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Reform: Charter Schools Just Can't Catch A Break

Intel CoreLots of people are talking about John Hechinger's Bloomberg News report about a controversial charter school in affluent Los Altos, CA.  For charter opponents, the story raises concerns about affluent communities using charter laws to create elite enclaves and duck larger responsibilities.  For charter supporters, the story raises concerns about their mission and "brand" becoming confused or muddied. Charters already have enough on their hands, with questions about their effectiveness, cost/scalability, and demographics. The Mathematic/CPRE study was pretty damning, and a Broad Prize and $25M from Walton aren't enough to ease the pain. So let's be clear.  I'm not against charters.  Four out of five charters are in urban areas, which is probably as it should be, but there's nothing wrong with charters being set up in suburban or even affluent communities -- many of which run schools that aren't nearly as good as parents think they are.  But the overwhelming emphasis should be on serving low-income communities, charters should have to serve a comparable percentage of ELL and special education kids as the community in which they are located, and provided services and materials as needed (ie, in Spanish if there is a Spanish-speaking community). 


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Mr. Russo,
The Bloomberg piece is part of concerted effort, started by the school district and the CTA to discredit BCS. They do not like the competition, and have been trying their best to get rid of BCS. The effort has increased in the last few months in an organized campaign to discredit the school while it was going through the charter renewal process.

I have been following your blog for a few years now, and in general I agree with many of your posts, but I think you really need to do some more research about Bullis Charter School.

Bullis Charter is a terrific school - it offers a choice in a school district of cookie cutter schools with top down mandates that require teachers to spend most of day teaching to the STAR test. Like the district BCS has great STAR test scores, which beat the top district school by a few points. Unlike the district BCS spends little time on test prep. Students are busy studying the arts, engineering, robotics and mandarin.

BCS is not a rich enclave in a poor or even middle class district. Los Altos and Los Altos Hills are two of the most wealthiest communities in California. The kids at the district run schools are every bit as wealthy as those at the charter.

BCS gets about $ 6000/student in tax payer funding. Los Altos Schools, filled with the same wealthy children, get $11,000/student from the tax payers. BCS parents make up the $5000 difference.

Bullis has been denied reasonably equivalent facilities since it's inception and recently won an important Appellate Court Ruling, which will benefit all charter schools in the state:

All parents should be able to have a choice about where their child goes to school. Every parent should have the right to schools free of the CTA.

Charter Schools have many purposes -- as stated by the charter law -- but nowhere does the law say that charters should only serve economically disadvantaged children. BCS meets all of the requirements of the charter law and in fact is more diverse than all but two of the district run schools.

This Hechinger piece is bad journalism and you should recognize it as such, Alexander. I was contacted by one of the leaders of Bullis, who was interested in the possibility of One World having a feeder school relationship with Bullis (who naturally look for good schools to go to and aren't very impressed with their options in Los Altos and Mountain View); nothing came of it, but I did get some local information.

The crucial piece of information left out of this story is that Bullis was not started as a charter school; it was an existing, local elementary school that the Los Altos district voted to close down. The parents, in the wealthiest part of perhaps the wealthiest district in the state, wanted their local school to stay open, and got the charter passed, against the local district's wishes, to keep a school that they liked open for their kids. The title of the article is about as sensational, misleading, and dishonest as can be imagined. If you or anyone else objects to the inequality, that's an artefact of districting; the fact that the school has a charter is generally irrelevant.

thanks for the comments -- i'm not at all surprised or troubled that the district and the charter are in conflict. it's the failure to serve the community that is bothersome

"Last year, about 2 percent of Bullis students spoke English as a second language, compared with 11 percent in the district, county data show. Bullis had about half the percentage of Hispanic students or those with disabilities."

is this information incorrect?

bloomberg news is pretty reputable and certainly not known for being anti-business or anti-reform. john hechinger has been doing this a while, for the WSJ and now for bloomberg.

Having only visited (a billionaire, literally) rather than lived up there, I can't be certain, but I think there's a good chance that the majority of those English learners are Asians, not Hispanic. Any "half the number of Hispanics and students with disabilities" statistics are likely on the order of one percent versus two or two percent versus four, not twenty versus forty or something similar in South Los Angeles. Districts have built-in incentives to over-identify students with disabilities; charter schools don't, and are much more likely to mainstream similar students. The entire district is definitely in the six-figure-per-capita territory; to even suggest that "the poor of Los Altos are being left behind" is absurd in the extreme.

