Charter School Innovation, Silicon Valley Style

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November 15, 2011; Source: Bloomberg NewsBullis Charter School, a taxpayer-funded elementary school in Silicon Valley, gives admission preference to residents of the affluent Los Altos Hills community. In exchange for a “donation” of $5,000 (about one-fifth the cost of private school tuition), Bullis parents get a private-school-quality education for their kid that is subsidized, in part, by funds siphoned from public schools in neighboring lower-income communities.

“Bullis is a boutique charter school,” said Nancy Gill, an education consultant. “It could bring a whole new level of inequality to public education.”

Charter schools, which are publicly financed but independently operated, have been promoted as a way to give low-income children an alternative to underperforming urban schools. Now, educators and entrepreneurs are trying to bring the principles of charter schools to suburban communities, typically by creating specialized programs, called boutique charters

Social justice organizations have documented a pattern of racial and economic inequities among urban charter schools. According to the Civil Rights project at UCLA, seventy percent of black charter school students at the national level attend intensely segregated minority charter schools. Some charter schools enrolled populations where 99 percent of the students were from underrepresented minority backgrounds.

Bullis skews racially and economically toward affluent whites. Last year, about 2 percent of students spoke English as a second language, compared with 11 percent in the district. Bullis does not participate in the national school lunch program because it calculates that only 1 percent of students would qualify, while county-wide, 37.9 percent of students were eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals.

What’s particularly troublesome is the school’s funding structure. Because they receive public funds, charter schools are prohibited from charging tuition. But a foundation set up to help fund the school asks Bullis parents to donate at least $5,000 for each child they enroll. Those who can’t afford to pay should discuss the reason with a foundation member. The foundation recognizes, according to its website, that “other school families will need to make up the difference.”

One Google software engineer and Bullis parent said he considered the $5,000 donation requested every year by Bullis to be “money well spent.” He previously sent his child to a private school where tuition was about $25,000 a year.—John Hoffman

  • Educator

    “Bullis parents get a private-school-quality education for their kid that is subsidized, in part, by funds siphoned from public schools in neighboring lower-income communities.”

    Bullis is not siphoning funds from neighboring lower – income communities. In fact, the exact reverse is happening. The local very wealthy school district receives much more in tax payer funding and does not share any of it’s additional revenues with the charter school.

    The average home price in the Los Altos School District is well over one million. The community surrounding BCS is every bit as wealthy. Bullis Charter School receives around $6,500/student in public funding. The Los Altos School District, receives $10,500 student in public funding. In addition LASD parents are asked to contribute $1000/student.
    The $5000 ask makes up the short fall. Not everyone can pay this amount

  • Public School Fan

    ‘Educator’ seems to have some misunderstanding of California Basic Aid funding. The charter school is revenue neutral as far as taxpayers are concerned. The local school district receives a fixed pool of money and it transfers a fixed amount per child to the charter school. As a basic aid district, the size of the pool depends solely on local property tax revenue.
    The charter school likely does increase the amount paid from the state general fund since categorical funds, specially designated programs, have been reduced for basic aid districts as part of ‘fair share’ budget cuts. The per pupil categorical payment to the charter school is higher than what would be paid if the child were enrolled in the district. [Yes, California school funding is overly complex!]

    Is Bullis a private school in disguise? Consider the following:
    – According to Bullis IRS filings, the superintendent/principal, Wanny Hersey, made over $237,000 in base compensation last year and also received a personal loan of over $62,000 from school funds.
    Bullis also has a full time assistant principal who was paid almost $120,000.
    Los Altos District schools have a single full-time principal who typically make about 1/2 of Ms. Hersey’s pay.
    Bullis has budgeted over $30,000 for staff travel and conference fees and over $95,000 on field trip expenses.
    Bullis 5th graders travel cross-country to Washington D.C., 6th graders take a trip to Costa Rica, and the 8th grade curriculum includes a week of circus school.
    While the district is affluent overall, there are pockets of lower income families. The Bullis geographic preference area does not include any neighborhoods with apartments or those with (relatively) lower cost homes.
    The charter school operates with an appointed board with no local voter control.

    If the school does not increase taxpayer costs, should we care?
    The local district dedicates about 20% of spending to direct and indirect support of special education services. With no enrollment of students requiring intensive special education services, Bullis saves most of this cost.
    As a young school with high teacher turnover, Bullis pays significantly less to it’s teachers.
    Bullis Charter School will spend about $11,700 per child this school year as compared to about $9500 in the local, Los Altos School District.
    The district has to pay building costs to support an extra school over which it has no control. This money cannot be spent on district students.
    Bullis Charter School will spend about $11,700 per child this school year as compared to about $9500 in the local, Los Altos School District.
    While the local district foundation does ask for a significant donation, $1000, per child, the charter ask is $5000. Further, there is difference between asking for donations when all children are welcome within district schools versus the self-selecting of a charter school where the the expensive program absolutely requires significant parent money. Parents are requested to speak with a Bullis Foundation representative if they cannot make the targeted donation.
    Elected school boards may not be perfect, but they do offer the opportunity for voters to take action when boards make decisions like using taxpayer and parent-donated funds for personal loans.

    Every child who enrolls in Bullis instead of a non-subsidized private school decreases revenue for other district children. Why should the 4500 children who attend regular schools see cuts in order to subsidize the grandchildren of the founder of Intel?

    Our elected officials have to stand up to the powerful charter lobby and change laws that allow misuse of a movement that was created to increase opportunities for under served children.

  • Beat

    It’s not just Bullis. For 10 years, small town Santa Cruz has been battling with a boutique charter designed to separate high-income, high-achieving students from their neighborhood schools. Populated with the children of affluent, well-educated parents (many UC professors), the school even drew a critical look from longtime charter supporter, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews:

    Today the school released an update on its demographics: Zero English Language Learners. Zero socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Zero new admits with special needs (14 currently have IEPs, out of 510. This from a community of 60% hispanic, 50% low income and a district with a Special Ed population of 15%.

  • Jane Q. Parent

    As somebody who attended one of BCS’s presentations, I can tell you that the “tuition” requirement is quite real. It was made clear to us that if we didn’t give them $5000/child per year, our kids would be ostracized. BCS is a defacto private school.

    So don’t believe a word of the BS that comes from these BCS people. They run that “business” like a Silicon Valley startup complete with ultra-high paid lawyers and PR firms.

    They conveniently leave out the fact that they are SUING the school district to get all of the things they say they are lacking and much more.

    In particular, this battle is about real estate. This Charter has their eye on a particular public school campus they would like to CLOSE, kick the kids out of, and move in. Their supporters say they won’t stop at once campus either. Because of the ridiculous premise under which the school has been started, BCS has been indoctrinating parents (and kids?) to HATE public schools since day one.

    BCS school was started out of spite and revenge, but the today’s supporters are taking it to the next level by using loopholes in he Charter laws to plunder as much as they can. BCS supporters often talk of taking over “several campuses” and when pushed they essentially disagree with the concept of democratic control over public funds.

    There’s a simple solution to boutique charters: apply a means test. Add the following clause to Charter laws in California:

    “Section N.N. The Charter shall maintain standardized test scores of at least 15% higher than surrounding schools”.

    If we can get that added, boutiques will go away.