Charters vs. District: The Battle for San Francisco Public Schools


Malcolm X Academy students and staff marched in spring to protest plans to open a charter inside the Bayview elementary school. But the State Board of Education overruled the San Francisco School Board, and the KIPP charter opened in August. Photos by Rob Waters // San Francisco Public Press

This article was updated Dec. 20 and appears in the winter 2019 print edition of the Public Press.

Charter boosters cite results, but critics say they drain funds, manufacture support and cherry-pick students.

When students at Malcolm X Academy returned to their elementary school in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco in August to begin a new year, they came back to a changed environment. Over the summer, part of their school building had been taken over by KIPP Bayview Elementary, a charter school operated by Knowledge Is Power Program, the largest charter network in the country and in San Francisco.

For Malcolm X students and staff, the KIPP school was hardly welcome. The San Francisco Board of Education had voted unanimously in 2017 to reject KIPP’s application to open a new school, its third in the neighborhood and fourth in the city. Teachers and students at Malcolm X were also opposed, and marched around the neighborhood in May in protest.

But local preferences didn’t matter. The State Board of Education overruled the city’s school board and approved KIPP’s application. The conflict between the two schools — and activists on both sides of the issue — reflects a growing battle playing out in San Francisco and across the state.

See: Bayview School Feeling Squeezed by New Charter

Critics say charter and traditional public schools aren’t operating on equal footing — that charters take less than their fair share of the most challenging students, including homeless children and those with learning disabilities, and that they suspend and expel students at higher rates. That selectivity may boost charter test scores, but it erodes hard-won progress in public classrooms and siphons resources from public schools, these critics contend. They argue that the increasingly aggressive, privately funded push for charters amounts to a massive effort to privatize public education by turning public dollars over to private, self-governing entities.

This conflict may have a profound effect on the future of the city’s public schools. Enrollment has been declining for years, as poor and middle-class parents flee the city’s high housing costs and affluent families send their kids to private schools. The number of African-American students in district schools dropped from 10,136 in 1996-1997 to 3,925 in 2016-2017. The district has grappled for years with large gaps in test scores and graduation rates that leave African-American and Latino students far behind whites and Asians.

Those gaps have created a hunger for change by black and brown families, and an opportunity for charters. “All parents, including and especially parents in lowincome communities, deserve to have public school choice and to have many options,” said Beth Sutkus Thompson, chief executive officer of KIPP Bay Area Public Schools.

The backers of charter schools are led by the San Jose nonprofit advocacy group Innovate Public Schools, which is bankrolled by Silicon Valley technology investors and the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy started by the founders of Walmart. In the past year, Innovate has stepped up its activities in San Francisco, hosting public forums, hiring community organizers and publishing a stream of reports and social media posts that promote charter schools and highlight the poor performance of the city’s public schools in serving African-American and Latino students. It also acts as an incubator, underwriting the costs of developing new charters.

‘No Connecion With Us’

Opposing the charter advocates are parents, teachers and local school board members who have been working to improve the city’s public schools, especially those serving African-American and Latino students. They charge that Innovate portrays itself as community-based, but manipulates low-income parents of color, using parents’ frustration with the school system as a way to recruit kids for charter schools.

“They’re fake,” said Alison Collins, a member of the district’s African American Parent Advisory Council and co-founder of SF Families Union, which pushes for equity and improvement in public schools. “If you say you’re working with black families, you should be connected to black families in the community. But they’re not. How can you say you’re championing our issue when you have no connection with us?” Collins, a middle-school mom and former teacher, was elected in November to a seat on the San Francisco school board. Her bid was fueled in part by her anger at the incursion of charter schools.

Innovate co-founder and chief executive Matt Hammer, the son of former San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer, said his organization is “all about great public schools for low-income kids” – whether they are run by traditional school districts or by charter school operators. In the Bay Area, he said, “charter schools are serving underserved kids at a significantly higher level, providing a better education.”

State education data compiled by Innovate show that Latino and African American students attending district-run public schools in San Francisco far lag far white and Asian students in math and English scores, graduation rates and eligibility to attend state universities. And among schools with large percentages of Latinos and African American students, charter schools tend to rank among the highest performers, especially at the high school level.

But that paints an incomplete picture, opponents say.

