Rhetoric vs. Reality: The Charter School Debate Continues

The following op-ed was submitted by the presidents of seven local teacher associations. —Editor

It is rare these days for educators to be in agreement with Santa Clara County School Board Trustee Joseph Di Salvo, but the opening sentence of his March 17 column does speak the truth.

"It is an outrage that Silicon Valley education leaders continue to choose battle ground over common ground," he wrote.

What Mr. Di Salvo fails to acknowledge, however, is he is one of those leaders at the root of the problem. It is his inflammatory rhetoric, misguided leadership and pro corporate charter school stance that set the stage for the current battle and continues to create a myriad of problems for local school districts and the children they serve.

As his column continues, it becomes clear his ideological position is interfering with his grasp of the current educational reality.

"Despite extraordinary innovation that occurs everyday in our region, our education leaders too often choose to protect the status quo. In the 21st Century, mid-way through its second decade and with huge demographic shifts, taking the traditional path will lead to a calamitous future," he wrote.

Where exactly has Mr. DiSalvo been during the last few years? Here's just a short list of the amazing innovation taking place in our neighborhood public schools: the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), Common Core implementation, STEAM schools, Smarter Balance testing, Project-Based Learning, the Eastside Alliance, and Professional Learning Communities. Clearly there's so much more to educating every child than rubber-stamping the latest corporate charter school application.

Speaking of children:

"Charters are public schools funded solely by our public dollars,” Di Salvo asserts. “Should we not all demand high-level collaboration with our money on behalf of all children?"

Truth be told, there are two definitions of the word collaborate. First, to work jointly on an activity, especially to produce or create something. Second, to cooperate traitorously with the enemy. While giving lip service to the former, Mr. DiSalvo's actions speak louder than words. Especially since public dollars are involved, should we not demand high levels of transparency of charter schools especially in terms of financial accountability and student equity?

Mr. DiSalvo ends the article by staking out his position very clearly:

"As long as I hold this seat on the county Board of Education, I will strongly and loudly advocate for common ground over battle ground. The open warfare on publicly funded charters hinders the achievements of our children."

He certainly has been a strong and loud advocate for corporate charter schools like Rocketship, usually in direct opposition to the well-documented and logical concerns of local districts. His support of the open warfare on our neighborhood schools has hindered their ability to improve achievement for all children by decreasing funding. At the same time, those local tax dollars are being funneled as profit to corporate headquarters, often to be sent across county and state lines to fund unregulated expansion.

It is no surprise that Di Salvo would take time to bash the hard-working educators of this county, yet again. If Di Salvo would like to continue to indulge in graceless hyperbole and support charter after charter—sometimes in violation of California law and frequently in violation of good sense—that is his prerogative.

However, if Di Salvo is going to embark on a new tirade decrying districts forced to host charter schools for charging rents to these charter schools, that's inexcusable. District taxpayers pay for district located facilities housing charters that often don't educate district students. Those taxpayers have a right to demand fair market value to ensure the upkeep of that property and the district has a fiduciary and ethical responsibility to ensure this happens. There is no excuse.

There are many who now watch the actions of the Santa Clara County School Board very closely and wonder when trustees will demonstrate united support for local school districts. We look forward to November 2016, when several seats on the county board are up for consideration, including the one currently occupied by Mr. Di Salvo.


Jocelyn Merz — President, Alum Rock Educators Association

Heather Mumy — President, Sunnyvale Education Association

Fadi Saba — President, Luther Burbank Education Association

Scott Shulimson — President, Franklin McKinley Education Association

Jennifer Thomas — President, San Jose Teachers Association

Brian Wheatley — President, Evergreen Teachers Association

Michael P. Hickey — President, United Teachers of Santa Clara


  1. It is disheartening to me but does not surprise me that Mr. Di Salvo and the signatories–apparently presidents–representing seven local “teacher associations” all lack a command of the English language.

    Mr. Di Salvo should know that the word is battleground, although one municipality in Washington state is called Battle Ground.

    Meanwhile, the presidents of the seven local teacher associations suggest Mr. Di Salvo’s “rhetoric, misguided leadership and pro corporate charter school stance set the stage for the current battle and continues to create a myriad of problems…”

    Ladies and gentlemen, the article “a” and the preposition “of” should not come before and after myriad.