The information is indeed, incorrect. The district might have 11 % who speak a language other than english at home, but they also speak english. They are very few students who enter kindergarten with out english skills. Most do not qualify for ESL. The neighboring district, Mountain View Whisman, has ten times the number of students — about 50% — who qualify for both ESL and free or reduced lunch.

I also should add the data the district collected used STAR test data which only includes students who are currently in grades 3 - 6 as BCS. As BCS has grown in size, it has attracted students from all over the school district. Grades K - 2 at BCS are more diverse than grades 3 -6. In fact BCS is much more diverse than the district in several areas. One area that really stands out is mixed race students -- About 20% of students at BCS are 2 or more races, the district has about 6%.

When grades k-2 are included, BCS is more diverse than 5 of 7 LASD schools.

It also should be noted that three district schools, Loyola, Gardner Bullis and Covington serve a higher SES population than does BCS.

I just want to correct some of the misperceptions here:

1) The LASD area includes parts of neighboring Palo Alto and Mountain View which are not nearly as wealthy as Los Altos Hills. My daughter's school, which is at the high end of the ELL rates, had about 2-4 kids per 20 student kindergarten class who entered school speaking little or no english. In my experience, the parents with little or no english are about half hispanic, half asian.

2) In response (at least partly) to recent pressures, BCS has started reaching out to ELL students, for example by translating their website and materials, which is a positive step.

3) It's true that bad LASD board decisions, including closing the old Bullis school, were at the root of the creation of BCS. However, that school has now been re-opened, and in fact has more students from Los Altos Hills than BCS does, despite the fact that half of the available slots each year (after siblings are enrolled) are set aside for families in the old Bullis attendance area.

It's true that Gardner Bullis now has more Los Altos Hills kids than does BCS. About 25 % of the Charter School's students are from Los Altos Hills.

One interesting side note, and part of the reason that I think this article was very unfair, is that about 15% of the students at Gardner are residents of Los Altos Hills but live within the boundaries of the Palo Alto Unified School District. These transfer students cost the district quite a bit of money.

Palo Alto transfers around $6,000 per student. This amount is about $5,000 short. ( I have posted a link to the PAUSD/LASD MOU below.) The difference is made up by the tax payers. So in reality the School District is actually doing what BCS is accused of doing. Yet the article is clearly targeted at BCS, there is no mention of all the games that this district has been playing, including it's exclusive out-of -district transfer policy.

Here is statement about their transfer policy from their 2011 - 2012 budget report:

Inter-district Transfer Students.
Because the number of inter-district transfer students (IDTs) is controlled by district policy, it does not reflect the district’s demographic trends. With the district now in Basic Aid status, where its revenue is no longer dependent on student enrollment, we expect to limit the number of inter-district transfers. The forecast assumes dropping to a total of 69 district-wide inter-district transfers by 2018. These students are assumed to be children of district employees and children from the Palo Alto
School District portion of Los Altos Hills.

Although I have no proof I think that Mr. Hechinger was contacted by an LASD Board Member in an attempt to create trouble for BCS.


Mr. Russo,

Please don't believe a single one of these smears by these BCS people. The Charter laws in California were never, in a million years, passed by voters to all a small group of billionaires get revenge on a local school district.

BCS is in the business of forcing the district to close local public schools. That is ALL this is about. Like any private school, nobody would care what they did if they weren't after our school campuses.

As a LASD parent, I live in constant fear of my children being ripped from their school, their friends and their teachers and scattered all over town because some group of billionaires got angry a long time ago.

And you know what? The school they got so angry about being closed in the first place--now Gardner Bullis School--they actually want to CLOSE it so they can move in.

The irony would be almost comical if it weren't so tragic.

And tell me why again a bunch of members of the super-rich are suddenly so concerned about saving the state of California money? Crocodile tears anyone?

The billionaire founders of BCS could have just as easily created a private school and nobody would have cared. But that would not have fulfilled their primary objective, which is not educating kids, but getting revenge on the people they felt wronged them--the board at LASD.

As a parent I seriously don't give a crap who was "right" a long time ago. All I know is that they want to close my close and/or the schools around us. We're going to do everything we can to stop that.

It's good to read a blog every once in a while, where (most of) the commenters are thinking clearly.

Also, I noticed that the link in Noel's comment was broken...here's the link to that document: http://www.bullischarterschool.com/cms/lib6/CA01001253/Centricity/Domain/49/BCS_Prop_39_Court_of_Appeal_Facilities_Ruling_--_FINAL.pdf

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