school districts and county education offices were mandated to oversee charter schools by the state Legislature and they are now stuck with a complex task many never wanted to begin with.

School districts in particular, working within tight budgets, often don’t have the capacity or staffing to deal effectively with charter schools. Most districts must direct the majority of their time and energy into operating traditional public schools.

Much of the targets of Burris’ criticism are virtual charter schools, which many charter school advocates do not support because of their abysmal performance. Burris may believe she’s done some substantive sleuthing here, but charter advocates beat her to the punch in reporting the failures of virtual charter schools some time ago.


Burris’ shoddy attempts at commentary don’t end there. She cites a report funded by United Teachers Los Angeles alleging charter schools have drained the Los Angeles Unified School District of $500 million. Aside from the teachers union’s obvious agenda behind the report, the findings bear further scrutiny—even the district has disputed them.

LAUSD has lost money for students it no longer serves; this is neither money promised to the district nor money taken away by charter schools. The district still receives the same dollar amount per pupil, yet while student enrollment has declined, the number of full-time staff at LAUSD has increased, according to a report commissioned by the district.

The dip in students is also not entirely attributable to charter schools. The same report found that half of the loss is due to a decrease in the birth rate and students transferring to other school districts. Furthermore, LAUSD students attend school less often than the statewide average, resulting in daily losses of revenue.

The report never blames charter schools for the loss of revenue. Instead, it advises LAUSD to study why families leave traditional public schools for charter schools.

Burris wades into money and paints a grossly imbalanced picture of charter schools with coffers padded by billionaires all the while neglecting to mention that the most powerful and largest political war chest in California belongs to the California Teachers Association, which outspends large corporations such as AT&T and Chevron.

From 2000-2009, the union dispersed more than $211 million in political contributions and lobbying expenses.

Pot, meet kettle.

Half of the top 10 high schools in California are charter schools. In LAUSD, charter schools are outperforming traditional public schools (but not magnet schools because charter schools don’t cherry pick as they do).

Hillary Rodham Clinton voiced her support for charter schools—at an event held by the National Education Association, no less.

You didn’t read any of these facts in Burris’ post because they don’t fit her conveniently concocted narrative of charter schools undermining public education.

My only hope is that those who benefit the most from charters—low-income families of color—don’t buy into these falsehoods and lose an opportunity to get off the waiting lists and find a better school for their children.

Caroline Bermudez is senior writer at Education Post. Before that she was a staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving.

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