    My little sister is at the vanguard of higher education and instructs other college professors how to teach remedial English to college students, and myriad reasons exist as to why so many high school graduates matriculate to colleges and universities with a poor command of their mother tongue or adopted tongue.

    As the war of words wages between Mr. Di Salvo and the “teacher association” presidents, I count their students as collateral damage. The very people charged with shepherding students through school and preparing them for college need some spelling and grammar lessons themselves.


    Michael Patrick O’Connor

    • I agree with Ms. Grey’s posting. It’s tendentious to write “the article ‘a’ and the preposition ‘of’ should not come before and after myriad[sic]” when all you mean to claim is “the word ‘myriad’ is not a noun.” I’ve used the Random House unabridged dictionary for more than forty years and one of its definitions of the noun is “ten thousand”, which to the Greeks meant the number of sheep on a hillside or the number of stars visible to the naked eye — to them, a virtually infinite number.

      But since you drew attention to that particular sentence, I agree that it’s ungrammatical. It applies the plural verb “set” and the singular verb “continues” to the conjoined subject “rhetoric, misguided leadership and pro corporate[sic] charter school stance”.

  2. According to Merriam-Webster:

    “Recent criticism of the use of myriad as a noun, both in the plural form myriads and in the phrase a myriad of, seems to reflect a mistaken belief that the word was originally and is still properly only an adjective. As the entries here show, however, the noun is in fact the older form, dating to the 16th century. The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it.”

  3. Ms. Grey:

    You are not very erudite, as the examples you cite are not applicable to the context in which the “teacher association” presidents used the word myriad.

    Philistines like you sure know how to Google though.

    You also prove that an accumulation of facts is a trivial pursuit unless it can be put into thought. I encourage you to use your brain and not the Web.

    Read a book. Cogitate. Maybe you’ll actually learn something!


    Michael Patrick O’Connor

  4. Mr. O’Connor seems to need to hunt for small grammatical arguments so as to avoid the actual issue at hand. Thank you to our union presidents for a clear presentation of the issue.

  5. Ms. Swencionis:

    I did not have to hunt for the grammatical and spelling errors; they were too obvious.

    As a result, I offer you this rejoinder:

    You do not have to be a member of Mensa to join a union!

    What is also obvious and sad and the issue at hand: the blind are leading the lame in our broken public education system.

  6. I am uncomfortable with the title, “Rhetoric v. Reality”. Actually, it is mainly the “v” that is getting on my nerves.

    The use of rhetoric in an argument is not inconsistent with reality. In fact, most of us use rhetorical devices to support our points and yet may criticize the use of those same devices by those holding an opposing view on an issue. And as long as we continue to frame this particular conversation as a debate over charter schools versus traditional public schools, or as rhetoric versus reality, students will lose.

    There are intelligent, intellectually honest advocates of both charter public schools and traditional public schools. Leaders for both models want to better serve students and to help more of them prepare for college and 21st century careers. The problem arises when those advocates deny the viability or particular value of the alternative model.

    I don’t think anyone can seriously claim that traditional public education is fully achieving its mission of providing a high quality education for every single student. Public schools open their doors to every single child, regardless of language skills, intellectual aptitude or social, emotional, and/or economic challenge. They do not target specific populations and are expected to teach to an extremely broad range of learners. An unfortunate and unacceptable by product of this system is that a clearly definable demographic of students consistently has been left behind in this system: students who are most often English language learners (and specifically of Latino heritage), of very low socio economic status and are often engaged with the foster care system. One might also make the case that students with special needs have not been as well served by our traditional public schools as many of our parents expect.

    Traditional public school educators are aware of this opportunity/achievement gap and are working to lessen it, within the confines and limitations of the tremendous, historically slow moving and regulation burdened public education system. There are flaws in this system that appear to inhibit major innovation and restructuring, but in spite of those flaws, traditional public schools are evolving and working to meet the needs of more learners.

