Charter Schools Could Revolutionize California Public Education

There is a Choice Revolution going on in public education today. Charter schools are at the heart of the increasing number of educational options available to parents—and public-school choice is generally a good outcome of the charter movement.

The federal program Race to the Top, which makes $4.35 billion available to states, requires that they lift caps which now limit the number of new charter schools. Locally, we are likely to see a huge growth in the number of charter schools without the 100-per-year cap imposed by the state of California.

School districts must be prudent when making these decisions in these lean economic times or face increased turmoil and potential peril. The current fiscal crisis in California is placing systemic stresses on an already tenuous system of public schools. We are getting closer in some regions to the proverbial tipping point. Is Alum Rock one of those regions? (See Monday’s Mercury-News editorial “Competition is Working in Alum Rock.”)

By creating two parallel systems of public education—charter schools and traditional public schools—we could be creating unsustainable competition for limited dollars. Competition can work when the rules the two entities play by are the same. However, the rules for traditional public and charter schools are vastly different. I think the rules should be equal.

Under the 1975 Educational Employment Relations Act, all traditional public schools guarantee their employees the right to bargain with a school district. All traditional public school teachers in Silicon Valley work under a collective bargaining agreement. Thus far, no Charter public school teachers in Santa Clara County have unionized, although the employees have the option. It is not likely that traditional public school teachers would give up the option to collective bargaining.

The voluminous education code must be adhered to in its entirety by public schools, but charter schools get a lessened burden, with far fewer of the restrictive government codes—particularly when it comes to expenditures of funds.  Charter schools can require teachers to work a longer school day with their students; traditional public school teachers’ work under a collective bargaining agreement that dictates their hours of employment. 

Many charter schools are paying teachers for merit and performance, while traditional public schools in Silicon Valley are still using the antiquated model based on experience and the grad-school units (“step” and “column”) to determine pay increases—metrics totally unrelated to performance. Nothing precludes traditional public school districts from paying teachers based on performance metrics, but there must be a meeting of the minds at the collective bargaining table.

Another grave concern has to do with our Founding Father’s precept of the separation of church and state. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests charter schools are a legitimate means to get public state funding for “religious-lite” schools. Washington D. C. is a case in point. Several financially strapped D. C. Catholic schools have converted to charters to avoid closing due to the economic downturn and declining enrollment. Even though these charters must be open to all children, enrollment largely consists of the former Catholic-school students.

There was some talk locally to get an authorizer to approve a charter school in the Five Wounds area of San Jose, due to that school’s closure this past year. This phenomenon should be worrisome to all of us. It shakes the bedrock of the foundation of our public school system.

There are some other issues to be concerned about when trying to assess the overall effectiveness of charters to increase competition and raise student achievement. One of these ancillary issues is whether or not charter schools underserve students with special needs. Some studies suggest that they do.

Needless to say, there are a myriad of issues to assess when trying to sort out whether competition is working to bring about the needed changes in public education. Pres. Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are waging billions of dollars on the successes of charters to create the competition to significantly reduce the number of perpetually low-performing schools and increase achievement for all. Certainly a laudable goal.

I am delighted to be part of a planning group at the Santa Clara County Office of Education that has been working for the last six months in planning a summit and a conversation about how in this environment of increasing school choices for parents we can make certain all our children benefit.

On Saturday, Jan. 30, the Santa Clara County Office of Education and the Board of Education will host an event called “Charter School Summit: Communicate-Collaborate-Coexist.” Ruslynn H. Ali, Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights, Jack O’Connell, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Glen W. Thomas, State Secretary of Education and Carol Barkley, Director   of the California Charter Schools Division, will headline the community conversation.

The two Summit outcomes we anticipate are to illuminate and reduce tensions between charter schools and districts, and to increase the collaboration among school districts, the County Office of Education, and charter schools to meet the needs of children within Santa Clara County.

The readers to this blog are welcome to register for the “Summit” by going to the Santa Clara County Office of Education home page and registering at the Charter School Summit link.

Hope to see you at the Summit.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. Some program closed in the Five Wounds Area?  You mean that Dayana and company did not increase services in their fiefdom?  How can this be?

    One question, Sir Joseph and your acolytes, charter schools are a testament to how large school districts fail.  I am sure you will be pushing vouchers for your own DiSalvo Academies.

  2. It is absurd to justify charter schools.

    Of course we should have charter schools, and a whole lot more.

    What is UNJUSTIFIABLE are government operated schools, and particularly the de facto government monopoly of primary and secondary schools.

    Americans have decided that UNIVERSAL education is in the public interest.  Universal education is NOT the same as PUBLIC SCHOOLS.  Universal education can be accomplished without the government operating any schools.

