This article first appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, an independent nonprofit public policy newspaper online at sfpublicpress.org.
by Rob Waters
When students at Malcolm X Academy returned to their elementary school in the Bayview in August to begin a new year, they came back to a changed environment. Over the summer, part of their school building had been taken over by KIPP Bayview Elementary, a charter school operated by Knowledge is Power Program, the largest charter network in the country and in San Francisco.
For Malcolm X students and staff, the KIPP school was hardly welcome. The San Francisco School Board voted unanimously last year to reject KIPP’s application to open a new school, its third in the neighborhood and fourth in the city. Teachers and students at Malcolm X were also opposed, and marched around the neighborhood in protest.
But local preferences didn’t matter. The State Board of Education overruled the city’s school board and approved KIPP’s application. The conflict between the two schools reflects a growing battle playing out in San Francisco and across the state – and the Bayview continues to be in the middle.
Now the story is repeating itself. A fourth charter school, Mary L. Booker Academy, is getting set to open next fall – once again over the unanimous objections of the San Francisco School Board. With the support of Innovate Public Schools, a pro-charter advocacy group based in San Jose, the Booker Academy appealed to the State Board of Education. In early November, the state board once again overruled San Francisco’s elected school board and cleared the proposed charter school to open.
Booker Academy has told San Francisco district officials it will have at least 80 enrolled students and requested a building it can move into. Under state law, the district must now come up with a suitable location. That may require the district to place the Booker school in a building already in use by a district-operated school, as happened with Malcolm X. And that may be a recipe for more conflict in the Bayview.
Bayview school feeling squeezed by new charter
Malcolm X Academy sits atop one of the peaks that gives the Bayview district its name. While it has had more than its share of struggles over the years, school leaders say the school has been making progress. By the end of last year, 72 percent of Malcolm X students were reading at or above grade level, up from 55 percent in previous years, former principal Elena Rosen said in an interview last May, when a reporter visited the school.
“We’re seeing systematic growth in our reading data,” she said. “We’re closing the gap.“
At the time, the school was reeling from a decision requiring Malcolm X to share space with the KIPP School. Students, parents and teachers felt anxious and worried that some of their fragile progress would be undermined.
Gina Bissell, a reading recovery teacher, provided a school tour. She showed off her room, a corner space with bookshelves, posters and a small table for working with kids one-on-one or in small groups. Every day, she pulls 15 to 18 kids who are reading below grade level out of their regular classroom to help them.
As Bissell talked, a thin 8-year-old boy came in and gave her a hug. He transferred to Malcolm X six months earlier and has since moved up four reading levels. “I get a lot of help from Miss Bissell,“ he said. “She’s my favorite teacher.“
At his old school, he said, he had stomach aches and got in trouble for staying too long in the bathroom, ending up with six suspensions. Now, he said, he likes coming to school.
Bissell worries that the strict behavioral rules employed in many charter schools won’t work for kids like him. “It’s too rigid,“ Bissell said. “He’s thriving in an environment where it’s more engaging and activated. He’s built trusting relationships with adults and wants to be here.“
On the second floor, an outdoor education classroom used four days a week was lined with seedlings and potting soil. Two doors down, a therapist worked one-on-one with a child.
Since KIPP moved in and took over six classrooms, these classrooms, and others used last year by Malcolm X’s after-school program, have been turned over to KIPP. Bissell now shares her space with a Malcolm X resource teacher who helps children with special needs. Their meetings are supposed to be confidential, so Bissell and her colleague must figure out how to manage the space and protect the children’s privacy.
“It’s hard to share our space,“ said school librarian Deirdre Elmansoumi. “But we are trying to be cordial and make the most of it.“
Charter boosters cite results. Critics say they drain funds, manufacture support and cherry-pick students.
