Monday, August 29, was the first day of school for San Diego Unified School District. Photo by Chris Stone
A student waits for a bus on the first day of the new school year in 2022. Photo by Chris Stone

wealth of data about charter schools nationwide are concerning. Charter schools have made national headlines for scandalslower test scores, and a host of other strange activities that make a public school teacher like myself frankly cringe.

For nearly 15 years, I have watched them open, close and re-open again here in southeast San Diego, purporting to be a better option with words in their names like “promise” and “preparatory academy.” 

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Many parents too have heard a lot of political banter about public schools in recent months. And many parents will undoubtedly be considering charter schools this time of year for the 2023-2024 school year because of it. 

Whether you agree with me or not on any of these points, you may however wish to carefully take a look at recent test score data right here in San Diego. Why? Because San Diego test score data should particularly concern parents.

In fact, if you are even remotely considering a charter school, I’ve got some extraordinarily worrying statistics for you. And those statistics are extraordinarily bad regardless of your income or where you live in San Diego.

Let’s start with English language arts since reading is fundamental in any school.  

If you are a student considered “economically disadvantaged” in the San Diego Unified School District, you’ve still got a decent chance of being grade level proficient in a public school at 69.23%. If however, you are at a San Diego Unified charter it’s not a very safe bet. Only 36.46%, of economically disadvantaged students made grade level at San Diego charters this year.

But perhaps, as a middle-class parent, you are less concerned about English. After all, the one truism of test scores throughout history is that students not disadvantaged economically perform better on state exams, especially in reading.

Unfortunately for you, the data is still very worrisome. While 86.95% of public school kids deemed financially secure were at grade level or higher, at charter schools in 2022 it’s a very different story indeed. Only 57.23% of economically stable kids can read at or above grade level in San Diego charter schools.

And what about math? Students clearly took a hit across the board in San Diego Unified as a whole. But if you are an economically disadvantaged family, where would you rather have your child? In a public school where 41.67% of the kids are at math grade level or at a charter school where just 18.35% can do math at grade level?

By now you may be able to predict what the outcomes were for affluent and middle-class students in San Diego Unified Schools for math too. In SDUSD public schools, 76.9% of the kids from financially secure homes are grade level proficient or higher in mathematics. But at SDUSD charters it’s 43.21%.

If this data feels overwhelming, it’s possibly because it is.

Many of my colleagues and I have known and seen these contrasts for years. Often, I receive students mid-year from charter schools who are very far behind in both math and reading. When I meet with parents following diagnostic assessments, often I hear things like, “I had no idea!” Or, “But he was doing so well at the other school!”

*For example, at the charter school down the street from us, students received high marks for years, despite their inability to do the work. Not surprisingly, Gompers Preparatory, whose colorful buildings proclaim things like, “We are a UCSD partner school” and “Get your GPA,” has some of the lowest secondary standardized test scores in all of San Diego county, despite their claims of college preparation. They’ve also been rocked by scandals.

But Gompers isn’t the only charter near us looking to fill seats. Literally across the street from my school on Market Street, a new enrollment sign appeared over the summer. It was colorful, and bright, but it didn’t include test score data. 

And I know why.

  When it comes to charter schools, my advice to friends and family has always been “buyer beware.” There are just too many unfulfilled promises and strategies far better suited to keeping business steady than to getting down to business.

The advice I give to all parents in San Diego is this:

Come back to your local public school. We’re not perfect, and we need your input in the PTA, in school board meetings, at Site Governance Team meetings, at parent-teacher conferences and sometimes in the principal’s office. But most of all, we need you and your students working alongside us.

And when it comes to earning the grade, instead of being given one, data shows clearly that you still need us too.

Thomas Courtney is a 5th grade teacher at Chollas-Mead Elementary School. He was named a teacher of the year in 2021.