School Choice

Union-Run Schools Dump Struggling Kids on Charters

Public schools cherry-picking students, something they once accused charters of doing.


Teachers union leaders hoping to discount the runaway academic success of charter schools have claimed charters lure the best-performing kids, leaving traditional, union-run public schools to handle poor-performing and struggling students. In its statement launching the anti-charter "Kids Not Profits" campaign, for instance, the California Teachers Association claimed that charters "cherry-pick the students…weeding out and turning down students with special needs."

Now a series of reports in California and elsewhere show the opposite is true. In one case, educators in the San Diego Unified School District have been counseling their students with low grade-point averages to transfer into charter schools, especially online charters, according to a Voice of San Diego report last month.

Students who were part of the district's class of 2016 but transferred to a charter school "had a combined grade-point average of 1.75 at the time they transferred," which is below the 2.0 average needed to graduate. This includes 919 students who left the school system and were "no longer factored into the district's overall graduation rate," the news site explained. The districts are able to "dump" students that drag down the overall graduation metrics, which are used to rate schools and influence funding decisions.

After the Voice of San Diego first reported on the matter, the district responded by creating a new website denying such claims and arguing that "public schools have a moral obligation to serve the public and help every student reach his or her full potential." But the Voice of San Diego report notes that district officials "now admit that's exactly what has happened in the past," which is confirmed by the Voice of San Diego's public-records request and interviews with some district officials.

This isn't unique to San Diego. An investigative report this year by ProPublica found a "national pattern" in which public school districts have used alternative schools—many run by charter operators—as a "a silent release valve for high schools…that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform." These public schools can then "rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing." The situation is the opposite of "cherry picking."

"At the end of the day, school districts are simply scrubbing bad student data and then get to criticize charters for poor graduation rates," Michael MeCey told me. He is the director of California Parents for Public Virtual Education, which represents online charter families. "Shoveling credit-deficient students to traditional charters and online charters only allows these school districts to cheat the system and create a false narrative about charters."

Despite the union narrative, charter school operators often have complained that public schools sometimes counsel poor-performing students to sign up for these alternative schools. The charters end up with students who are sometimes a year or more behind.

The impact often falls heavily on online charters, because brick-and-mortar charters have enrollment caps. Online charters have no such caps, and are an easy way to offload kids who might drag down district test scores and graduation rates.

The subsequent poor performance of some of these students has another benefit to teachers' union leaders: it becomes a reason to clamp down on charters. Indeed, the California legislature has used those poor graduation rates among some charters as a rationale for various bills that would ban most types of for-profit online charter schools. Several anti-charter bills were introduced in the legislature this year but failed to pass, in large part, because of Gov. Jerry Brown's general support for charters.

One measure was a blatant attempt to shutter online schools whose curriculum comes from for-profit companies. Another was known as the "charter killer" because it would have made local school districts—many of whom are hostile to charter schools and whose board members are union allies—the final word on school authorization. Currently, charters can appeal a denial to the county or state board of education, which often are friendlier territory.

Online charter schools often are a godsend for students who don't thrive in the regimented public-school system. They've been particularly helpful for students with disabilities, transgender students and those who have been victims of bullying. So there's nothing necessarily wrong with school counselors who recommend that struggling students enroll in these charter alternatives.

"They're doing it because they want to see kids graduate," one former San Diego school principal told the Voice of San Diego. That's a noble goal. But there is a lot wrong with the school districts and teachers' unions that benefit from sending struggling students elsewhere while the same officials malign or try to close those alternatives.

The hypocrisy can be astounding. The San Diego Unified School District has been trying to shut down the two charter schools that have been the recipient of many of its students. Furthermore, the district "is expanding independent study programs and credit-recovery options, hoping to capitalize on the growing market for nontraditional education options," reported the Voice of San Diego in March.

If this were such a bad option for students, then why would San Diego and other school districts be so intent to offer similar online-based alternatives? The answer is obvious: The teachers' unions and the school districts aren't always focused on what's best for students, but on what's best for maintaining their educational monopoly. It's about stifling the competition.

The districts have been playing a game of musical chairs. The way the system is designed, the last school district responsible for these failing kids is "stuck" including them in their test-score averages, graduation rates and funding-based Average Daily Attendance figures. Kids who score poorly or often are truant drag down those numbers.

Instead of passing around these struggling students, wouldn't it be better if the districts took a greater interest in their education and worked collegially with charter alternatives to tailor a program that best suited each student's individual needs?

That would mean backing legislation that changed the incentive structure rather than bills that seek to harass alternatives out of business. That's unlikely to happen. But at least when the next round of anti-charter bills gets introduced in the Capitol, charter backers can debunk one of the unions' main arguments. They can point out that charters aren't cherry picking the best students so much as they have become the place union-run schools send their toughest cases.

