Three years ago, Maria Rodriguez, then a high school freshman, pleaded with the Ravenswood City School District Board of Education to give the green light for a new public charter school — for the sake of her younger sisters, whom she wanted to have a better education than she'd received.
"I want nothing more than my sisters to make it to a four-year college and graduate from college," she said. "Everyone deserves to succeed."
The school district had been at this point before, having both approved and rejected a series of charter school petitions over the prior two decades. This time, the board approved Kipp Bay Area School's request to open an elementary and middle school — albeit reluctantly, and with a warning that the charter could pose an existential threat for the long-struggling district.
"The only way that we're going to prevent the district from being eaten alive by every charter school that can put together, frankly, 80 parents (to) sign a petition, the only way that we can combat that is to keep moving forward," board member Sharifa Wilson told the standing-room only crowd.
Over the past four years, Ravenswood has lost more than 1,000 students — nearly one-third of its enrollment — faced fiscal insolvency, discussed closing a school to make room for the growing Kipp and is without a permanent superintendent — all issues that are intertwined with, though not exclusively related to, charter-school growth in East Palo Alto. The district — whose enrollment in its neighborhood schools this year was 2,395 students — is also losing students to other schools, both private and public, including through the longtime Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP). Students also are moving out of the area when their families can no longer keep up with the cost of living in East Palo Alto.
The state of Ravenswood is like that of many districts across California that are grappling with the booming charter school movement. California has more charter schools and students than any other state, accounting for 10 percent of the state's K-12 enrollment. According to the California Charter Schools Association, 660,000 students are enrolled at 1,323 charter schools this year, up from 746 schools a decade ago.
These are also some of the state's neediest kids. More than half of California's charter enrollment is in districts where the majority of students receive free and reduced-price lunches, according to CALmatters, a nonpartisan journalism nonprofit based in Sacramento.
The tension that loomed in that packed boardroom in East Palo Alto three years ago — between those who support families hopeful for a high-quality public-school alternative in their community and those who feared that the success of charters would come at the expense of neighborhood schools — has only intensified since, polarizing the community.
And it's happening not just in Ravenswood. School boards across the state are considering charter-school moratoriums as teachers hold high-profile strikes and the California Charter Schools Association and California Teachers Association draw their battle lines. Gov. Gavin Newsom (who was backed in his election by the state teachers union) has convened a panel, led by the state superintendent, to study the impact of charter growth on district finances — the state's first deep dive into the issue since the Charter Schools Act became law in 1992.
Charter-school advocates, for their part, insist that they need autonomy to meet low-income and minority families' demands for better public education. They say charter schools are being unfairly blamed for districts' financial woes.
"This villainization of charters driving districts to the brink of insolvency is salacious," Myrna Castrejon, president and CEO of the state's charter school association, told CalMatters.
Defenders of school districts, meanwhile, argue that more accountability and acknowledgment of the fiscal impact charters have on districts is needed.
On both sides of the debate there are also those who are working to move past the polarization to the broader issues affecting all public-school students in California.
"Charter schools are a Band-Aid on a bullet hole," said Ravenswood Board of Education Vice President Stephanie Fitch, who has taught in both public and charter schools. "Public education is bleeding out, especially in communities of high needs like East Palo Alto.
"I don't like that 'us against them' thing," she added. "Splitting between public schools and charter schools divides us away from the actual problem, which is a systemic issue of how schools are funded to begin with."
East Palo Alto's history with charter schools
More than 20 years ago, when California's charter-school movement was nascent, a group of East Palo Alto families rallied around their desire for a different kind of public school in their community.
The K-5 East Palo Alto Charter School (EPACS) opened to elementary school students in 1997 and several years later joined with Aspire Public Schools, which was founded by a former San Carlos School District superintendent in 1998. Aspire is now a charter-management organization that runs 40 K-12 schools in California and Tennessee.
