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.