The decision by two of California’s best known charter management organizations to try to open schools in Memphis and Nashville raises this question: Will the expansion of California-based charter schools outside the state come at the expense of their growth inside the state?
Nearly four years ago, Green Dot Public Schools, which runs 18 charter schools in Los Angeles, opened a charter school in the South Bronx. But it hardly led to a surge of California-based charter schools to open similar schools outside the state. That may be about to change.
Aspire Public Schools, the state’s largest charter school provider, with 34 schools in six California cities, wants to open ten charter schools in Memphis over the next five years. Rocketship Education, which currently runs five charter schools in San Jose, wants to open eight schools in Nashville and another eight in Memphis. It has already signed on to open eight in Milwaukee over the next several years.
Charter schools have expanded steadily in California over the past decade — even during the grim economic environment in recent years – and there are now almost 1000 of them.
Yet charter school advocates have long complained about what they believe are adverse conditions for charter schools in California, principally receiving less money than regular public schools for each student in attendance, having to pay for the costs of facilities out of funds that should be going into the classroom, and having to go through an often arduous and at times unsuccessful process to apply for and receive a charter.
As California’s budget situation has deteriorated, charter schools, like regular public schools, have suffered additional cuts, further depressing the amount they receive from the state per student to even further below what charter schools receive in many other states.
But one major advantage charter schools have over regular public schools is that they can choose when and where to operate, including moving out of state.
Elise Darwish, Aspire’s chief academic officer, said that its out-of-state expansion plans don’t mean that it is giving up on California. “Our focus is still California, but there are a lot of kids who need help (outside the state),” she said.
She said California’s financial situation played a part in Aspire looking elsewhere — and that the finances in Memphis are far more favorable than they are in California. “If we want to serve more kids more quickly, we have to look out of state,” said Darwish.
Based on finances alone, the allure of operating in a state like Tennessee is self-evident. If its application to open a school in Memphis is successful, Aspire will receive an average of $8,100 per student. In California they get an average of $6,300 per student.
It is significant that Aspire, which operates schools in Los Angeles, Oakland, Stockton, Sacramento, Modesto and East Palo Alto, has no specific plans to open more schools in California, beyond increasing the enrollment in its existing schools, which have a total enrollment of about 12,000 students. A 2011 study by Bellwether Education Partners actually did a simulation to see how Aspire would fare financially in other states compared to California if it opened up exactly the same operations there. The report found that Aspire would do better in 18 out of 23 states it looked at.
But Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association, says he doesn’t believe that the current out-of-state push will slow charter expansion in California. “As far as taking the edge off of growth, I don’t see it,” he said. “The pipeline (of new charter schools) appears to be every bit as robust as in the early years.”
He noted that despite the budget crisis in California, and the complaints about how charter schools are disadvantaged relative to public schools, the number of charter school has continued to grow at approximately the same pace during the recession years as they did earlier. Even Rocketship is set to open 20 new charter elementary schools in Santa Clara County by the 2016-17 school year.
Charter schools now enroll some 412,000 students in California, out of a total enrollment of some 6.2 million public school children.
But Wallace also argues that California’s environment as a charter school incubator is “not as attractive as elsewhere.” “There are challenges that our state should continue to look at to maintain its position of leadership in the charter school sector,” he said.
But Kate Ford, the former long-time principal of the Peabody Charter School in Santa Barbara, which was granted one of the first charters in the state in 1993, thinks that California’s charter school growth could well be affected by out-out-state expansion of leading charter school organizations. “It is almost impossible to open new charters (in California) that are meeting the needs of kids and teachers at the same time,” said Ford. ”It is very difficult to operate in a fiscal environment with a lack of facilities and unequal funding for charter schools.”
Ford is now a senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given Memphis’ public schools $90 million for its Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, and which has also helped to negotiate a “compact” between the Nashville school district and charter schools, and is doing the same in Memphis.
What could happen, she said, is that a greater share of charter schools opening in California will be small, single-school operators, rather than those operated by the larger established charter management organizations. Because of the enormous challenges, she said, small charter school operators “will find it very difficult to expand.” Their growth could also affect the quality of the education they are able to offer compared to more established operators like Aspire and Rocketship.
Ford noted that for a California-based organization, opening a charter school in another state, especially one as distant as Tennessee, presents obstacles of its own. ”It is a huge, huge challenge,” she said. “It must say something that despite all these hurdles, it is a better bet than growing in California right now.”
But not all of California’s large charter management organizations are eyeing an out-of-state expansion. Judy Burton, president of Alliance College-Ready Charter Schools, says she is still committed to California, and has no plans to expand outside of the state.
So far, Alliance is focused exclusively on Los Angeles Unified–it has opened 20 schools there and is planning on opening another this fall. Yet Burton says she gets regular appeals from other states and cities–most recently Memphis and Louisiana–to open schools there.
“We haven’t stopped opening schools in California, we haven’t given up, and we don’t intend to give up,” she said. “ I am not a quitter; we have a mission to accomplish. I am not easily deterred.”
Nonetheless, she complained bitterly about the difficulties of operating charter schools–and that she hasn’t completely ruled out an out-of-state start-up in the face of tempting offers from beyond California’s borders.
“It is more difficult to do business here when we are courted by other states, and we are offered funds, when they are reaching out and inviting us rather than making it more difficult to get petitions approved or renewed,” she said. ”We are interested, we just haven’t made that decision.”
The Gates Foundation’s Ford said the expansion of California-based charter schools is “great for Memphis,” she said — and less so for California.
Ford said, “I am delighted they are coming to Memphis where there have been some real difficulties in providing an outstanding education to all students.”
That said, she anticipates the tide will turn back when financial conditions improve in the state. “Whenever it is favorable and financially feasible to operate in California, they will be back again, because it is home,” she said.
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