In 2006, those same families helped to found a new secondary school, Aspire East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy — the city's first public high school since 1976, when Ravenswood High School closed due to low enrollment. In the intervening decades, East Palo Alto students had been bused to other local districts for public high school. (The private high school Eastside College Preparatory School opened in 1996.)
Today, East Palo Alto Charter School enrolls 447 elementary students and has a wait list of 47, according to Aspire. Phoenix Academy serves 200 secondary-school students, primarily in middle school.
By the mid-2000s, Ravenswood trustees started to push back against charter school growth. In 2010, facing the same concerns of today over declining enrollment and financial survival, they voted to close the Stanford-sponsored East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School, citing low test scores.
The next year, still facing a major budget deficit, the board denied in a 3-2 vote a petition by charter operator Rocketship Education to open a new elementary school in East Palo Alto that eventually would have served 650 children. Dozens of students, parents and teachers attended a board meeting, concerned that Rocketship would "take money away" from district students. (Ana Maria Pulido, then a newly elected board member, cast one of the two votes in support of Rocketship. Five years later, she cast the sole dissenting vote against Kipp's petition. She did not respond to interview requests by the Weekly's press deadline.)
Two public high school charters also operate in East Palo Alto under other local agencies. East Palo Alto's newest public charter high school, Oxford Day Academy, was initially rejected by the Sequoia Union High School District Board of Trustees but won approval in 2016 on appeal with the San Mateo County Office of Education. Oxford is an independent charter school that pays an oversight fee to the county, which is its authorizer rather than the district, and rents a private facility.
East Palo Alto Academy, a charter high school, opened in 2001 at the invitation of the Ravenswood school district. Operated by a Stanford University-run nonprofit, it was initially chartered by Ravenswood but moved to the Sequoia Union district in 2014, according to Principal Amika Guillaume.
Unlike the majority of charter schools in East Palo Alto, East Palo Alto Academy is a dependent charter, which means the district office and school board provide more oversight, and all teachers are union members and considered full-time district staff, said Guillaume, a former Ravenswood principal. The school shifted to this structure in 2014 under a new charter agreement approved by the Sequoia Union Board of Trustees, which was renewed last year.
East Palo Alto Academy doesn't pay for its facilities except for a custodian and for expenses that go beyond regular maintenance. Stanford still provides support through the school's advisory and foundation boards, professional development, academic collaboration, volunteers and connections to long-term donors, Guillaume said.
Guillaume is enthusiastic about the dependent-charter model, which she said provides "a way for big districts to provide small schools of choice that have autonomy over programming, while still being a true partner of the district."
Do charters cost traditional school districts?
Assessing the financial impact of charter schools on districts is thorny, contentious and rife with politics. It is not required as part of the school-district approval process. It's also difficult to measure, and supposedly objective research on the topic is often criticized as having political slants.
People on both sides of the debate agree, however, that it is a question that must be analyzed in considering the future of public education in California.
A controversial 2018 study by In the Public Interest, an Oakland-based research and policy organization, drew a direct line between three school districts' multi-million-dollar budget shortfalls and the "unchecked expansion" of charter schools. In the Public Interest believes that charter schools led to net fiscal shortfalls of $57.3 million for Oakland Unified, $65.9 million for San Diego Unified and $19.3 million for the East Side Union High School District in San Jose — "conservative" estimates under the organization's methodology. The organization compared each school district's current budget with a hypothetical alternative in which all students remained enrolled in traditional schools, then calculated how much additional revenue that would bring back to the district as well as the costs of educating more students. The difference between lost revenue beyond any savings accumulated by educating fewer students is the net fiscal impact.
The organization's report, "Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts," acknowledges that districts are "under multiple sources of fiscal stress" but argues that charter-school growth significantly exacerbates district budget woes and has largely gone unchecked.
In the Public Interest said the report "does not advocate either for or against charter schools as an educational policy; nor does it support or oppose any particular charter school or school model. ... It aims, instead, at something more fundamental: enabling lawmakers, school officials, and the broader public to engage in policy discussions armed with complete information regarding the costs and benefits of educational policy choices." (In the Public Interest, however, is affiliated with the Partnership for Working Families, an advocacy group that lobbies against income inequality and whose funders include organized labor, according to CALmatters.)
