With sky-high taxes, a sieve-like southern border, and an ongoing flow of nutty regulations – one law targets cow flatulence, for example – California really doesn’t need any more bad news. But according to a recent report, the state now leads the country in illiteracy. In fact, 23.1% of Californians over the age of 15 cannot read this sentence. While part of the problem is due to the aforementioned porous border, much of the blame falls on the state’s failing public schools. For example, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), just 30% of California eighth graders are proficient in reading. And that test, of course, was given before the highly damaging covid-related lockdowns kicked in.
Voters’ attitudes toward the state’s government-run schools have tumbled accordingly. A new poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies reveals that just 35% of the state’s voters gave public schools in their local district a grade of A or B, down from 55% in 2011. At the other end of the spectrum, 25% now grade their local public schools a D or F, up 15 percentage points from 2011. The poll included responses from 800 California voters with 50% identifying as Democrats, 26% Republican, and 24% independent.
Because of all the above, it’s no surprise that enrollment in California schools is sinking. In 2018-19, they lost about 23,000 students, but between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, public school enrollment in California dropped by more than seven times that figure, with 175,761 students leaving.
In Los Angeles, the bleeding is profuse. Whereas L.A. Unified schools were home to 737,000 students 20 years ago, the district is now forecasting a 25,000 student drop by the fall which would bring their attendance number below the 400,000 mark, and things are looking bleak for the nation’s second largest school district. Its “American Rescue Plan” dollars will run out soon, and Los Angeles Times education writer Howard Blume reports, that from July forward, “the district is projected to spend about $1 billion more than it will take in over a two-year period. The district also must wrestle with underfunded retiree health benefits.” Additionally, the United Teachers of Los Angeles contract is up at the end of the school year, and the union will be demanding the sun and the moon in their new contract.
San Diego, another troubled city, is losing students from its public schools at a faster clip than district leaders expected, and this will undoubtedly lead to financial difficulties. In Oakland, the school board has voted to close seven schools over the next two years due to sagging enrollment.
So, just where are the leavers being educated? To be sure, some are being schooled in other states as California’s population is declining. But many of those who remain in California have enrolled in charter schools, which saw 15,283 new enrollees in the 2020-2021 school year, a 2.3% increase from the previous year, bringing the total to 690,657. By contrast, the 175,761 students who exited the state’s public schools represent a 3.2% drop.
A big reason for the current upheaval is that the charters, a great majority of which are nonunionized, did a much better job during the pandemic. A study conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) examined how charter schools responded to Covid compared to traditional public schools in California, New York, and Washington for the period from March to June 2020 and then for the 2020-21 school year. Researchers found that charters were able to pivot from in-school teaching to remote instruction remarkably quickly.
“In multiple states and under varying conditions, the majority of charter schools we surveyed demonstrated resilience and creativity in responding to the physical and social challenges presented by COVID,” CREDO announced on February 15. In spring 2020, charter schools in California took an average of just four days to shift to remote teaching once they closed their doors. Charters in New York took an average of three days to make the transition, and those in Washington averaged just two days. By contrast, the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that 71 percent of districts in the U.S. “do not yet require teachers to provide instruction” in spring 2020. (While there is no data available on the transition for school districts in California, the state is most likely in line with the rest of the country.)
What distinguishes charters schools is that they are independent, flexible and, importantly, rarely unionized. Unlike district schools, the teachers unions must organize each school individually, which is a very time consuming and costly process.
But the union PR machine does not sleep. Grasping at straws, the competition-phobic California Teachers Association attacks charters regularly, speciously claiming that schools must be “accountable to our communities,” and that there should be a “moratorium on unregulated charters.” In reality, unlike traditional government schools, charters are indeed accountable and regulated, as parents choose to send their kids there. And if parents, are not happy with their child’s charter, they will yank them out and enroll them elsewhere.
The unions also insist that charter schools siphon funding from traditional public schools. But as Fordham Institute president Mike Petrilli notes, this is a fallacy. In fact, he writes that a recent study shows that “host districts’ total revenues per pupil actually increased in most states as the percentage of local students who enrolled in charter schools rose. Certainly, that was the case in California, where a 10 percentage point increase in the percentage of students attending charter schools that were authorized by counties or the State Board of Education (after being rejected by the host district) was associated with a 5 percent increase in host districts’ total revenue per pupil and a 4 percent increase in their instructional spending per pupil.”
Another study, authored by Fordham’s David Griffith, looked at the “relationship between ‘charter market share’ and the academic achievement of all students in a given community, including those in traditional public schools.” Griffith found that, in general, the district-level evidence suggests that the charter advantage is not attributable to “cherry-picking” or “creaming” the best students. He adds that “there is no evidence that charters have a negative effect on the performance of traditional public schools” and “expanding charter market share in black and Hispanic communities could dramatically reduce racial achievement gaps.”
At the end of the day, the unions’ top priority is their bottom line and political power, but due to their mangling of public education, which has led to increasing numbers of families bidding adieu to government-run schools, that bottom line will be somewhat lighter. A small ray of sunshine amidst a gathering storm.
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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.