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San Diego Unified Superintendent Seeks Charter Changes Following Critical Report

A stack of reports titled

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: A stack of reports titled "Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts" is shown, May 8, 2018.

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.

Currently, state law prohibits districts from considering their own finances when asked to approve petitions for new charter schools.

"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."

RELATED: Group Is Challenging San Diego Unified’s Elections Instead Of Its Incumbents

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 estimates SDUSD loses $65.9 million annually due to charters.

That's because when a child transfers to a charter school, she takes about $10,500 dollars in state funding with her. The report says the school she left saves more than half of that by not having to teach her, but it’s still losing about $4,900 dollars that would have gone to the school for fixed costs, such as a principal and air conditioning.

Photo by Tony Zuniga

A infographic shows the cost to school districts when they lose a student, May 8, 2018.

Last school year, more than 22,500 students who would have gone to a district school attended charters.

"No matter what, we need janitors to clean up, lights to turn on," said Lee Gabriel, a parent at Wilson Middle School who spoke at a press conference organized by the report authors. "If you take away each kid that goes away to another charter school, pretty soon there’s not going to be enough money for the school to turn their lights on. So all I’m saying is that charter schools are great but only to a certain point."

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

The report was written by University of Oregon political science professor Gordon Lafer, who has served as a policy analyst and expert witness for state and federal legislatures. He also has a background in union organizing, and ITPI Director Donald Cohen is the former political director of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

"The report and our organization are not anti-charter school or 'anti' any particular model," Lafer said. "The only thing we’re 'anti' is costs not being counted."

The group has provided an online template for other districts to calculate the cost of charters and is calling on state lawmakers to give districts more recourse when the costs become too high. State law only allows districts to turn down charter petitions if they can show the school's education or business plan is unsound.

Michelle Anderson, the CCSA regional manager for San Diego and Orange counties, cautioned against making it easier for districts to block charters.

"What I think people aren’t talking about in regards to charter schools is that charter schools bring a level of competition, and when a charter school moves into an area and does well, very often, reports are showing that traditional neighborhood schools also rise to the occasion," Anderson said.

She said it's important to maintain options for families and to strive for better models of education.

"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," Anderson's group said in a statement. "But they are not responsible for, nor do they have control over, any district's financial decisions."

Last year, SDUSD faced a $124 million budget shortfall due, in large part, to rising pension costs.

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.

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