September 16, 2012
What with the Chicago teacher's strike, "charter schools" are in the news again. It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference among charter schools that gets overlooked.
For example, I knew the fine principal and some of the best teachers at my son's public middle school. I was impressed that they went on to start a charter high school about six years ago. They are a high quality group of educators, but they've since struggled to find an adequate permanent home for their high school. I believe they are currently renting a couple of acres from a Korean church in Van Nuys, after an opportunity to acquire a more impressive space fell through. Real estate in the San Fernando Valley is expensive.
You can see this even in the successful old private schools in the area that typically must deal with constricted grounds. My guess is that most of the better-known private schools would like to add either sports facilities or more students if they could find the room. Crespi, south of Ventura Boulevard in pricey Encino, concentrates on being a football powerhouse in part because they don't have room for a baseball field. Flintridge Prep is slowly buying up adjoining million dollar houses in La Canada to knock down in order to lengthen its 80 yard football field. Even ultra-rich Harvard-Westlake in Coldwater Canyon is a little claustrophobic. They've got buildings galore, but not close to enough land for all the monuments to themselves that rich people would like to build on the campus. The thriving Jewish schools founded after busing came to the Valley in the late 1970s appear to be especially cramped for room because they got a late start in the real estate game.
On the other hand, many of the old public schools of the San Fernando Valley were carved out of farmland to serve a future huge population with ease. For example, Birmingham H.S. in Lake Balboa has 72 acres of easily freeway-accessible campus. Its spacious grounds are used routinely as a filming location by the entertainment industry. Birmingham went charter several years ago in a dispute over whether its lucrative stream of TV and Movie money should go to the school district as a whole or just to Birmingham.
How much would 72 acres of land with a full set of facilities in the middle of the San Fernando Valley cost to rent? A half million dollars per month? A million?
And, for me, that raises a fundamental distinction between types of charters schools. Entrepreneurial educators who leave an established campus to hustle together a new charter school against the odds seem admirable. In contrast, educational power players who win control for themselves over giant real estate holdings under the guise of charter school reform might be equally admirable, but they should be viewed more skeptically than the adventurers setting out on their own. I'm not saying that all charter schools that take over elaborate facilities are a scam, just that if you gave me control of a place that might rent for a million dollars per month, there are, let's just say, opportunities.