California’s Charter School Mugging

OPINION  |  REVIEW & OUTLOOK

California’s Charter School Mugging

Politicians punish a company for resisting unionizing its schools.

Tom Torlakson, the superintendent of public instruction, during a meeting of the State Board of Education, Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif.
Tom Torlakson, the superintendent of public instruction, during a meeting of the State Board of Education, Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

July 17, 2016 6:54 p.m. ET

Our readers know about the coordinated assault on for-profit colleges. Now Democrats are ambushing a fast-growing online education startup that manages charter schools.

The public company K12 operates 70 virtual and blended (online and traditional) schools nationwide, including 14 charters in California. K12 typically contracts with school districts or nonprofit charter organizations to operate schools. Students receive instructional materials in the mail and can log in online at any time to do work. Teachers record lectures, answer questions and assign and grade coursework. Parents of children with special needs or behavioral problems often prefer K12’s flexible format, as do many teachers. The virtual schools also provide options in rural areas with few charter schools.

All of this is anathema to unions, and in 2014 the California Teachers Association (CTA) launched a campaign to unionize K12’s charters. The union claimed the schools saddled teachers with heavy workloads, skimped on instruction—e.g., computers sent to kids weren’t updated—and turned away hard-to-teach students.

The union also flogged low graduation rates and test scores, though many urban public schools do much worse. Many K12 students enroll midyear and are behind on credits when they begin. Students who spend three or more years at the schools score 14 points higher in reading and 19 points in math than those who spend less than one year. The K12 charters don’t cherry-pick or discriminate among applicants, and more than 60% of students are low income.

After K12 challenged the union petition, Attorney General Kamala Harris began a sweeping investigation—one of the first launched by her new Bureau of Child Justice. She alleged that the schools are scamming taxpayers by recording students who log on for one minute as present and misleading parents by advertising the benefits of online education.

But this looks trumped up. In California, teachers at virtual schools record attendance based on educational activities that students complete, not the time they spend online. Like traditional schools, the virtual academies are compensated based on student attendance. Independent auditors approved by the state Education Department haven’t turned up any fraudulent activity in 10 years.

Nonetheless, on June 23 Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, ordered another audit to ensure that K12 schools are “serving their students well.” Five days later the California Public Employment Relations Board certified the CTA and ordered the schools to collectively bargain with the union.

Less than two weeks later, Ms. Harris proclaimed a $168 million settlement with K12, including $160 million in “debt relief” for “nonprofit charities” the company allegedly coerced into “unfavorable contracts that put them in a deep financial hole.” Those “charities” are the same charter schools that she accused of defrauding taxpayers. And the balance sheets of the nonprofit charters and K12 don’t show any debt. K12 typically charges more nationwide than California charter schools receive in per pupil allocations. Each year K12 forgives the difference, which has amounted to $160 million.

To sum up: K12 stays in business, but because it resisted unionization it gets hit with a huge fine and must collectively bargain. If K12 doesn’t accede to the union’s demands, the state Board of Education could use the audit as a pretext to shut the schools down. Thuggish government marches on.

 

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