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Charter schools cost East Bay district nearly $1,000 per student, report asserts

As the controversy around charter school expansion intensifies in California, a report commissioned by the West Contra Costa Unified School District estimates that the district is losing nearly $1,000 per student as a result of rising charter school enrollments. 

The report, released last month, was produced by In the Public Interest, an Oakland-based research and policy organization that produced a similar report last year looking at three other California districts. That report claimed that charter schools were draining away funds, which contributed to fiscal crises in those districts.

Superintendent Matthew Duffy said the new report provides the district with “a starting point that helps us tell our story” and “helps us understand the bigger picture.”

However, reflecting the heated environment in which the report was produced, the California Charter Schools Association blasted it as “pure propaganda” and “far from impartial.” The report, the association charged, “is yet another tactic by special interests to prioritize politics over kids.”

In the district, which includes Richmond and surrounding communities, the proportion of students attending charter schools has more than doubled in four years, from 8 percent of the district total in 2014-15 to 17 percent this year, according to the report. Meanwhile, enrollment in district schools has dropped from 29,145 to 28,121 during the same period.

In February, the district’s school board voted 4 to 1 to ask the state to impose a statewide moratorium on charter school expansion.

Board president Tom Panas, the lone vote against the moratorium, expressed a caveat about the report, saying it “does not paint a complete picture of the charter school situation” in the district. “Like any other school district, there are successes and areas that need more attention,” he said. “The charter school issue is just one area that needs additional scrutiny” as the district strives to “ensure that every student receives the best education possible.”

The report focused only on financial impact, not on the relative performance of district and charter schools. It comes amid a plethora of reports that present often contradictory views of the impact of charter schools, prompting criticisms from opposing sides that the reports are influenced by the biases of their authors or by the agendas of their funding sources.

The funding calculations in the In the Public Interest reports use an approach developed by Gordon Lafer, a professor in the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. The report calculated the difference between the revenues West Contra Costa Unified would have received in state and federal funding for students who have enrolled in charter schools and subtracting the amount it would have had to spend directly on the students in the form of books, supplies, teachers and other staff. What was left was $27.9 million, the portion of the funds that the district could have used to pay for a range of more centralized services provided to all students, the report argues.

In 2016-17, the district received $11,738 per student in state and federal revenues, Crawford said. The loss per district student was calculated at $978 by dividing $27.9 million by the 28,518 students attending regular district schools at that time.

Of the nearly $274.4 million the district received in unrestricted general fund revenues from the state and other sources, some of those funds were spent on essential services that serve the entire district or entire schools, like heating, teacher training, or principals and other operating costs.

But when funds that could have been used to cover those services go to charter schools, the district has less money to pay for them, the report argued. This in turn can require cuts in direct services for district students, such as tutors the West Contra Unified school board recently agreed to reduce.

“While the district has experienced other financial pressures, charter schools have been a large contributor to the district having to cut spending on academic tutoring, services for English learners and more,” said Clare Crawford, senior policy adviser for In the Public Interest.

West Contra Costa Unified district officials, from left, board member Consuelo Lara, Superintendent Matthew Duffy, Marcus Walton, board president Tom Panas and In the Public Interest senior policy adviser Clare Crawford, speak about new report impact of charter schools. (Photo by Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

The nonprofit In the Public Interest is a project of the Oakland-based Partnership for Working Families, which obtains funding from private foundations such as the Irvine Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation, as well as from labor unions including the AFL-CIO.

The partnership’s website describes In the Public Interest as “a project of the Partnership for Working Families” that “provides assistance to campaigns around the country that are fighting bad privatization deals or trying to enact responsible contracting policies.”

The district turned to In the Public Interest after the school board passed the resolution calling on the state to impose a moratorium on new charter schools. The resolution included the district’s desire to analyze the fiscal impact of charter schools. Because the district was familiar with In the Public Interest’s first report, it asked the group to perform the analysis, said district spokesman Marcus Walton.

The report notes that state funding follows students when they transfer from district to charter schools — approximately $9,563 per student in 2016-17 — but also says it is difficult for the district to cut its costs in direct proportion to the number of its students that enroll in charter schools.

For example, if a district has 14 percent fewer students to serve due to charter school growth, it cannot simply cut 14 percent of its costs for expenses such as principals, heating, building maintenance, bus route planning, grant writing and budget development because these are relatively fixed costs that the district incurs from year to year. When basic operational costs cannot be cut, districts must often cut student services, the report says.

Emily Bertelli, spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association, said the report ignores the positive impact charter schools have on their students. “It’s time to put politics aside and support all public schools that are helping our students grow and thrive, while also balancing the very real needs of local school districts,” she said. She asserted that charter schools in the district “are helping to close the achievement gap,” with higher graduation rates and higher rates of students meeting college entrance requirements.

Last December, the West Contra Costa school board approved $12.5 million in budget cuts for next year that would eliminate 82 positions, decimating an academic tutoring program and slashing programs for English learners. The board is also considering reducing or capping the amount it spends on school police officers.

Some of these cuts were necessary to help pay for salary increases for teachers and other district staff members. However, board member Consuelo Lara, who pushed for the charter school moratorium resolution, said the funds the report says the district now doesn’t have because of charter school enrollments could have been used to restore cuts.

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified school districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.