California charter schools have gotten more than $2.5 billion to build, lease, or buy school buildings over the past 15 years. Has the money been well spent? Not if by “well spent” you mean fulfilling needs for additional classroom space or providing improved educational opportunities, according to a recent report from In the Public Interest.
When it comes time to decide where a new school can be built, charter schools get the advantage of a double standard over public schools:
For public school districts, the California Department of Education compares existing classroom space with the student population projected over the next five years; if a district already has enough space for its projected student body, it is ineligible to receive state bond funds to build a new school. But no such requirement applies to charter schools. As a result, nearly 450 charter schools have opened in places that already had enough classroom space for all students—and this overproduction of schools was made possible by generous public support, including $111 million in rent, lease, or mortgage payments picked up by taxpayers, $135 million in general obligation bonds, and $425 million in private investments subsidized with tax credits or tax exemptions.
And that’s not improving the quality of education in those areas:
For three-quarters of California charter schools, the quality of education on offer—based on state and charter industry standards—is worse than that of a nearby traditional public school that serves a demographically similar population. Taxpayers have provided these schools with an estimated three-quarters of a billion dollars in direct funding and an additional $1.1 billion in taxpayer-subsidized financing.
Not only that, “the data suggest that at least 30% of charter schools fail both tests—they were opened in places that had no need for additional seats, and they failed to provide an education that was superior to that offered in nearby public schools.” And that’s what the report’s author found with limited data—the true numbers are likely higher.
But wait! There’s more:
Since 2009, the 253 schools found by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California to maintain discriminatory enrollment policies have been awarded a collective $75 million under the SB740 program, $120 million in general obligation bonds, and $150 million in conduit bond financing.
In short, no one in California seems to be asking any serious questions about whether building new charter schools makes sense—even if you could detach those decisions from the impact on public schools of education funding being funneled to privatized charter schools. And you can’t detach that, so California’s failure to plan is doubly bad for students and for the education system as a whole.