In Wine Country, a Sideways “Charter School”

As “Waiting for Superman” shines a bright spotlight on successful charter schools, some newspaper coverage out of Sonoma County, California reminds us again that “charter school” doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere.

As the Press Democrat reports, the new charter school in rural Petaluma isn’t trying to offer up an innovative alternative to the local district school. That’s because it is the local district school, 140 years old and countingóbut now converting to charter status in order to, well, stay the same.

“We wanted to keep our programs intact with all the budget cuts that were happening in the state,” [Principal Kim Wilding] said. “By becoming a charter, we had a different funding formula.”

By different, she means favorably different. Unlike New York, where all charters are underfunded and conversions even more so because they still pay into pension systems, conversion charters in California can reap some funding improvements. They can get paid for absent students, for example, if those students simply “complete work packets” for each day missed. Conversion charter schools are also eligible for state planning grants, even if they aren’t planning major changes.

Principal Wilding is frank about her motivations for going charter: for rural conversion schools at least, it’s where the money is. “From my view, there is a push from the federal government,” she says. “You play the game. If [the state and feds] want to keep money from (local district schools), we are going to try to find ways to get the money somehow,” she said. “I don’t like that part.”

Put me on the record: I don’t like it either.

It’s not that I object to schools like Dunham Elementary adopting an independent governance structure, although if I were a California taxpayer I’d think twice about those financial incentives. (New school motto: “Every day as valuable as a homework packet!”)

No, my problem is in the label. Dunham Elementary was not created to shake up the educational status quo, but now it’s in a category that is measured by that standard. And if a school like Dunham doesn’t outperform similar district schools in the next multi-state study of charters that finds mixed results, don’t expect charter school critics to make the distinction.

Yet there is one. And with all eyes on charter schools right now, we need to make sure chartering is about improving outcomes — not protecting our bottom line.