This is a rebuttal to an op ed by Dan Walters: California’s school war flares upon three fronts. Both were published in the Napa Valley Register.

By Karen Wolfe

Dan Walters is right that there is a fierce battle over public education in California that is sure to heat up as the 2018 elections draw nearer. However, the framing of an entrenched establishment pitted against altruistic reformers is naive or misleading. 

The real fight is over who controls the money in the state’s second largest budget line and what that means for our notion of government. 

Do we update our public school system around the protections and oversight built into its foundation? Or do we privatize the system, handing over money and children to a free-market of charter school choices on little more than a promise to be responsible and effective? 

Setting aside for the moment that the purpose of public school is more than achievement on standardized tests, one factor to consider is that the charters, which are publicly funded and privately managed, aren’t doing any better than the traditional public schools, according to the often-cited CREDO study (Urban Charter Schools in California, 2015).

Cal State Sacramento’s Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Julian Vasquez Heilig, told me that in many cases California charters have a negative impact on student learning. Even where any impact is positive, it is minuscule, he said. This is especially important when charters are compared to other education reforms like universal pre-kindergarten or class size reduction, both of which have shown far larger positive impacts. 
In fact, these are among the reforms sought by the Equity Coalition, the group referred to in the op ed. But Walters doesn’t mention those reforms. Nor does he tell readers the primary objective of the Coalition’s lawsuit: A larger overall education budget.

It seems no matter the topic of education policy, the so-called reformers claim that charter schools are the only answer. 

This view puts them in close alignment with US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who seeks to privatize public education through charters and vouchers. Her home state provides a stark example of the failure of the free market. Education historian and author Diane Ravitch writes, “Since Michigan embraced the DeVos family's ideas about choice, Michigan has steadily declined on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.” From 2003 to 2015, the state's NAEP rankings on fourth grade reading and math have dropped from 28th to 41st, and from 27th to 42nd, respectively, she writes.

And what about the money?

Every day, new reports of financial scandals at charters are posted by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. A study last year by consumer watchdog, In the Public Interest, found that California taxpayers have spent $2.5 billion for charter school facilities alone, many of them in areas that already had surplus classrooms. The Spending Blind report also underscored the CREDO findings: The education offered at three fourths of the charters was worse than that provided at nearby district schools.

Walters also asserts that civil rights groups are behind the push for more charters, a talking point of the privatizers. While an affinity for charters exists among many civil rights groups, the nation’s oldest and foremost civil rights organization, the NAACP, has called for a moratorium on new charter schools. Following a nationwide series of public hearings, the NAACP said it “rejects the emphasis on charter schools as the vanguard approach for the education of children, instead of focusing attention, funding, and policy advocacy on improving existing, low performing public schools…”

Next year’s election of a new State Superintendent will amplify the school wars. That race pits Tony Thurmond, a former school board member on the pro-public schools side, against Marshall Tuck, formerly of Salomon Brothers, for the privatizers. 

There is even more at stake in the race for Governor. Both front runners, Antonio Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom, have ties to charter funders. Villaraigosa has a long track record of trying to advance the corporate reform agenda. Newsom’s platform is less clear. Current State Treasurer John Chiang has called for greater transparency and accountability for charters to even the playing field with pure public schools. 

Beyond the stories the candidates tell, the question they should answer is who will they entrust with educating California students? Profit-seeking corporations or locally elected school boards.