middle school students
San Diego Unified School District is the state’s second-largest district with a combined enrollment of more than 128,000 students and a total of 51 charter schools. Photo: SDUSD

Citing a report that contends the district loses $65.9 million a year in state funding due to students attending area charter schools, San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten called Tuesday for greater local control in the review of charter applications.

“We want local control and the ability to choose a better future for our city and the students we serve,” Marten said. “Only with robust local control and true accountability will our children continue to thrive in San Diego.”

Marten pointed to a report released Tuesday by the Oakland-based think tank In the Public Interest that sought to pinpoint the costs of charter schools to public school districts. The report estimated SDUSD loses $65.9 million annually due to charters, while Oakland Unified lost $57.3 million.

The California Charter Schools Association, however, blasted the report as “yet another tactic by special interests to prioritize politics over kids,” and “pure propaganda.”

“Charter public schools are an essential partner in a school district’s mission to provide all students with a high-quality public education and are a valuable part of California’s public education system,” according to the association. “But they are not responsible for, nor do they have control over, any district’s financial decisions.”

According the In the Public Interest report, written by University of Oregon political science professor Gordon Lafer, the number of charter schools in California has increased more than 900 percent in the past 20 years. Lafer’s report estimates that San Diego Unified — the state’s second-largest district with a combined enrollment of more than 128,000 students and a total of 51 charter schools — loses nearly $4,913 per year for each student attending a charter school.

The report also laments that state law does not allow local school boards to consider the impact of a proposed charter school on a district’s fiscal health or educational programs.

“Public officials at both the local and state levels should be empowered to take fiscal and educational impacts on neighborhood schools into account when deciding whether to authorize a new charter school,” according to the report.

Marten echoed that sentiment, saying the district’s core educational costs — such as building and administration expenses — remain generally stable despite decreasing revenue caused by students’ move to charter schools.

The CCSA argued, however, that charter schools are not to blame for districts’ financial woes.

“Local districts must own their role as fiscal stewards responsible for their budgets and stop ignoring the hard decisions that lie ahead — like crushing unfunded pension liabilities or underused facilities — and come up with a range of solutions that ultimately benefit all public students,” according to the association. “The methodology in this report is deeply flawed, draws irresponsible conclusions and shows a lack of understanding of district financials and only serves as a distraction.”

–City News Service