Investigating the Power and Politics of Charters

Capital & Main reports that

California has become ground zero for the national battle over charter school expansion, with some of America’s wealthiest individuals and largest foundations pouring resources into what critics view as the privatization of public education.

In a new weeklong series, Capital & Main examines the real impact of rapid charter school growth in the country’s most populous state, from educational outcomes to special needs students to the financial solvency of school districts. Based on six months of reporting and interviews with dozens of experts, elected officials, educators and advocates on both sides of the debate, “Failing the Test” offers a comprehensive portrait of how charter schools are transforming the landscape of public instruction in ways that affect us all.

Charter School Powerbrokers

This piece looks at the huge investment of resources by charter school proponents such as the Walton Foundation and Eli Broad in everything from school board elections to media.

In an effort to shape public opinion and sway policy makers, the Walton Family Foundation awards research grants to professors studying charter schools and other educational initiatives. The grants, totaling millions of dollars, have funded academic studies at Harvard University, MIT, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt, the University of Michigan and the University of Notre Dame. These studies are then quoted in the mainstream press or in the media that pro-charter philanthropists directly control – creating an echo chamber that is used by the charter movement to expand the numbers of charter schools across the United States.

Searching for Accountability in Charter Schools

This story examines the serious problems with charter schools’ lack of oversight and transparency, from excessive disciplinary measures to huge financial losses to taxpayers.

Critics of today’s market-based charter movement say monied interests have turned those learning labs into models for capital capture in the Golden State and beyond–“the charter school gravy train,” as Forbes describes it. Charters are publicly funded but privately managed and, like most privately run businesses, the schools prefer to avoid transparency in their operations. This often has brought negative publicity to the schools – last month the Los Angeles Daily News reported that the principal of El Camino Real Charter High School charged more than $100,000 in expenses to his school-issued credit card, many of them for personal use.

UCLA’s John Rogers on the Positives and Negatives of Charter School Autonomy

Their series of video vignettes with national education expert John Rogers continues with a concise analysis of the pros and cons of charter school autonomy.

Video: How a Major CA Charter School Gave Up on a Special Needs Student

This powerful video features a mother and her special needs daughter telling the story of how the student was expelled from a major Los Angeles charter school.

Charter Schools’ Winners and Losers

Capital & Main documents how charter schools leave many students behind, including special needs kids.

Naranjo, a 42-year-old Mexican immigrant, was looking forward to being involved in her daughters’ education and playing a role in the school community. But when she became concerned over several issues, including what she described as a high teacher-turnover rate, she says the school wasn’t interested in hearing from her and other parents.“Over time I’ve come to find out that we as parents don’t have any participation in the schools,” Naranjo says in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter during an interview with Capital & Main. “When they talk about charter schools they always say they are the best and that they want what’s best of our kids and are here to help us. It makes me feel very sad because my daughters aren’t getting the kind of help I want and it’s a challenge. I’ve tried to be involved – at this school, they don’t allow that to happen.”

Measuring Charter School Performance

I look at the data on charter school performance — and raise some hard questions.

Peer-reviewed research literature is the gold standard in all fields, including education — and the predominance of such studies in the United States does not show positive impacts on average for the charter school sector. While it is true that one can find an occasional peer-reviewed study that identifies small effects for particular charter schools, studies that show a positive achievement effect are often produced by researchers primarily funded by foundations and think tanks that are ideological school-choice advocates.

Video: UCLA’s John Rogers on Charter Schools and Exclusion of Special Needs Students

John Rogers, Director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, addresses the need for fairness in all public schools – charter and traditional.

School Solutions and Turnarounds

Charter schools were first created partly as alternatives to just such top-down bureaucracy. Yet while charters are increasingly becoming scrutinized for their pedagogical and managerial philosophies, traditional public schools are developing their own solutions to problems that typically plague the education system.