    The rise of nonprofit charter schools that target the demographic described above has been a direct response to the limited progress of those students in traditional public schools. High quality charter schools are making inroads with student populations that have been failed by the traditional system. They also have limitations and are unlikely to unfold as viable alternatives to the traditional public schools in their entirety.

    The traditional public school system needs more partners for success, not fewer. When school districts approve charter schools, they assume the obligation to monitor the charters’ progress and have the option not to renew the charters if the schools are not performing as promised. School districts also need partnerships with social service providers, local government, extra curricular learning and enrichment options, mental and physical health providers, businesses and philanthropic foundations.

    I am not adopting a middle of the road position to avoid controversy. I am affirmatively advocating for partnerships and productive exchange between proponents of both educational models, as well as with anyone else who wants to join the conversation with a bold, innovative idea that can help us do a better job by our children. A starting point would be for charter and traditional leaders to come together to advocate on behalf of two major policy issues: 1) the expansion of access to very early childhood education and 2) the reduction of poverty in our community. If young mothers and fathers are exposed to and immersed in models of successful parenting, if parents are employed in meaningful work that allows them to be self sustaining, if families have regular access to sufficient and nutritious food, safe and secure housing, and preventative and palliative health care, we will be able to make far greater strides in closing the shameful achievement gap than either school model will do on its own.

  7. Education is intended to broaden our students’ worldview, prepare them for college and/or career success and expand opportunities to achieve their personal goals and dreams. Charter public schools in Santa Clara County accomplish all of these objectives, as free public schools of choice serving all students. The 61 charter public schools educating more than 29,000 students in the County have one agenda – to offer innovative educational options for students and their families.

    The success of students attending charter public schools is undeniable. Last month, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), the nation’s foremost independent analyst of charter public school effectiveness, released a comprehensive Urban Charter Schools Report, http://urbancharters.stanford.edu/index.php, and offers unprecedented insight into the effectiveness of charter public schools.

    The more than 4,830 kids on waiting lists in Santa Clara County alone, with an estimated 91,000 on waiting lists for charter schools across the state, is a powerful testament to the demand for the options, flexibility and innovation that charters offers to students, and in particular to students who need it the most.

    Charters are not corporations they are public schools. Public school students whose families chose charter schools are entitled to the same public dollars as students who attend traditional public schools. In California, the overwhelming majority of charter schools are organized as non-profit organizations and are held to state and federal laws governing nonprofits.

    Charter students not only deserve great school facilities but the law says they should have access to them. Prop. 39, a law passed by California’s voters in 2000, is intended to ensure “that public school facilities be shared fairly among all public school pupils, including those in charter schools.”

    It is time to stop misleading the public. Charter schools are public schools. They serve all kids. They employ talented and dedicated teachers and staff. Independent research indicates they serve students, particularly those traditionally underserved, extremely well. As public school students, children attending charters should be able to access similar funding and facilities as their traditional public school peers. And clearly the wait lists in Santa Clara County and across the state demonstrate parents want more of them for their children.

    Danyela Egorov, Regional Director, Santa Clara County
    California Charter Schools Association

    • Danyela,
      I’m a little confused by the statement that “Charters are not corporations they are public schools.” Maybe you can help clear this up.

      In 2013, the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) filed an Amicus Brief in defense of Eugene Selivanov, who was sentenced to 4 years in jail for embezzling public funds through the charter school he and his wife founded (Ivy Academia Charter Schools). In that Amicus Brief, CCSA representing attorney Paul Minney argued that Selivanov committed no crime by “embezzling school funds, laundering the money and filing a false tax return” (from KPCC http://www.scpr.org/blogs/education/2013/12/16/15414/charter-school-operators-ordered-to-pay-300k-in-re/). Here are a few of the points in the Amicus Brief:

      1) “Charter schools are ‘private’ entities and not a public entity”

      2) Charters are “are private entities under contract with local school districts and are not the state, nor a county, nor a city, nor a town, nor a district, nor any other ‘public agency’ of the state. Moreover, if the money held by the nonprofit operator was ‘public money’ it could not be gifted over to any private party upon the closure of the charter schools—but as demonstrated above the nonprofit operator of the charter school is required to resolve all liabilities of the school it operates as well as retain the right to distribute net assets upon dissolution to another private entity. Consequently, ‘public moneys’ were not involved in the actions of the defendants as defined in Penal Code §426.”