Thirteen charter schools operate in San Francisco, with about 4,300 students. Like all charters, they call themselves public schools and don’t charge tuition. They are not answerable to the school district, and they set their own curriculum, hiring and discipline policies. They receive state funds for every student they enroll, taking money that the local district would otherwise receive.
Critics say charter and traditional public schools don’t operate on equal footing – that charters take less than their fair share of the most challenging students, including homeless children and those with learning disabilities, and that they suspend and expel students at higher rates. That selectivity may boost charter test scores, but it erodes hard-won progress in public classrooms and siphons resources from public schools, these critics contend. They argue that the increasingly aggressive, privately funded push for charters amounts to a massive effort to privatize public education by turning public dollars over to private, self-governing entities.
This conflict may have a profound effect on the future of the city’s public schools. Enrollment has been declining for years, as poor and middle-class parents flee the city’s high housing costs and affluent families send their kids for private education. The number of African-American students in district schools dropped from 10,136 in 1996-1997 to 3,925 in 2016-2017. The district has grappled for years with large gaps in test scores and graduation rates that leave African-American and Latino students far behind whites and Asians.
The backers and the opponents
The backers of charter schools are led by Innovate Public Schools, a nonprofit group bankrolled by Silicon Valley technology investors and the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy started by the founders of Walmart. In the past year, Innovate has stepped up its activities in San Francisco, hosting public forums, hiring community organizers and publishing a stream of reports and social media posts that promote charter schools and highlight the poor performance of the city’s public schools in serving African-American and Latino students. It also acts as an incubator, underwriting the costs of developing new charters.
Opposing the charter advocates are a group of parents, teachers and local school board members who have been working to improve the city’s public schools, especially those serving African-American and Latino students. They charge that Innovate portrays itself as community-based, but manipulates low-income parents of color, using parents’ frustration with the school system as a way to recruit kids into charter schools.
“They’re fake,“ said Alison Collins, a member of the district’s African American Parent Advisory Council and cofounder of SF Families Union, which pushes for equity and improvement in public schools. “If you say you’re working with Black families, you should be connected to Black families in the community. But they’re not. How can you say you’re championing our issue when you have no connection with us?“ Collins, a mother of two middle-school students and former teacher, just won a seat on the San Francisco school board.
Innovate co-founder and CEO Matt Hammer, the son of former San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer, said his organization is “all about great public schools for low-income kids” – whether they are run by traditional school districts or by charter school operators. In the Bay Area, he said, “charter schools are serving underserved kids at a significantly higher level, providing a better education.“
State education data compiled by Innovate shows that Latino and African-American students attending district-run public schools in San Francisco lag far behind white and Asian students on math and English scores, graduation rates and eligibility to attend state universities. And among schools with large percentages of Latinos and African-American students, charter schools tend to rank among the highest performers, especially at the high school level.
But that paints an incomplete picture, opponents say.
“To get into a charter, you have to navigate the application process, and the most marginalized families don’t have the wherewithal,“ said Mark Sanchez, a former San Francisco principal now serving his second stint on the city’s Board of Education. This may lower the school’s performance on test scores, he said, and “allow charter schools to say, ‘We’re doing a better job than you.’ But they’re not reaching the hardest to serve students.“
Asked about this during an interview, Hammer and Geraldine Anderson, a Bayview parent who recently joined Innovate’s board, said in unison, “That’s not true.“ But State Board of Education data bear out the point: While a similar percentage of students in district and charter schools are socioeconomically disadvantaged, district schools are serving about four times as many homeless children as charter schools and greater numbers of English-language learners and students with disabilities.
Charters blamed for budget cuts
Across the state, 250 school districts are facing budget cuts, and the expansion of charter schools – where 10 percent of public school students now attend classes – is a significant cause, according to a report released in May by In the Public Interest, a think tank that studies the privatization of public services. Charters are draining funds from districts, contributing to gaping deficits, school closings and layoffs, said the report’s author, Gordon Lafer, an economist at the University of Oregon.
