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Flexibility helps charter schools to thrive in down economy

President Obama visits a charter school.White House photo by Pete SouzaPresident Obama visits a charter school.

Public charter schools in California are skirting the worst impact of the state’s budget crisis, even as traditional public schools shorten the school year, increase class sizes and lay off teachers and staff by the thousands.

The number of charter schools could expand by almost 90 this fall, helped in many cases by an infusion of federal government and philanthropic support. Many are also able to reduce costs by hiring younger and less experienced teachers who earn lower salaries than veteran teachers at unionized schools, in addition to being able to bypass numerous state and local regulations.

The expansion of charter schools is a central element in the education agenda of the Obama administration, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has enthusiastically backed the movement. The original goal of charter schools was to develop new education models that regular public schools could emulate. They may now also be generating new strategies for survival through tough economic times.

Charter schools have not entirely escaped California’s budget crunch. Many are making adjustments to their programs, including reducing the number of teachers, coping with late payments from the state, relying on digital textbooks, and asking parents to help out even more than they have in the past.

But that flexibility is allowing charter schools to grow just as other public schools are unraveling a series of education reforms begun more than a decade ago when California’s state budget was flush with cash.

“Charter schools are not immune to the current recession, but they are more nimble, and their budgets have more room to be modified on the fly,” said Marguerite Roza, who has studied charter schools for years and is now senior data and economic adviser at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Last year, 809 charter schools operated in California. An estimated 56,000 new students enrolled in charter schools in 2009 – a year of "incredibly strong growth," according to Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association. That pushed total charter school enrollment to 341,000, or about 1 in 20 public school students in the state.

This fall, the 89 new charter schools that are expected to open could push the total number near the 900 mark, although exact figures won't be known until all schools open during the next few weeks.

Wallace points out that established public schools enjoy certain advantages, such as operating out of existing school facilities. In contrast, charter schools typically must use operating funds to rent classroom space, a major obstacle for many schools. "Right out of the box, charter schools are having to do more with less," he said.

At the same time, charter schools have the advantage of being exempt from most laws and regulations that apply to school districts, and can seek waivers from others, such as curriculum requirements, teacher tenure rules, and hiring and firing policies.

Union-free cuts costs

What also helps is that charter school teachers are nonunionized in almost all cases, and are younger or less experienced than those at a typical public schools. About two-thirds of teachers in California public schools are tenured, which translates into higher salaries, compared to 22 percent of teachers in charters, a 2006 study by the American Institutes for Research found.

“Charter schools are typically paying teachers salaries that are on a par with local school districts, so starting salaries are about the same,” said Robin Lake, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “Where they are saving money is by hiring newer teachers, so their total payroll is lower.”

With so many teachers laid off from public schools, charter schools are having no trouble hiring new teachers.

Louis FreedbergVictoria Starr shows flashcards in her kindergarten class at Alexander Twilight Academy, a charter school in Sacramento. 

“Their big advantage is that they have very junior, low-priced teachers, and very few benefits to pay to retired teachers,” said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University.

Many California school districts are cutting the school year from 180 to 175 days, and increasing K-3 class sizes well above the 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio established more than a decade ago. In contrast, the 2,500-student Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima, a low-income community north of Burbank, is offering a 190-day school year, while maintaining a class size of 20-to-1 in kindergarten through third grades. The school, now in its 18th year, was one of the first charters in the state.

“We have flexibility in deploying resources,” said principal Yvonne Chan, who was also appointed to the State Board of Education by Schwarzenegger. One example is that parents help out in positions such as crossing guards and cafeteria workers.  

Because the school is not unionized, those determined to be the most effective teachers are paid higher salaries, regardless of seniority.

Offsetting dwindling state funding

Nevertheless, the decline in state support for public schools in recent years has had a direct impact on charter schools. Todd Dickson, executive director of the Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, said his school received $5,831 per student this past year, $936 less than in 2006-07. That means that his school received $386,000 less in state funds than three years earlier.

He'll partly cover the loss by increasing student enrollment from 400 to 430. The school has also kept the number of administrators – a total of four – to a minimum. The school itself has no gymnasium, pool, sports fields, lunchroom or space for performing arts. “Part of our advantage is that we offer a no-frills model," Dickson said.

He is so confident that the state’s budget problems won’t derail Summit’s plans to open two new charter schools in San Jose in the 2011-12 school year that the principals to run them have already been hired.

Aspire Public Schools, which operates 30 charter schools in California, has benefited from major infusions of philanthropic support, including a $2.9 million grant from the Gates Foundation last year. It has just opened five new schools – two in South Gate south of Los Angeles, and others in Huntington Park, Sacramento and Stockton. To offset state budget cuts, some Aspire schools have reduced support staff such as reading intervention and after-school specialists hired to help struggling students.

The nation's largest charter school operator is the Knowledge Is Power Program, which last month was awarded a $50 million Investing in Innovation grant by the U.S. Department of Education. The program opened two new schools in Southern California this fall, bringing to 13 the number of schools it runs in California. To cut costs, the program’s new KIPP Empower Academy in South Central Los Angeles is using computers more intensively, which school officials say allows teachers to give students more small-group and individualized instruction. 

“We are taking advantage of the budget crisis and implementing a hybrid technology-infused school, ” said Marcia Aaron, executive director of KIPP LA. Class sizes have been raised to 28, compared to 20 in other KIPP schools.  But by adding computers and other instructional assistants, some students complete guided study on the computers, while others work in small groups with one of the adults.

Aaron estimates she will be able to cut five classrooms and five teachers from the school's original plan. Over time, she expects to reduce facilities and payroll by as much as $150,000 for each of its five grade levels. “Ever since we started to see the economy go south we’ve really responded and reduced costs in ways that we thought wouldn’t hurt our core instruction,” she said.

This flexibility gives charters an edge when it comes to surviving an economic downturn that could endure for several more years, educators said.

“We don’t begrudge charters schools the freedom they have,” said Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for Long Beach Unified School District, which this year increased class sizes, cut five days from the school calendar, and laid off hundreds of teachers for the first time in years. “However, to level the playing field, our school district should have the same kind of freedom from red tape and outdated mandates that charter schools enjoy.”

UPDATE:  According to figures released on November 12, 2010 by the California Charter School Association, 115 new charters opened in the fall of 2010 in California, the largest number in a single year in any state since the beginning of the charter school movement. This unprecedented growth showed even stronger growth of charter schools than original projections.

 

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Austin Fast

Filed under: K–12

Comments

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KB215's picture
Wow just read the update. very awesome. So glad things like this are happening.
threers's picture
I work at a charter and yes we feel the blows from the budget cut (and no we aren't corporate sponsored) but not quite as much as our neighboring schools. Due to the ESEA act of 1965, most schools have categorical funding which means 5 teachers can be laid off while the school purchases new laptops and a swimming pool. Charters have just a general fund so we can decide to not purchase a pool and instead save jobs and class size reduction. But yes we are under-paid comparatively- I have taught for 5 years and have a master's and yet I make exactly what I did my first year of teaching, without a MA degree. If you're interested in my blog it is (I added spaces so not to get spam-flagged so delete the spaces) http :// 3rseduc. blogspot. com

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