California’s latest gold rush is public education

Even the CEO of Netflix is betting big on unregulated charter school growth.

California, my home state, is quickly becoming a bellwether for rapid change in U.S. public education — but for reasons that have little to do with actually educating children.

A new investigative series by Capital & Main digs into the impact that charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — are having on the state’s public education system. The takeaway: billionaires and investors are doubling down on charter school expansion, even as evidence mounts that the schools destabilize public school districts and don’t improve overall student performance.

Some of the names are well known. Eli Broad, who made his billions in homebuilding and insurance, not education, has proposed to enroll half of Los Angeles’s public school students in charter schools within the next eight years. In “The Broad Plan,” a confidential document unearthed by the Los Angeles Times last fall, Broad outlined his strategy to compete directly with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for what he calls “market share.”

Billionaire Eli Broad at the opening of the The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Michigan, in 2012.

“The Broad Plan” includes funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which recently announced a plan, under the guise of “school choice,” to give $1 billion in support of charter schools across the country, including in Los Angeles and Oakland. Even Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings, is betting big on privatized education — he’s led and financed efforts to pass pro-charter state policy and wants at least 90% of California’s students to attend charter schools.

But some of those looking to cash in on California’s kids aren’t as familiar. Academica, the state of Florida’s largest charter school company, already manages one school in Los Angeles and is looking to open another in nearby Glendale. The Miami Herald uncovered the company’s troubling business model in 2011, which it described as part of a “parallel school system” largely controlled by for-profit management companies and private landlords. Academica has been under federal investigation for alleged violations of conflict-of-interest laws and has amassed a charter school real estate empire across state lines. Our new research brief reveals that, in some cases, the company acts as its own landlord for schools it owns and charges the public more when it does — that means more profit for Academica and less money for educating children.

Children in California — and everywhere — don’t need billionaires and for-profit companies reshaping their school systems. They need great schools governed by the fundamental democratic principles of transparency, oversight, and equal opportunity, all of which many charter schools don’t seem to have.


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