When Goldbaum began working at Alliance in 2008 she enjoyed autonomy in her teaching approach. But then, she said, she increasingly felt beset by bureaucracy as “the home office” of the Alliance organization intervened more in the curriculum and with her teaching methods. The creativity that she had found so effective in engaging students was straitened, she told Capital & Main, by a growing number of mandates that provided little practical direction—but more penalties for instructors. The situation went from one of teacher innovation to that of teachers being forced to follow home office directives.

UCLA’s John Rogers on the Struggle for Democratic School Improvement

John Rogers, Director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, addresses democracy and education for community-based schools.

Nine Solution Takeaways

I discuss what real school choice looks like for parents in neighborhood public schools.

Despite the trendy popularity of charter schools in some circles, their wholesale replacement of traditional public schools is unnecessary. Not only do decades of data and research show this, but in each city there are plenty of successful public schools on the other side of the tracks or highway or river. The wealthy in the United States, regardless of locality, continue to have access to quality public education. So what should all parents already be able to choose from in their existing neighborhood public schools?

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on charter schools click here.

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  • On Dec. 17, 2011 I posted the following article in the Merced Sun Star – Title: Monty J. Thornburg, “Unfair to the Poor” … I had attended school board meetings and argued against a CA statewide charter school organization to no avail. Later, out of desperation on behalf of the “other” school mentioned in this article I identified a charter school that survived for three years in Northern Mariposa County until this year. We have now replaced it with a public school. The article posted in 2011 is copied here: …………

    To approve the Sierra Foothills Charter School in Mariposa would be unfair!

    At the Mariposa County Unified School District board meeting Dec. 7, the board was effectively asked to discriminate against poor kids in one part of Mariposa County while favoring property taxpayers in another part of the county. The Catheys Valley Elementary school and the Coulterville Greeley Elementary schools were both closed last year due to austerity budget conditions.

    A group of highly talented UC Merced employees have teamed up with the California State Charter School Association to change the closed elementary school in Catheys Valley into their proposed Sierra Foothills Charter School.

    It became clear in the meeting that the group is effectively attempting to favor themselves with respect to their property values while assisting the UC with professional recruitment by creating a special elementary school. It was pointed out that this is unfair, and discriminates against students from the other closed school and a community that has far more poor students by percentage than does Catheys Valley.

    It is unfair and unthinkable that UC officials would support such a move on the part of Sierra Foothills even if many of the advocates are employed at UC Merced. It is especially unthinkable that UC officials would support independent charter schools to the detriment of the public school districts in order to enhance their recruitment opportunities, as was advanced by several UC Sierra Foothills advocates at the board meeting.

    I urge the MCUSD to reject the proposal because it is unfair, unjust and discriminatory toward Title I poor students living within the Mariposa County Unified School District.



    Read more here:


  • Monty J. Thornburg: Unfair to the poor | The Merced Sun-Star…/article3262887.html
    Dec 17, 2011 … To approve the Sierra Foothills Charter School in Mariposa would be unfair! At the Mariposa County Unified School District board meeting Dec.


  • I was responsible for the initiation of a Charter school in a rural part of CA. I’m a former “higher level administrator” now demoted to teacher who fought a battle over charter schools and the displacement of rural necessary small school(s) in rural CA. Our new “charter” was put in place to substitute for a shuttered Necessary Small Elementary School (NSES) that should have never been closed. However, the “power brokers” in this rural region wanted to shift the ADA from the shuttered (NSES) to another school where ADA is counted per student and thus shift dollars there to boost the real estate market and pay for a new sports facility. I was fundamentally against “Charter Schools” in principle but saw that having a “Local Charter” was the only hope to provide an opportunity for five year old through middle school students to attend a school in their own region of the county and not have to travel as much as two hours on a bus to the other school. This year with a new superintendent and new board we have put the “public school” back where it was and I’m the lead teacher here. The three years of experience with the Charter School did provide a “bridge” until we were able to muster the understanding and support to replace the charter school that was planning to close its doors anyway. The funding mechanisms for charter schools don’t really work well in rural areas such as where I teach.


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