      3) “There was No Crime Here; Defendant’s Conduct Did Not Constitute Misappropriation of Public Funds under Penal Code”

      (you can read the full brief at: http://laschoolreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/13-09-30-CCSA-Amicus-brief-Final.pdf)

      Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus responded to the CCSA brief by saying (also from KPCC):
      “This case has to make the public wonder, are these new charter schools just a means to defraud the public tax payer?” Marcus asked. “Again, I don’t think this is the case. But to defend Selivanov and Berkovich simply because they run a charter school is not appropriate.”

      So I’m very confused. Two years ago the CCSA argued in court that charters schools are “private entities” and they are in no way a “public agency”. But in the comment above, you’re arguing that charters are public schools.

      Does that mean they are public schools sometimes, and private entities other times? Are they private only when they are in court convicted of corruption, but then public when not facing corruption charges?

      This is more than just semantics or rhetoric. There’s large sums of public tax dollars at stake here (I think we can agree that the money is public, even if the schools are not). For example, Rocketship school facilities are owned by Launchpad Inc. It’s a private corporation with no contact info, no website, no public board members, they don’t respond to public records requests, and they currently control $51 million in publicly financed real estate and received $5.5 million dollars in tax payer revenue in 2013 (according to tax returns). We Santa Clara County taxpayers pay a hefty 20% facility fee through Rocketship to Launchpad that will eventually fund all those properties. But who owns them at the end of the term? If Rocketship were really a “public school”, then the public would own them. If a Rocketship closed, the facility would be liquidated into the public coffers. But that’s not the case. Even Rocketship doesn’t own them. They are owned by a secondary or tertiary firm, either Launchpad, or in some cases Andre Agassi (yes, the tennis star). Agassi’s for-profit charter real estate firm, Turner-Agassi has a billion dollar for-profit hedge fund to build charters, including Rocketship Spark Academy in Franklin-McKinley. Check out the terms on the lease agreement:

      The Turner Agassi deal terms are contractually required to be confidential (i.e., not public, but publicly funded), but even more worrisome is the buyback provision. Charters may opt “to purchase the Facility from Landlord during the period beginning 36 months and ending 53 months after the Commencement Date”. If the newly formed charter doesn’t have cash to buy the facility within the first 5 years, then after it’s payed for, it’s owned by Andre Agassi. Rocketship board documents suggest that they have an MOU with Andre Agassi’s firm, but, as to my knowledge, it’s not public.

      Charter schools do not have publicly elected school boards. If you look at “public” school board websites, you’ll find each board member has a phone number and email listed (for example, SJUSD: http://www.sjusd.org/community/board-of-education/). Charters, on the other hand, don’t list their board members contact info, i.e. they aren’t public (for example: http://www.rsed.org/meet-us.cfm). In fact, Reed Hastings told the CCSA national conference last year that that charters were “getting better because they have stable governance — they don’t have an elected school board. And that’s a real tough issue. Now if we go to the general public and we say, ‘Here’s an argument why you should get rid of school boards’ of course no one’s going to go for that.” That got thunderous applause from the thousands of CCSA members present. To me, that doesn’t sound like an argument in favor of charter schools as “public schools”.

      So perhaps you can clarify what you mean when you argue that charters are “public” schools. I wonder if it would be more transparent to call them “private corporations” that receive “public funds” to provide free education to children.

  8. In the end, what are the teachers’ unions afraid of? That’s what those associations represent. They negotiate over salary and working conditions for their members, which is hidden by the use of “association” as a name. However you slice it, a charter school is competition. No one forces any student to attend one, not in California. The flight of the students away from the monolithic single choice public establishment is an effort to find an individualized improvement. No one can seriously argue with that, unless the concern is for job security on the part of the entrenched teacher unions.

    • “Competition” isn’t the right concept here. Public schools and charter schools are not competing on a level field, and that consideration is often lost as soon as the focus turns to “unions.” Let’s take the teachers out of it, let’s forget about unions, and let’s just look at the reality: corporate charter schools are private entities, and, for the most part, can make their own rules, including which students they accept. Public schools must accept all comers, and the limited funding available increases the challenge of teaching students at very different levels of educational readiness.