    A government operated monopoly of primary and secondary schools is every bit as obnoxious and anti-democratic as a government monopoly of newspapers, broadcast media, and the internet.

    • “Universal education can be accomplished without the government operating any schools.”

      OK Doof,

      How would you go about transitioning public schools towards privatization while insuring you don’t exclude portions of the population from receiving the best education possible?


      Elementary and Secondary Education

      In fall 2009, a record of nearly 49.8 million students will attend public elementary and secondary schools. Of these, almost 35.0 million will be in prekindergarten through 8th grade and 14.8 million in grades 9 through 12 (source). An additional 5.8 million students are expected to attend private schools this fall.

      Public school systems will employ about 3.3 million teachers this fall, resulting in a pupil/teacher ratio of 15.2, which is lower than in 1999, when the ratio was 16.1. Approximately 0.5 million teachers will be working in private schools this fall, where the pupil/teacher ratio is estimated at 12.8 (source).

      Approximately 1,085,000 children are expected to attend public prekindergarten this fall. Enrollment in kindergarten, at approximately 3,790,000, is also projected to be an all-time high (source).

      About 4.2 million public school students are expected to enroll in 9th grade, a typical entry grade for many high schools (source).

      Current expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools will be about $543 billion for the 2009−10 school year. The national average current expenditure per student is projected at $10,844, up from $9,683 in actual expenditures in 2006−07 (source and source).

      About 3,327,000 students are expected to graduate from high school in 2009–10, including 3,005,000 from public high schools and 321,000 from private high schools (source).

      • > OK Doof,

        > How would you go about transitioning public schools towards privatization while insuring you don’t exclude portions of the population from receiving the best education possible?

        And why would private schools have the reponsibility of not excluding “portions of the population from receiving the best education possible”?

        The current public education system does not provide “the best educaton possible” for the overwhelming majority of the population.

        Or, are you going to be so foolish as to argue that it does?

  3. Thanks Joseph for your great discussion of the pros and cons of charter schools.  Charter schools can serve as a valuable compliment to the traditional public school system, but may not be a panacea.  What the success of some of the schools shows is that if schools are able to operate under fewer restrictions, they can do better by their students.  So in addition to talking about charter schools, we need to talk about revamping the ed code so that public schools can try some of the same things charter schools are doing.

    I suspect one reason some charters outperform the neighboring public schools is self-selection of students.  It is clear that student performance is largely influenced by family involvement and interest in their children’s education.  Those who place their children in charter schools are by definition more involved.  Their children are therefore more likely to perform better in school.  Those who leave for charter schools leave behind those without a support system and cause further stratification in school performance.

    • I’m not too worried about a church/state conflict.  The key points are that the curriculum be unbiased and there not be required religious instruction.

      So long as those two tenets are observed, let’s focus on whether the children are learning to read, write, and do math.  If the kids are learning, smile and say “Thank you.”

      This isn’t a “religious-lite” school.  It’s a church stepping in to fill a need.  I’m not Catholic, but I’m not going to blame the Catholic church for doing a good job educating inner city kids.  Good for them, and may more of us follow their example.

  4. For some folks, every day is a bad hair day.

    On another note, we can’t let the kiddies escape to charter schools.  Who would be around to appreciate and celebrate the newly legislated Harvey Milk Day in May?

    P.S. this is absolutely true – the key word for this post was “behind.”

  5. I wish that anyone with an opinion of charter schools would first visit or at least Google some of the standouts that actively pursue the very most challenging students to apply for their lottery selection. KIPP, Yes Prep, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools (take one real look at one of those four), I can’t imagine anyone can dare say that these children would be as well off having gone to their traditional school, nor make a compelling argument that the additional philanthropic funds they attract would have been attracted by traditional schools.

    • Thank you for listing those schools. 
      I did look up Uncommon Schools and saw that it was out of state—in New York. 
      I looked up the math standards for New York and compared them to California.  New York’s expectations for their students are a bit different than California. 
      A Kindergarten student in CA is expected to count, recognize, name and order objects to 30 (CA standard K NS1.1.2), but in New York they just have to get to 10 (NY standard K.N.9). Kindergarten students in CA are expected to learn the days of the week, but NY expects 1st graders to learn them.  In California a 2nd grader is expected to understand numbers to a thousand (CA 2 NS 1.0), but in New York they only have to go to 100.  In New York 3rd graders need to go up to 1000, and in CA the 3rd grade is expected to understand up to 10,000. 

      I looked up other grade levels and found the same pattern.

      I’m getting the impression that if CA students took the NY test, our kids would look really good in comparison. 

      Please realize that not all states have the same expectations for their students as other states.  California has high expectations for its students.  Comparing the performance of another school in another state with different standards is unfair to all.
      Sources: New York California