Charter School Innovation, Silicon Valley Style

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