      Susan Ellenberg made a good point, that there are two sides to this discussion. I, personally, am against charter schools. I do not believe my tax dollars should go to privately-operated schools that reduce the funding available to help improve the public school system. For me, it’s that simple – charter schools reduce the incentive to improve public schools. For someone else, maybe the conclusion is different. That doesn’t change the fact that we may both have arrived at differing conclusions through honest consideration – and nor does it change the fact that the field is not level, and this is not “competition.”

  9. Emilie–you are misinformed. Charter schools CANNOT “make their own rules” about which students they will accept. While some geographic preferences may be permitted (meaning students living in a certain school district may be given priority for a charter in that district), charters must follow an open and transparent process for enrolling students. Charter schools that receive more applications than places available hold an enrollment lottery that is open to the public. It is a process that is more transparent than admission to many district magnet or special programs.

    At least in California, the enrollment process a charter uses must be included in it’s charter application, and it is the responsibility of the authorizer to ensure that the process described in the charter is followed. If a charter wishes to make changes to its enrollment process, it must get approval from its authorizer for a charter revision.

    It’s fine to disagree about the relative merits of charters, but let’s be sure the debate stays true to the facts.

    • The lottery process might very well be transparent but …..aren’t charter schools defining (making) their own lottery rules: “founders” preference, geographic preference within a district, employee preferences, sibling preferences, information requested to enter the lottery, applications available in languages other than english ………?

  10. All rhetoric aside, charter schools say they are public, yet are run by corporate values and founders. They are a log-rolling scam, with “friends” selling software to charters, so everyone benefits except poorly-paid teachers. Also, they segregate the population by opening in only “poor districts”. Where is there a charter school in Saratoga? I get many charter school “rejects” back in my class after they fail to test well, or parents cannot keep their commitment.

    • > I get many charter school “rejects” back in my class . . .

      What a coincidence! Charter schools get many public school rejects. The universe remains in balance.

      That being said, in one respect, charter schools really are a scam. They are the last gasp attempt of the public education establishment to keep their greedy fingers on tax dollars that parents no longer want to send to the public schools and the teachers unions.

      Charters schools really are “public schools” with just a cosmetic layer of “independent” community “front men” to make the control and interference of politicians a bit more indirect and a little less obvious.

      Charter schools are just an unpleasant concession that the public education czars were FORCED to make in order to fight off a full voucher system.

      • Amen!
        Charter Schools are ran privately, however they do not charge tuition. Parents who send their children to charters pay taxes and choose who gets paid to educate their children. When a Charter School is a well run school there is a waiting list, if not then it will close down eventually. If public schools are ran poorly, oh well lets wait for a new superintendent, perhaps he will bring in changes that will make it better. Perhaps he will create a new fiasco like Ipad program or Mices which still fails to work. Any one want to talk accountability, lets start with public schools and our tax dollars.

  11. Rita Swencionis, these Teacher Union presidents show clear rhetoric, not a clear presentation of the issue.

  12. P.S. Supporter,
    I’d love to know what school district you are part of so I can research how one gets into its various programs.

    My local Bay Area school district gives special consideration to children of teachers and staff — so how is a Charter school so different??

    My local Bay Area school district gives priority to siblings in its magnet programs and impacted traditional schools — so how are charter schools so different?

    My local Bay Area school district gives priority to a geographic preference (i.e., special boundaries within the district) for the 2 best API scoring schools of 8 (940 vs. the lowest of 720). I live in the boundary of the 720 school and I’m not allowed to even apply for my children to attend the 940 scoring school. Just how is that fair? So if I were richer to afford a $150,000-$200,000 more expensive house I could get my children into the better school. That is plain and simple wealth and means discrimination. Where is the transparent and fair lottery in my school district??

    BTW, my district publishes all their information and applications in Spanish besides English — so it isn’t just the charter schools that do that.

    Note that a “district” charter is required by law to give priority to students from within the district. In fact, if a “district” charter has too many out of district students they have to pay a monetary penalty (at least for the charter I investigated to learn more truths about charter schools).

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