The growth of charter schools in San Francisco raises many unanswered questions so students, parents, and education equity advocates are demanding accountability.
In May, school board members from Oakland, Berkeley, and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts called for state legislation granting local power to reject charter school petitions, and for a pause on charter school development in California until new laws are passed to increase accountability. In July, Public Advocates released a report uncovering California charter schools’ failure to be transparent about how they spend millions of taxpayer dollars, as state law requires.
On September 25th, the San Francisco Board of Education will vote on a resolution introduced by Commissioner Mark Sanchez and Vice President Stevon Cook and backed by Close the Gap, a coalition of community members and educators partnering to improve student outcomes. Resolution 186-26A2 mandates a full and open investigation of how charter schools impact San Francisco students and communities fiscally, educationally, and socio-emotionally. The policy also mandates a charter school oversight committee to increase transparency and accountability in existing charter schools.
As leaders in the fight for education equity, we are well aware of the need to improve our public schools so all students succeed. We also understand that California’s public schools are under-resourced, ranking 43rd nationally in per pupil funding, and that schools with the most low-income Black and Latinx students are disproportionately affected by this underinvestment. Independently run charter schools exacerbate this funding crisis by siphoning off limited per-student taxpayer dollars from traditional public schools without being held to the same standards. For example, the non-profit In the Public Interest found that charter schools cost the Oakland Unified School District $57.3 million in funding every year — that’s $1,500 per student — at a time students are asking for resources to improve their life outcomes, like college counselors and mental health services, but are told there isn’t enough funding to make those available.
When it comes to creating safe and supportive school environments, charter schools also get to play by different rules. For example, along with other evidence-based reforms passed in 2014, SFUSD banned suspensions for “willful defiance,” a vague category that significantly contributed to the disproportionate pushout of Black and Latinx students. Charter schools, however, still disenroll students for similar offenses. KIPP middle schools report that they suspend nearly twice as many Black and Latinx students as SFUSD middle schools.
Additionally, many charter schools also fail to track or report data about their discipline practices or the students affected, which prevents community oversight and assessment of disparities among student groups – a fundamental step to improving student outcomes.
Some underfunded public schools are also forced to share limited campus space. As just one example of this trend, KIPP Bay Area — a national charter school network — took over classrooms at Malcolm X Academy this year, despite the entire MXA community expressing strong opposition to the forced co-location. Malcolm X Academy lost space that was previously used for garden and art classes, one-on-one support, restorative practices, and wellness services — activities all critical to MXA’s improved academic outcomes in recent years. Because state law forces local school districts to provide space to charter schools approved by the State Board of Education, MXA students and parents, mostly low-income Black and Latinx families deeply invested in their neighborhood school, had virtually no voice in the co-location decision.
With so many unaddressed concerns, it would be irresponsible to continue to allow charter schools to expand in San Francisco without increased oversight and a much fuller understanding of their long-term impacts on our students and communities. To ensure that all children have access to the high quality public education they deserve, we should be funding and supporting evidence-based solutions for all San Francisco students — not unproven initiatives for a select few.
Anabel Agloro Kingwood, J.D., is the Policy Director at Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a San Francisco-based student and parent-led organization advancing racial and economic justice in schools and communities.