Inner City Education Foundation was a star of the Los Angeles charter school scene. Operating 15 schools in the area, most of them in South L.A., it boasted some remarkable successes. Virtually all of its graduates went on to college, although they came from a part of the city where more than half of public school students never earn even a high school diploma.
How could things have gone so wrong so fast? Suddenly this fall, the entire chain of schools couldn't meet its next payroll and was in danger of closing until a handful of wealthy local businessmen stepped in to prop it up. Founder Michael Piscal resigned; new management was hired. Now, ICEF is laying off a large portion of its staff and hunting for space in nearby public schools to cut its rental costs.
Chalk it up to bad financial times and some well-intentioned but ultimately wrong decisions by Piscal to expand too rapidly and keep spending rather than cutting back as the state's budget situation worsened. There are no villains here, only good guys: a visionary educator who showed how much African American students could achieve at schools with high standards; members of the Los Angeles Unified school board who offered to muster what support they could; philanthropists who refused to let down hundreds of families.
Yet even as ICEF's story demonstrates how charter schools have served as lifelines to families who otherwise would have been stuck with low-performing schools, it also shows that we cannot count on charter schools to save American education. For one thing, charter schools can, and occasionally do, close for one reason or another, as ICEF eventually may be forced to do. Public schools, by contrast, can't simply disappear; though an individual campus might be shuttered, the school system must remain in business and enroll all students within its attendance boundaries no matter how deep the cuts in the state budget.
That's a particularly important point right now. ICEF's crisis coincides with the national buzz about "Waiting for Superman," a documentary that lionizes charter schools and generally portrays public schools as bastions of mediocrity defended by ineffective and uncaring teachers. The film follows several families whose hopes for their children's education are pinned to the lotteries that most charter schools must hold when they have more applicants than seats. For most of the families, being denied a place at the charter school means their children will be consigned to local schools with low scores, troubled student populations, high dropout rates and, in one case, a teacher who never responds to requests for a meeting.
"Waiting for Superman" is right to emphasize how many students have been let down by public education and the role of charter schools in fighting back at an often immovable bureaucracy. All of the families in the film lack the financial resources to pay for private school or to move to a neighborhood with better schools. For families like these, high-quality charter schools have too often represented their only chance for a college-preparatory education. By refusing to operate under stifling union contract restrictions, these schools have modeled some of the practices that should have been in place all along at public schools: flexibility in assigning teachers, accountability to parents, the ability to fire the worst teachers without getting caught up in years of budget-busting bureaucratic wrangling. Charter schools deserve much credit for advancing reforms that are just now starting to catch on in public school districts, including L.A. Unified, such as easing overly restrictive seniority and tenure rules that harm children while protecting adults.
Yet the film's implication that charter schools are America's educational solution ignores another set of realities. Chief among them: Many charter schools aren't great — or even as good as the nearest public schools. An extensive Stanford University study found that only 17% of charter schools did a better job than neighboring public schools.
In addition, many high-performing charter schools depend on substantial private donations to achieve their aims. A charter operator in Harlem that is particularly praised in the film spends about twice as much on each child as the state of California allots per child in its public schools.