The California Charter Schools Association sharply criticized the study as "an error-ridden document commissioned by a biased organization with a political agenda and conclusion in mind."
In the Public Interest Senior Policy Adviser Clare Crawford said they focused on this issue because of the policy opportunity in California, where state law doesn't address the potential costs charters have for districts. In Massachusetts, for example, districts are provided with additional funding to make up for the gap.
When school boards are considering charter applications, they are legally limited to a certain set of requirements. They can only deny an authorization if: The charter's proposed educational program is unsound; the charter is unlikely to successfully implement the program; there are insufficient petition signatures; the proposed school violates one of the three basic requirements for all charter schools; or the petition does not include a reasonably comprehensive vision for the school. Rejected charters can appeal local boards' decisions at the county and state level.
Crawford argues that the authorization process should allow the consideration of a charter's potential fiscal impact and other factors, such as whether a proposed charter is offering a program distinct enough from the district schools.
"Right now they (school boards) have no power to decide when the number of choices becomes so many that it's not actually a better option for all of the students in the district," Crawford said. "It's a system that doesn't have logic right now."
Without giving school boards more oversight in the charter-authorization process, the current public-education ecosystem in California is unsustainable, she said. Bruce Fuller, a University of California, Berkeley, education and public policy professor who has studied charter schools, likened a more rigorous approval process to how agencies conduct environmental impact reports for proposed development projects.
"You want to know, how is it going to affect the whole ecosystem if we approve a new institution?" he said in an interview. "In places like Ravenswood or Oakland if you drive the system into the ground it's not going to have the resources to bounce back to try new things."
Fitch said boards should be allowed to consider charters' potential impact on district budgets, but not within a vacuum. Charter schools are one piece of the puzzle, she said, particularly for Ravenswood, which faces as much pressure from new private schools like Priscilla Chan's The Primary School and from gentrification as from charters.
In the Public Interest advocates for several policy changes, including requiring school districts to conduct an annual economic analysis of the cost of local charter expansion and amending California's charter law to allow public officials at the local, county and state levels to incorporate the findings into future charter decisions. The law should be "amended to empower elected officials to act as effective stewards of the community's education budget in balancing the potential value of charter schools against the needs of traditional public school students," the report states.
Assembly Bill 1508, part of a new legislative package backed by the California Teachers Association, would allow agencies to consider the facilities, fiscal and academic impacts on districts in granting charters. Other proposed bills aimed at supporting neighborhood public schools would set a cap on charter-school growth, remove the right to appeal if a charter's application is denied and ensure local governing boards have control over all decisions related to charter schools' authorizations and renewals.
The California Charter Schools Association opposes these bills.
"These new proposals are seeking to really target and diminish California's public charter schools," said Beth Thompson of Kipp. "I don't think it's moving the California education system in the right direction."
Kipp, for its part, serves almost 6,000 students throughout the Bay Area and plans to "nearly double our impact over the coming years," the organization's 2018 annual report states.
The state's current charter-school law is sufficiently "robust," Thompson said, and does not need to take into account charters' financial consequences for districts. She did not deny the financial impact charter schools have on district schools.
"Anytime a student leaves a public school system — whether it be a district or a charter — there is a financial impact because our state funding system is structured such that the funding follows the child," she said. "In terms of the fiscal impact, ultimately families are deciding where to enroll their kids in a community with public-school options."
Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a Seattle research and policy analysis organization, has publicly criticized In the Public Interest's report as misleading and inaccurate. Its hypothetical budget alternatives ignored broader enrollment trends and overlooked structural and management problems that are districts' own doing, she wrote in an opinion piece after the report's release.
In an interview with the Weekly, Lake said that charters "have been unfairly burdened with the heft or the majority of the cause for financial pain" in districts. Other significant pressures — rising pension, health care and special-education costs and in some cases mismanagement — are at the core of districts' financial struggles and are the responsibility of school boards to address, she said.
