A reader sent me this Bloomberg.com story about a public charter school in Silicon Valley that asks its wealthy families to donate $5,000 a year, which some parents view as a deal for a public school with private school amenities.
Bullis Charter School is in Los Altos, where the median home is worth $1 million. The story asks whether Bullis, which accepts one in six kindergarten applicants and attracts the children of computer company titans, distorts the original purpose of charter schools — to provide kids trapped in failing public schools with the same choices as more affluent peers.
Increasingly around the country and in Georgia, charter schools are opening in suburban communities with strong public schools because those parents want greater choice, too.
The Bloomberg story cites a study that found 25 percent of U.S. charter schools don’t participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, compared with 2 percent at traditional public schools. (The participation rate in the federal lunch program is seen as a proxy for the number of poor children in a school.)
The story also notes that one out of five of the country’s 5,200 charter schools is in a suburb, including affluent communities like Los Altos.
While charters are heralded for offering underprivileged kids an alternative to failing U.S. districts, Bullis gives an admissions edge to residents of parts of Los Altos Hills, where the median home is worth $1 million and household income is $219,000, four times the state average.
“Bullis is a boutique charter school,” said Nancy Gill, a Los Altos education consultant who helps parents choose schools. “It could bring a whole new level of inequality to public education.”
The growing ranks of U.S. charter schools in affluent suburbs are pitting neighbor against neighbor and, critics say, undercutting the original goals of the charter movement. Families who benefit cherish extensive academic offerings and small classes. Those who don’t say their children are being shortchanged because the schools are siphoning off money and the strongest students, leaving school districts with higher expenses and fewer resources for poor, immigrant and special- needs kids.
Bullis Charter School offers its 465 students a rich, interdisciplinary education unavailable in regular schools, said Principal Wanny Hersey. She compared Bullis to Silicon Valley companies such as Apple Inc. (AAPL) — whose leader, the late Steve Jobs, grew up in Los Altos.
Bullis’s popularity shows that even parents in wealthy, top-performing school districts such as Los Altos have become disenchanted and are seeking alternatives. Bullis has higher state standardized test scores and offers more art and extracurricular activities than the Los Altos district, which is cutting music and increasing class size. Bullis has achieved this success while receiving about 60 percent of the conventional system’s public funding.
Parents in Los Altos Hills created Bullis in 2003 because they were angry after the district closed their neighborhood school, said Mark Breier, a founder of the school and former chief executive of Beyond.com. The founding parents won a charter from the Santa Clara County Board of Education after the Los Altos district twice rejected them. After giving spots to current students and their siblings, Bullis reserves half of its slots for residents of the neighborhood that fed into the old school.
Last year, U.S. charter schools received $14.8 billion in local, state and federal money, up from $4.5 billion in 2003, according to an estimate by Washington-based Aspire Consulting LLC, which analyzes public-education finances.
In Minnesota, where the charter school movement began in 1992, charters in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region initially focused on black, urban neighborhoods and have since spread into wealthy suburbs, where schools are often predominantly white, according to research from the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Race and Poverty.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog