School Choice is No Choice

By Anita Johnson

Notes from Education Forum hosted by LaMorinda Democratic Club

On April 13th, the LaMorinda Democratic Club hosted an Education Forum.  The panelists agreed that schools in California are seriously underfunded. Privatization advocates are using problems caused by underfunding to justify charter schools.  Because charter schools are not accountable to the public, this trend is undermining our democracy and our children’s futures.  A very promising source of additional funding for school is corporate property tax reform

Speaking briefly before the panel discussion, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson stated “We have a teacher shortage.”  He recommended, “we need to put an end to teacher bashing and honor educators.”  This year there are 8,000 fewer qualified teachers than needed to fill all of the open spots.  The number of applicants has been declining steadily in the last ten years.  The number of position filled by uncredentialed people has increased significantly. 

Superintendent Torlakson shared some good news:  the state’s graduation rate has increased 9% over the last three years and is now 83.2%.  This is an all-time high.  Career education is helping students to see the relevance and is keeping kids in schools.   Efforts to stop the increasing rate of suspensions and expulsions are also paying off.

As State Superintendent of Public Education, Tom Torlakson asked all 1100 school districts in the state to declare themselves Safe Havens.  So far, 60 school districts have adopted Safe Haven resolutions.  His office is training school districts in how to keep citizenship status information out of student files.

Asked to give a short description of the current state of the federal government, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier explained that since Citizens United, outside groups have spent more than $7B in elections.  The Koch Brothers spent more than $800 M, an amount similar to that spent by the Democratic and Republican parties, making those two billionaires a third party.  The influence of money has seriously undermined democracy.

On the positive side, the millions of new activists in groups like Indivisible have created the possibility of transforming politics in this country and getting more people involved.  The largest block of voters in the presidential election were those who chose not to vote.  We need to get people engaged in the process because people are really suffering in this country, especially in states with a majority of Republican voters.

Before beginning the panel discussion, forum organizer Tandra Ericson explained why the club chose the topic of education. In their strategic planning process they asked the question, “What are the public policies that are going to be most impacted by the current administration?” Previous forums have focused on Health Care and Immigration. 

She went on to explain that public schools are largely funded by the states.  California is currently not adequately funding education. Tandra commented, “We are lucky to be living in a community that is willing to fund that difference.” Note to Readers:  the communities of Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda, and Walnut Creek have parcel taxes that significantly supplement the anemic state funding of their schools.

She went on to explain that education spending in this country exceeds $600 B—more than the federal funding for the military.  Generated at either the state or local level, school spending is currently overseen by locally-elected school boards that are accountable to local residents.  One of the biggest dangers posed by “portability” and “school choice” measures is the loss of local control and accountability.  Tandra referenced a recent speech in which Senator Patty Murray explained the dangers of school privatization, saying:
“Undermining public education is not a choice.”

The four panelists were Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, Acalanes School Board Member Craig Cheslog, Daniel Hagen from Evolve and Kim Davis from Parents United for Public Schools.

Congressman DeSaulnier is on the House Education and Workforce Committee.  He is very concerned about the underfunding of public education and the threats of privatization.  One of the major concerns with privatization, he said, is, “they would ignore the rights of students with disabilities.” He acknowledged that the federal government promised to pay 40% of the cost associated with serving student with disabilities and is currently only paying 18%. 

Daniel Hagen stated that “California is fertile ground for enacting a revision for underfunding because there is a serious crisis,” as schools have been underfunding for the last four decades.  Proposition 13 decimated public education funding when it passed in 1978 and permitted corporations to dramatically reduce their contributions to public schools.  There are currently 427 local revenue measures to make up for insufficient state funding, but these are temporary measures.  They don’t generate sufficient funding and don’t generate any funding in areas of concentrated poverty, where funding is most needed. 

At the same time, charter school companies are aggressively privatizing education in California.  California has the highest rate of charterization and at least 20% of these charters impose illegal barriers to enrollment.  The charter school chain K-12 Inc has revenues of $91M / year and pays dividends to its shareholders.  “How can we reconcile a school with shareholders?” Dan asked. 

He continued, “Not enough people know” about the dangers of privatization, we need to take control of the narrative and let people know that “We want to live in a state that supports public education.”

“Democrats should be advocating for public education, not privatization.” Dan added.

The long-term, sustainable solution that we need is to reform the commercial property tax portion of Prop 13.  This reform will generate $9 B per year from commercial firms and will have no impact on the property taxes of homeowners or small businesses.  It would give California the ability to “fund public education like we are a blue state.”

Kim Davis, from Parents United for Public Education, is a parent in Oakland, which she described as “ground zero for charter schools.” Oakland has the highest percentage of charters in the state with the highest percentage of charters.  She explained that the privatization movement gained a foothold in Oakland in 2013 when the district was in state receivership and Mayor Brown opened two charter schools.  In subsequent years, increasing numbers of charters opened without consideration of the impact on the public schools.  Oakland’s reputations as a “charter-friendly” city attracted more charter firms and a vast amount of dark money, causing expenditures on school board elections to balloon from $50,000 per election to over a million dollars in the last election.

These charter do not really offer parents choices, as 30% of the charters in Oakland illegally discriminate in admissions.  While who gets into charter schools is one cause of concern, who is excluded is also a concern, as the Oakland School district has found that many low-performing students come back to public schools just before spring testing season.  The charters create the illusion of choice and the illusion of success.

“Without strong public education, our state and our country cannot succeed.” Was the main message from panelist Craig Cheslog.  His district, Acalanes Union, gets 26% of it’s funding from local parcel measures and parent donations.  This kind of supplementation is not possible in most districts. “We have chosen as a state not to invest in our kids.” Craig stated, explaining that he works for, Common Sense Kids Action, advocates for increased public education funding.

Craig pointed to the recent action by the state legislature to approve a $52B infrastructure plan funding by an increase in the gas tax: “two-thirds voted for transportation.  What about our kids?”  Craig continued, “California needs to lead—to show what a real progressive state can do. We need highly-funded, high-quality public education.

On the question, “What is the most important thing to know about public education reform?”  Craig explained that the reform movement is a distraction.  The real reform that is needed is to properly fund public education – then people wouldn’t see a need for reform or choice.  Meeting the needs of special education students does cost more money, but it our obligation as a society.

Congressman DeSaulnier said it is important to remember how good public education used to be in the state and how good it can be again.  It was robust and free.  Public education is essential to ensure that voters cannot be fooled, it is essential for a robust economy and quality of life.  Employers are saying they need a better-trained workforce.  He also stated that is important to remember that privatization came, not just for Wall Street investors looking to profit from public education funding, but also from the Jim Crow South.

Kim Davis explained that it is not about education but about making money, primarily non-profit charters creating profit for their investors through real estate deals, leases, software, testing systems, and text books.  She recommended a recent report, Spending Blind, that detailed the profit potential for charter schools and also the amount of public money that has been misspent by charters.  The reform documents that 75% of charters under perform, they are consistently opened in “markets” that are already saturated with schools (causing public schools to close and sit empty), and that charter schools have discriminatory enrollment policies and unethical or corrupt practices.

Dan explained that accepting low levels of spending on public education is “going along with the Republican playbook,” because the lower spending leads to a decline in quality and allows privatizers to hold this up as evidence for the need for choice.  It is a false choice.

Congressman DeSaulnier explained that the privatization movement, which is heavily funded by WalMart heirs, is following the same strategy as Walmart:  Undercut the competition, see competitors close down, and become the only game in town. In this case, they see public schools as their competitors and have been working for decades to starve public schools and call attention to the problems caused by lack of funding.

Regarding the teacher shortage, all of the panelists agreed that teacher salaries need to increase to attract more people into the profession.  Unfortunately, the state does not have the ability to meet the need due to lack of funding. Just as importantly, teacher bashing needs to stop and media should treat teachers with respect.

On the Question, “Why is it important to Reform Prop 13?”

Dan explained that when voters approved Prop 13, they did not intend to create a windfall for corporations.  Chevron is currently paying $500 M less each year because of the loophole in Prop 13. Disney’s property is taxed at a rate that is eight times lower than that paid by the average home owner.  These discrepancies are caused by language in Prop 13 that ensure that the value of property is only reassessed when the property changes hands.  Because corporations never die, the property never changes hands.  Over the last four decades the portion of the state’s revenue that comes from commercial property taxes has declined so significantly that now the vast majority of revenue from this source comes from homeowners.  The missing funding should have been supporting public education, but was redirectly by Prop 13 into private hands.

On the question, “What is the best way to respond to a parent who believes their child is getting a good education at a charter school?” Kim Davis suggested, “Ask them to join us and fight for a good education for all children.”

Craig stated that California has one of the most permissive charter school laws in the country and the State Board of Education approves charters that local and  county board have refused to approve.  “We need to change that law.”

In the question, “How do we combat the role of money in these campaigns?” Craig advised, “Organize, mobilize, and get out the vote.” He added, “As Democrats, we need to make sure that school-loving Democrats win primaries.”

“Money can’t win against a strong grass-roots movement.  We need to be talking to our neighbors and making sure people are educated.”

Congressmen DeSaulnier added, “People are engaged.  People still love public school teachers.  We have the ability. The ability needs to be energized, because, if we lose public education, we have lost Democracy.”

Kim Davis replied, “As a parent, I know that parents are supportive of teachers.  It will take a lot of organizing. People in public schools don’t feel connected.”

Dan Hagen replied: “Remember your power.  Democratic clubs have a unique ability to set the agenda.  Ask candidates for Governor about the issue—get them on the record supporting real, sustained solutions.”  Dan reported that1,300 elected officials are on the record supporting Prop 13 reform.  “People are not happy with the status quo. They are ready to mobilize.”

Kim Davis recommended that everyone attend the conference of the Network for Public Education which will be October 17th  in Oakland.  It will be a great opportunity to connect with other supporters of public education, get more information, and get energized.

Craig Cheslog reminded us that only 30% of voters have children in a public school, stressing the importance of reaching out to grandparents, people who are going to become parents in the future, and people who will never be parents.  “There are 1033 days” until there is even a possibility of a President that supports public education. Craig commented that we are “sprinting a marathon and that is unsustainable.” He encouraged everyone to take care of themselves and to set a manageable pace, but continue to be active: “Engage. Engage. Engage. We can do this. And to be kind to one another”