"The performance of the schools ... really should drive whether a charter application is approved or not. Why would you want to say 'no' to an opportunity for a public-school student?" Lake said.
University of Oregon professor and political economist Gordon Lafer, who authored the In the Public Interest report, defended their findings last year.
"The exact costs imposed by charter schools — and the services that should be cut to make up for this — is something over which reasonable people can differ," he wrote in a post on Medium. "What no one can reasonably do is pretend the cost is zero, or to suggest that elected officials should be prohibited from accounting for such costs in figuring out how to make scarce education dollars serve their community as a whole."
The fight over facilities
Despite the rapid rise of the charter-school movement, a 2018 Center on Reinventing Public Education report suggests that charter growth in the Bay Area is slowing down due to scarce facilities, rising costs and political opposition. The 2016-17 school year was the first time in at least a decade when more charters closed than opened in the Bay Area, according to the report, which Lake co-authored.
In interviews with CPRE researchers, charter operators identified a lack of facilities as their top concern.
"Facilities are the heart of the issue for charter schools growth," Lake said. "I don't think anyone wants public school students to attend school in a subpar facility, and that's what a lot of charters are driven to if they can't find adequate space."
State Proposition 39 requires districts to make "reasonably equivalent" facilities available to charter schools to ensure all public school students have equal access, but many charters are offered a patchwork of small spaces through one-year lease agreements that are re-negotiated every year, as is the case with Kipp and Ravenswood.
Few districts have long-term leases with charters, according to the CPRE report.
The Ravenswood school district has both long- and short-term facilities agreements with charters. Kipp and the district return to the table annually to negotiate one-year agreements. Kipp is currently housed in 18 rooms at the contiguous Brentwood Academy and Los Robles/Ronald McNair Academy schools. In response to the charter's request for next year to be housed long-term in a single campus, district leadership initially said an entire school would likely have to close to make room for Kipp. Board trustees pushed back against displacing a neighborhood school, and staff are now pursuing, at Kipp's suggestion, how to make additional space available at the charter's current location for this fall. Come next year, the district will face the same dilemma as Kipp continues to grow, with a maximum total enrollment of 610 students expected by 2021. Fitch has urged staff to start evaluating the district's long-term options with Kipp immediately and to engage the community in those options — to delay the inevitable would be "messy and irresponsible," she told the Weekly.
Though the district is responsible for providing facilities and oversight of its charters, Ravenswood receives some funds to cover those costs. In California, district authorizers are allowed to charge 1 percent of a charter's state revenue for oversight costs. Districts can also charge a pro-rata share of the facilities costs, based on the ratio of space allocated to the charter school divided by the total space of the district.
Kipp currently pays the district 3 percent of the charter's total state revenue: a 1-percent oversight fee and 2-percent facility fee. That totaled $64,651 last year, and the school expects to pay about $120,000 at the end of this year as its enrollment and state funding has increased.
Ravenswood and the K-5 East Palo Alto Charter School, by contrast, have a five-year facilities agreement for 1286 Runnymede St. The district and the school are now re-negotiating the 2014 lease, according to Danny Shapiro, marketing and communications manager for Aspire. The charter school does not plan to request additional space and wants to stay there long-term, Shapiro said. (Aspire does not have a facility agreement with the district for its secondary East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy because it owns the campus at 1039 Garden St.)
Aspire also pays fees to Ravenswood but did not provide the amount by press deadline.
Across California, there are examples of school boards fighting back against charters' Proposition 39 requests, often prompting lawsuits from the charters and protracted, public battles. The Center on Reinventing Public Education study describes how "increasingly serious and organized resistance from districts and teachers unions" is "playing out most pointedly and painfully in facilities fights."
Thompson said Kipp has never taken legal action in the context of a Proposition 39 request. However, Crawford of In the Public Interest said that districts are often at a disadvantage when negotiating with large charter management organizations like Kipp and fear being sued.
