Karen Wolfe, parent activist in Los Angeles, writes here in response to an ill-informed article in the Napa Valley Register by columnist Dan Walters. I read Walters’ article and it did not reflect what I knew about California. He thinks that the angels of light are on the side of privatization, battling the mighty “education establishment.” He thinks that “civil rights groups” support the privatization of public schools. This doesn’t make sense, inasmuch as the billionaires and privatizers are out to destroy public education in California. Rather than say so myself, from a distance of 3,000 miles, I turned to someone, Karen Wolfe, who is up to date on the state of the “school wars,” to respond to Dan Walters’ views.

She wrote:

California’s school war flares up on three fronts

Dan Walters is right that there is a fierce battle over public education in the state of California that is sure to heat up as the 2018 elections draw nearer. However, the framing of an entrenched establishment pitted against altruistic reformers is naive or misleading.

The real fight is over who gets the money in the state’s second largest budget line and what that means for our notion of government.

Do we update our public school system around the protections and oversight built into its foundation? Or do we privatize the system, handing over money and children to a free-market of charter school choices on little more than a promise to be responsible and effective?

Setting aside for the moment that the purpose of public school is more than achievement on standardized tests, one factor to consider is that the charters aren’t doing any better than the traditional public schools, according to the often-cited CREDO study (Urban Charter Schools in California, 2015).

Cal State Sacramento’s Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Julian Vasquez Heilig, told me that in many cases California charters have a negative impact on student learning. Even where any impact is positive, it is minuscule, he said. This is especially important when the push for more charters is compared to other education reforms like universal pre-kindergarten or class size reduction. Both of these have been found to show far larger positive impacts.

In fact, those are among the reforms sought by the Equity Coalition, a group referred to in the op ed. But the author doesn’t mention those reforms. Nor does he tell readers the primary objective of the group’s lawsuit: A larger overall education budget.

It seems no matter the topic of education policy, the so-called reformers claim that charter schools are the only answer.

This view puts them in close alignment with US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Her home state provides a stark example of the failure of privatization. Education historian and author Diane Ravitch writes, “Since Michigan embraced the DeVos family’s ideas about choice, Michigan has steadily declined on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.” From 2003 to 2015, the state’s NAEP rankings on fourth grade reading and math have dropped from 28th to 41st, and from 27th to 42nd, respectively, she writes.

And what about the money?

Every day, new reports of financial scandals at charters are posted by Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. A study last year by consumer watchdog In the Public Interest, found that California taxpayers have paid $2.5 billion for charter school facilities alone. Much of that went for buying or leasing facilities in areas that already had surplus classrooms. The Spending Blind report also underscored the CREDO findings, stating that the education offered at three fourths of the charters was worse than that provided at nearby district schools.

Walters also asserts that civil rights groups are behind the push for more charters. This, too, is a talking point of the privatizers. While it’s true that there is an affinity for charters among many civil rights groups, the nation’s oldest and foremost civil rights organization, the NAACP, has called for a moratorium on new charter schools. Following a nationwide series of public hearings, the NAACP said it “rejects the emphasis on charter schools as the vanguard approach for the education of children, instead of focusing attention, funding, and policy advocacy on improving existing, low performing public schools…”

In any discussion about education policy or politics, the well-informed will recognize the talking points in the carefully constructed narrative meant to accelerate the transfer of one of the most important functions of government into a market-based enterprise.

California’s election of a new State Superintendent next year will amplify the school wars. That race pits Tony Thurmond, a former school board member on the pro-public schools side, against Marshall Tuck, formerly of Bain Capital, on the privatizers side.

There is even more at stake in the race for Governor. Both front runners, Antonio Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom, have ties to charter funders. Villaraigosa has a long track record of trying to advance the corporate reform agenda and Newsom’s education platform is less clear. Current State Treasurer John Chiang has called for greater transparency and accountability for charters to even the playing field with pure public schools.

The future of public education is at stake in the 2018 elections. Underneath the stories the candidates tell, the issue is, who do we trust more with California students: profit-seeking corporations or locally elected school boards?

Karen Wolfe is the Director of PSconnect, a community engagement program for public schools in Los Angeles.