“To get into a charter, you have to navigate the application process, and the most marginalized families don’t have the wherewithal,” said Mark Sanchez, a former San Francisco principal serving his second stint on the city’s Board of Education. “They will default into the district school closest to home, and we will gladly serve them.” This may lower the school’s performance on test scores and “allow charter schools to say, ‘We’re doing a better job than you.’ But they’re not reaching the hardest to serve students.”

Asked about this during an interview, Hammer and Geraldine Anderson, a Bayview parent who recently joined Innovate’s board, said in unison, “That’s not true.” But state Department of Education data bear out the point: While similar percentage of students in district and charter schools are socioeconomically disadvantaged, district schools are serving about four times as many homeless children as charter schools and greater numbers of English-language learners and students with disabilities.

Thirteen charter schools operate in San Francisco, with about 4,300 students. Like all charters, they call themselves public schools and don’t charge tuition. They are not answerable to the school district, and they set their own curriculum, hiring and discipline policies. They receive state funds for every student they enroll, taking money that the local district would otherwise receive.

Charters Blamed for Budget Cuts

Across the state, 250 school districts are facing budget cuts, and charter schools — where 10 percent of public school students now attend classes — are a significant cause, according to a report released in May by In the Public Interest, a think tank that studies the impact of privatization of public services. The proliferation of charter schools is draining funds from districts, contributing to gaping deficits, school closings and layoffs, said the report’s author, Gordon Lafer, an economist at the University of Oregon.

Lafer examined the finances of three districts and estimated that, for the 2016-2017 school year, charter school expansion cost the Oakland Unified School District $57 million in lost revenue, forcing the district to cut back on counselors, school supplies and toilet paper. He pegged the cost to San Diego at $66 million and to Santa Clara’s East Side Union High School District at $19 million. San Diego laid off almost 400 teachers and East Side plans to eliminate 66 jobs over the next two years.

When students leave district schools to go to charters, it doesn’t do much to reduce expenses, which are largely fixed, but spreads them over a reduced number of students, Lafer said. The loss in revenue means many schools are forced to cut optional services like art and music classes, he said.

Lafer didn’t look at the impact of charter expansion on the finances of San Francisco’s public schools, but he has no doubt it is doing harm. “If you have a declining student population, the last thing you want to do is say, ‘Let’s open more schools,’” Lafer said.

One way to look at the impact on San Francisco is this: If the 4,315 students attending charter schools were instead going to district schools, the district would have additional revenue of about $43 million, based on the $9,865 the district gets from the state for each student enrolled. (Additional funds are provided based on the number of students who are socioeconomically deprived or have special needs.)

To Hammer, the fact that district schools may lose revenue to charters is immaterial. “If federal and state dollars are flowing to public charter schools that are serving kids well, that is a great use of public money,” he said.

‘Pushed Out of the City’

At first glance, the forum held at a church in San Francisco’s Bayview district in May had the look and feel of a grassroots campaign for economic and social justice. Young community organizers, mostly black and Latino, signed people in on Apple computers as they arrived. A man wearing a multicolored African kufi cap roamed the hall with a clipboard.

At the front of the hall, a “parent volunteer” spoke. “I don’t know about y’all, but I’m tired of the community not having control of how it’s policed,” she said. “I’m tired of seeing my family and friends pushed out of the city because they aren’t able to afford living here anymore. … And do you know there are schools in this city where almost none of the black students are able to read or do math at grade level?”

Another woman, alternating between English and Spanish, took a turn. “The only way we’re going to make sure our kids have a bright future is to stand together: Latinos, African American, Pacific Islanders, whites, standing up for our kids,” she said. “I’m originally from Mexico and all I want — todo que querido — is for my children to have a good future.”

The sentiments were sincere and heartfelt, the problems real. But the call for unity that issued from the podium stands in sharp contrast to the battle unfolding in social media and at school board hearings.

When the application for KIPP’s elementary school came before the board in November 2017, Innovate staff members and parent volunteers packed a public hearing to support KIPP’s bid and to blast the school district for failing African-American and Latino children. They asked that a “state of emergency” be declared.

“Students’ human rights are being violated,” said Anderson. “We need immediate action.”

When the public speakers were done, school board member Shamann Walton, a Bayview resident and newly elected as District 10 representative to the Board of Supervisors, took a turn.

“There’s a record of charter schools which some of you may not know,” Walton said. “They use our black and brown families to promote certain narratives and propaganda. They get them to start and participate in charter schools and then our most challenging students are weeded out. It’s a state of emergency, but charter schools are not the answer.”