"I want to fight but also know there's a risk," Ravenswood Board President Tamara Sobomehin said at a February community meeting in response to the prospect of closing a district school to accommodate Kipp's expansion request. "Do we go to court?"
In an email responding to a request for comment for this story, Sobomehin took a more balanced position.
"I believe there is a way for public, charter and private schools to work together to create exciting and specialized options for students. The tricky part is understanding where the right balance exists," she wrote. "If we focus resources and invest in solutions that build community and work for all students — not just those that create separate, solitary options — I believe we will be successful."
The Center on Reinventing Public Education report makes a series of policy recommendations regarding facilities, including revising Proposition 39 to allow a third-party arbiter to handle facilities disputes between districts and charters. This person could "force some of those hard decisions about reconsolidating a couple of schools or more timely access," Lake said.
The report also proposes the state provide grants for facilities or academic improvements to incentivize districts to consolidate or close under-enrolled schools; require that districts that "fail to reduce costs responsibly get out of the property-ownership business" by having the state take over, placing buildings into a third-party trust or establishing a cooperative to which charters have equal rights; and negotiate "grand bargains" through which the state could grant funds or regulatory relief to districts that want to partner with charter schools.
This would allow a district "to get on firm financial and academic footing to better compete with charters if the district can show it has a great plan and is responsibly reducing costs," Lake said. "Charters might agree to slow their growth temporarily, serve more students with special needs or contribute to the district's debt relief in exchange for better access to local school buildings or more state funding."
Controversially, Lake has suggested state oversight for districts that fail to adapt to declining enrollment and funding.
"Districts that don't rethink their policies and spending priorities accelerate their own declines—and it is kids who suffer most," she wrote in an opinion piece in response to a study that found charters in North Carolina have a "consequential" fiscal impact on neighborhood public schools.
At the root of the charter movement is a grassroots spirit of experimentation that in principle — more so than reality — is meant to encourage innovation in public education as a whole, Lake said.
"My grounding principle is do what's best for the public-school students in your community. If quality is a problem in the charter space or in the district space, attend to it, but don't stop high-quality schools for the sake of protecting what really is an artificial institutional designation," Lake said.
"When I talk to families who are desperate for options, that's their lens. They really don't care what the label is."
There are examples of districts and charters across the country working together successfully on behalf of students, Lake said. She pointed to the Innovation Network Schools in Indianapolis, where new state laws allowed districts to create autonomous schools with their own 501(c)(3) board — whether by converting existing schools, restarting failing ones or opening new ones — a hybrid between a traditional and charter school. The schools receive state funding and the districts are still accountable for student academic performance, but administrators and teachers have more freedom than in traditional schools.
Fitch expressed enthusiasm for a similar idea — districts and charters working together to create alternative programs within neighborhood public schools.
"There's definitely a need for that in any and every community to have some sort of alternative thing that's smaller, a different style for those kids who need it," she said. "But I don't think (a district) should be all charter schools."
Fitch sees her own employer as an example of the potential for collaboration between charters and traditional districts. As an English-curriculum manager for Summit Public Schools' personalized learning platform, which has spun off into its own nonprofit, she said she actually works more with public schools that want to use the software than with charters.
"I feel like they're doing what many charter schools set out to do: experiment, find something that works really well and then apply it to public schools," Fitch said.
Ravenswood, for its part, can take steps to retain students through more transparent communication, strong leadership, fiscal stewardship, investment in teachers and being responsive to parents, Fitch said.
"If we can find ways to meet those needs within the district, the need for outside charters to come in just won't be there," she said.
Thompson, for her part, answers difficult questions about the growing polarization between charters and traditional schools with optimism. She hopes that Kipp and Ravenswood, and charters and school districts across the state, can push past the divisive rhetoric to work together to address critical issues that affect all public-school students.
"There are real, systemic funding inequities and challenges that are disproportionately impacting urban school districts and communities of color that are making everyone feel squeezed," she said. "How do we not turn on each other and really instead turn to parents, community members, districts and high-performing charters and think about how we could amplify our voices together?"