Lafer examined the finances of three districts and estimated that, for the 2016-2017 school year, charter school expansion cost the Oakland Unified School District $57 million in lost revenue, forcing the district to cut back on counselors, school supplies and toilet paper. He pegged the cost to San Diego at $66 million and to Santa Clara’s East Side Union High School District at $19 million. San Diego laid off almost 400 teachers and East Side plans to eliminate 66 jobs over the next two years. Such revenue losses have forced many schools to cut optional services like art and music classes, he said.
While Lafer didn’t look at the impact of charter expansion on the finances of San Francisco’s public schools, he has no doubt it is doing harm. “If you have a declining student population, the last thing you want to do is say, ‘Let’s open more schools,’” Lafer said.
Parents speak out
At first glance, the forum held at Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church in the Bayview last May had the look and feel of a grassroots campaign for economic and social justice. Young community organizers, mostly black and Latino, signed people in on Apple computers as they arrived. A man wearing a multicolored African kufi cap roamed the hall with a clipboard.
At the front of the hall, a woman identified as a “parent volunteer“ was speaking. “I don’t know about y’all, but I’m tired of the community not having control of how it’s policed,“ she said. “I’m tired of seeing my family and friends pushed out of the city because they aren’t able to afford living here anymore. … And do you know there are schools in this city where almost none of the Black students are able to read or do math at grade level?“
Another woman, alternating between English and Spanish, took a turn. “The only way we’re going to make sure our kids have a bright future is to stand together: Latinos, African American, Pacific Islanders, whites, standing up for our kids,“ she said. “I’m originally from Mexico and all I want – todo que querido – is for my children to have a good future.“
The sentiments were sincere and heartfelt, the problems real. But the call for unity that issued from the podium stands in sharp contrast to the battle unfolding in social media and at school board hearings.
When the application for KIPP’s elementary school came before the board last November, Innovate staff members and parent volunteers packed a pubic hearing to support KIPP’s bid and to blast the school district for failing African-American and Latino children. They asked that a “state of emergency“ be declared.
“Students’ human rights are being violated,“ said Anderson. “We need immediate action.“
Shamann Walton: ‘Charters using Black and Brown families’
When the public speakers were done, school board member Shamann Walton, a Bayview resident who has since been elected to the Board of Supervisors, took a turn.
“There’s a record of charter schools which some of you may not know,“ Walton said. “They use our Black and Brown families to promote certain narratives and propaganda. They get them to start and participate in charter schools and then our most challenging students are weeded out. It’s a state of emergency, but charter schools are not the answer.“
For the Bayview community, the focus of attention now shifts to the proposed Booker Academy. Its backers, led by Innovate, plan to open it as a sixth-through-12th-grade school in the fall of 2019 and have named it for the well-known Bayview artist and activist who died last year. The proposed founding principal is Terrence Davis, a former charter school special education teacher from San Diego who was hired by Innovate as a “school founder-in-residence.” Its location is still up in the air and may lead to another co-location as at Malcolm X.
Diane Gray, a Bayview resident and founder of 100% College, a 20-year-old after-school program that helps neighborhood youth get ready for college, said the proposed school didn’t arise from the community. Rather, she said, Innovate developed the idea and began “pounding the pavement“ to win support from Bayview parents whose children now attend local public schools.
“Innovate and folks who want to open charter schools are targeting our schools and families of color,“ Gray said.
Rob Waters is an award-winning Bay Area journalist who has been reporting about health, social justice, poverty and children’s issues for four decades. He got his start producing radio stories for Haight Ashbury Community Radio and was editor of the Tenderloin Times for most of the 1980s. He was a health and science reporter for Bloomberg News, and has written for San Francisco magazine, the LA Times, Mother Jones, Sierra, STAT and numerous other publications. He can be reached at email@example.com. Rob Waters developed this article for the San Francisco Public Press, an independent nonprofit investigative news organization, online at sfpublicpress.org.