How Charter Schools "Co-Locate" with Public Schools and Tear Them Apart
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The following was originally published in Frying Pan News.
For more than 30 years each, Cheryl Smith-Vincent and Cheryl Ortega have shared a passion for teaching public school in Southern California. Smith-Vincent teaches third grade at Miles Avenue Elementary School in Huntington Park; before retiring, Ortega taught kindergarten at Logan Street Elementary School in Echo Park. Both women have been jolted by experiences with a little-known statewide policy that requires traditional public schools to share their facilities with charter schools. Ortega says she has seen charter-school children warned against greeting non-charter students who attend the same campus. Smith-Vincent reports that she and her students were pushed out of their classroom prior to a round of important student tests – just to accommodate a charter school that needed the space.
“It was extremely disruptive,” Smith-Vincent says of the incident.
The practice of housing a traditional public school and a charter school on the same campus is known as “co-location.” Charters are publicly funded yet independently operated, and are intended to encourage innovation and improve student performance. Under Proposition 39, a school-funding ballot initiative adopted by California voters in 2000, charter schools were given the right to use empty classrooms and share in underutilized public school facilities.
Proponents of the measure, including the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), claim that it ensures that all public school students, including those enrolled in charter schools, share equally in school district facilities. But critics contend that co-locating siphons key resources from the already-underfunded traditional public schools, depriving students of playground space, library time and other resources.
“One of the difficult things about having a charter school co-located on a district public school campus is that . . . the two schools end up competing for those things that are necessary to provide a quality education for the students,” says Robin Potash, an elementary school teacher and chair of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) Proposition 39 Committee. “That includes competing for the same students.”
“We’ve collected lots of anecdotal stories [about] the inequitable use of space, disparity of resources, use of school personnel, lack of services for special education students and English-language learners, and the meals that are provided – pre-packaged versus hot gourmet,” Potash continues. Her last point refers to some charter students receiving their lunches from Whole Foods.
Though the practice of co-location is little known to the general public, it is not uncommon in California. Co-locations exist or have been approved in San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego and in Kern County in California’s Central Valley. In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) alone, there are 65 co-locations involving traditional public schools and charters, with the district’s charter schools typically requesting space for about 25,000 students to be co-located.
“That’s the equivalent of finding space for the entire Pasadena Unified School District,” says Jose Cole-Gutierrez, LAUSD’s director of charter schools.
It’s not easy to house two separate schools on the same campus and it can be particularly difficult when the schools have separate and disparate cultures, educational philosophies and traditions. Charter school students sometimes wear uniforms, traditional public school students do not. Sometimes all of the students come from the neighborhood, other times many of the charter’s students are from different parts of Los Angeles. Sometimes the administrators at the schools cooperate; other times they compete. To be sure, some co-locations operate smoothly, with teachers, administrators and parents working together to minimize disruptions, although co-locations have also become controversial in New York City, for similar reasons as in California.
Ricardo Soto, the CCSA’s senior vice president for legal advocacy and general counsel, defends co-locations as a way to ensure that all public school students have access to facilities. He says that in many cases co-location makes sense because of declining enrollment in traditional public schools and increasing enrollment in charters.