Walton and his colleagues unanimously rejected KIPP’s application — but theirs was not the last word. KIPP appealed, and in March the 11-member State Board of Education overturned San Francisco’s decision.

The state’s decision was inappropriate, Vincent Matthews, San Francisco’s superintendent of schools, told the Public Press. “We evaluated the charter honestly and fairly,” he said. “Those who are closer to what’s actually going on should be the ones to make the determination. I do not believe the state should be overturning local control.”

In June, this process repeated. Another proposed charter school, also backed by Innovate and also intended for the Bayview, came before the school board. Backers hope to open the sixth-through-12th-grade school in the fall of 2019 and to name it for Mary L Booker, a well-known Bayview artist and activist who died last year. The proposed school was represented by Terrence Davis, a former charter school special education teacher from San Diego who was hired by Innovate as a “school founder-in-residence.”

In an interview, Davis said the proposed school would have a social justice philosophy and use restorative justice practices, including a regular Friday community circle. He said he developed the model with help from Innovate and a design team of 10 to 15 parents from the Bayview and Mission districts.

“I sat down with hundreds of parents in coffee shops and homes,” Davis said. Community involvement will be a “core value” of the proposed school, according to the school’s application.

State Overrules S.F. Board

Anderson hopes to eventually send her 7-year-old son, Kingston, to Booker academy, on whose board she sits. Last spring she pulled him out of Charles Drew Elementary in the Bayview when a spot opened at the New School, a charter that opened last fall in Potrero Hill. She was concerned about violence at Drew and learned from Innovate about how poorly Drew students were doing in math and English. “I was in disbelief,” she said. “Are we really doing that bad?”

But Diane Gray, a Bayview resident and founder of 100% College Prep, a 20-year-old after-school program that helps neighborhood youth get ready for college, said the proposed school didn’t arise from the community. Rather, she said, Innovate developed the idea and began “pounding the pavement” to win support from Bayview parents whose children attend local public schools.

“Innovate and folks who want to open charter schools are targeting our schools and families of color, who believe that by enrolling in charter schools, they’re getting a private school education,” Gray told the Public Press.

As it had with KIPP, the board unanimously rejected the Booker application. The school appealed to the State Board of Education, unanimously overturned San Francisco’s decision in early November, following a recommendation a month before by the state Advisory Commission on Charter Schools.

The commission is stacked with charter school supporters, said Clare Crawford, a senior policy adviser with In the Public Interest. Five of its eight members are current or former staff members of charter schools, and it votes in favor of charters most of the time, she said. The State Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor, has also been highly pro-charter, overturning rejections by local school boards 72 percent of the time charter applicants file appeals, according to an analysis by In the Public Interest.

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom suggested he would bring more balance to state charter policies. His Democratic opponent in the June primary, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, received more than $22.5 million from a pro-charter independent expenditure committee, including $7.5 million from Netflix founder Reed Hastings, a member of KIPP’s board of directors. As Villaraigosa faded in the days before the primarty, Hastings hedged his bets with a $29,200 donation to Newsom.

Advocates hope to revise the state’s charter school law to force charter schools to be more transparent in their operations and to make it easier for local school districts to monitor and reject them. Some are calling for a moratorium on the creation of charters. In San Francisco, school board member Sanchez has more modest goals. He introduced a resolution in June calling for the district to increase its oversight of charters by tracking the number of homeless, newcomer and special-need students; to analyze the district’s loss of revenue to charter schools; and to track the suspension, expulsion and disciplinary policies of charters. The scbool board approved the measure in late September.

“To put it bluntly, state laws around charters really disadvantage local districts,” Sanchez said. “We’re at a point where we need to take a break and assess the impact of charter schools in San Francisco.”

Thirteen charter schools operate in the city, with about 4,300 students enrolled. This fall, Malcolm X Academy’s 105 students began sharing space with 90 pre-kindergartners, kindergartners and first graders attending a new charter school in the same building, KIPP Bayview Elementary.
“We’re at a point where we need to take a break and assess the impact of charter schools in San Francisco,” said board member Mark Sanchez. Beth Sutkus Thompson, chief executive officer of KIPP Bay Area Schools, said, “All parents, including and especially parents in low-income communities, deserve to have public school choice and to have many options.”

Don't miss out on our newest articles, episodes and events!
Sign up for our newsletter