This column was first published by the California Policy Center.

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  1. Kids Not Profits

    Healthcare Not Profits

    Houses Not Profits

    Cars Not Profits

    Food Not Profits

    Newspapers Not Profits


    1. Ginormous Government Almighty, not profits!!!

      Private or corporate profits extracted from willing buyers is EVIL money, while money forcibly extracted by Government Almighty violence and threats of violence, is GOOD money! EVERYONE knows THAT!

      (Also, as soon as one accepts a Government Almighty paycheck, one becomes TOTALLY pure as the driven snow, and not susceptible to ANY of the common human vices of greed, power-lust, self-righteousness, etc. EVERYONE also knows THAT, as well).

    2. The irony being that the public schools are shuffling kids off to improve their ratings and… wait for it… FUNDING!

      It’s all about the almighty dollar with the public education system, they may not necessarily be “profits”

      1. And if the charter schools get shut down and these students get dumped back into the public schools, then the public schools can point to their increased burden from all these charter-damaged students as the reason they need, you guessed it, more money. Screw over the competition, scapegoat them and then demand more funding? Win-win-win for Publik Skoolz!

    3. Mass Graves Not Profits

  2. Alternate take: the unions, teachers, and other bureaucrats really do have the worst students’ best interests at heart, even as they admit that regular schools simply aren’t up to the task of educating any but the most sheepish students. Why else would they suggest the worst students switch to the charters which have a track record of doing best with the worst students?

    This implication that the unions, teachers, and bureaucrats are trying to undermine the charter schools is unworthy of Reason or the R Street Institute. Y’all should be ashamed of jumping to the knee-jerk reaction that unions, teachers, and bureaucrats have a bad attitude. Y’all owe them — and us — an apology.

    1. “Alternate take: the unions, teachers, and other bureaucrats really do have the worst students’ best interests at heart, even as they admit that regular schools simply aren’t up to the task of educating any but the most sheepish students.”

      WRT pub-sec unions, I’m sure someone will try to pitch that line.

      1. Public school teachers are saints who walk amongst us.

    2. Y’all should be ashamed of jumping to the knee-jerk reaction that unions, teachers, and bureaucrats have a bad attitude. Y’all owe them — and us — an apology.

      Yup. I still remember a Parent/Student- Teacher meeting in 3rd grade where my mom said the teacher wasn’t doing enough to challenge me- and the teacher actually said. “It’s obvious he knows the material, but I also have to teach the rest of the kids.”

      I had finished both a 5th and 6th grade math book in 3 months while in 2nd grade… where my 1st year teacher only looked at my work one time.

    3. Sarcasm?

  3. That ProPublica article didn’t exactly cast “alternative” schools in a good light. The dropout rates are ridiculous.

    So, do these “alternative” schools include all charter schools, or are they just the latest euphemism for “reform” schools that can be public, private or charter? This article implies the latter; but if so, then that means there are probably charters that don’t fall under the ProPublica study and thus might well still be cherry-picking, the cited incidents notwithstanding.

    (Note that I do not consider this relevant; if parents choose to move their kids to a charter and stay there, as far as I’m concerned that’s the only evidence needed that it works).

    1. I think the implied point is that there are some kids who just aren’t going to succeed on their tests at the end of the year. A Junior or Senior in high school who is one or two years behind in their studies and hasn’t learned any of the skills necessary to study with a teacher in the classroom is rarely going to succeed- especially at an online school. Even if they show a marked change in their habits and willingness to learn, when you are a year or more behind, you will have had to have miraculous progress in order to pass state tests at year’s end.

      I also wouldn’t be shocked if schools weren’t identifying kids that would drop out anyways, (like they got ready to file paperwork) and the school signed them up for the charter school.

      1. Almost 50% of College students need a “remedial” class in Math or English to learn what they didn’t learn in public HS…

    2. Successful online education requires a lot of self discipline. It’s not a good fit for struggling students with disabilities, ADHD, behavioral problems etc. However the parents have the final word. Isn’t everyone supporting parental choice?

      Online K-12 has a mixed record.…..ut-quality

      1. You know who else has a mixed record?

  4. Projection? From liberals? Absurd.

  5. Public sector unions are the fucking worst. Teachers unions and police unions are criminal organizations.

  6. Nothing strange here, if you are paid by an administrator, you provide the administrator with the service he paid for -> good statistics to present to his primary client : politicians.
    Charter school provide service for their clients, parents, wich seek to educate their childs.

  7. This happened in the Vista Unified School District in the northern part of San Diego county as well; non-performing students were dumped on a startup charter and led directly to the failure of that charter – with so many unmotivated kids, the other kids got pulled out by their parents and the school collapsed.

    1. They didn’t reech theez keedz.

  8. End politically-run, “public” education.

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