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Taxpayers Get Billed for Kids of Millionaires at Charter School

November 19, 2011

I have a question for my readers: How do you feel about financing the education for this guy’s kids?  Now, he is a fictional and foolish looking person plucked randomly off of the Internet for illustrative purposes, but my question stands.

Put another way, should taxpayers be getting billed, as the title of this Bloomberg article states for the “Kids of Millionaires?”

The school that the article refers to is Bullis Elementary in Silicon Valley.  This school accepts one in six kindergarten applicants, got that, one in six.  The school where I teach special education accepts EVERYONE because that is the law.

Yes, in this country we have laws with regard to education.  One of those laws is called FAPE, the acronym stands for Free Appropriate Public Education, but as this Bloomberg article points out, some FAPE is better than other FAPE.  This is a long but eye-opening article on a new trend of inequality manifesting itself in our country.

In Silicon Valley, Bullis elementary school accepts one in six kindergarten applicants, offers Chinese and asks families to donate $5,000 per child each year. Parents include Ken Moore, son of Intel Corp.’s co-founder, and Steven Kirsch, inventor of the optical mouse.

Bullis isn’t a high-end private school. It’s a taxpayer- funded, privately run public school, part of the charter-school movement that educates 1.8 million U.S. children. 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 Altoseducation consultant who helps parents choose schools. “It could bring a whole new level of inequality to public education.”

I would say it WILL, not it COULD bring a whole new level of inequality to public education.  You see, if the parents of these wealthy individuals wish that their child have all of the advantages that they feel a private education can offer them, that is their prerogative, and they can afford to pay for it.  But, sucking off the public teat for funding of their boutique charter school is just another way that the wealthy in this country have found for the government to subsidize their lifestyles (Occupy Movement anyone?).

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.

Valley’s Spirit

“It really speaks to the spirit of the valley, trying to be a model for innovation and unleashing human potential,” Hersey said in an interview.

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.

Every child deserves a good education, Buffy Poon, a Bullis mother of three and former EBay Inc. (EBAY) executive and Merrill Lynch & Co. banker, said in an interview.

“It takes all of us, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ (I cringe to use such blunt distinctions), to help improve the world.” Poon wrote in an e-mail to the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which oversees the school.

Netflix Founder

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.

To get advice on starting Bullis, Breier said he consulted with Silicon Valley luminaries and charter advocates. They included Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix Inc. and former president of the California State Board of Education and venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers.

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.

First Charter

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.

One out of five of the country’s 5,200 charter schools is in a suburb, including affluent communities like Los Altos, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. InMinnesota, 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.

A quarter of U.S. charter schools don’t participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, compared with 2 percent at conventional public schools, according to a 2010 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of CaliforniaLos Angeles.

Racial Balance

That means they aren’t serving a significant low-income population, Erica Frankenberg, co-author of the report and an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, said in an interview.

California’s 1992 charter law — the second in the U.S., after Minnesota’s — says schools should place “special emphasis” on “academically low-achieving” students and make an effort to reflect the “racial and ethnic balance” of the population in its district.

Last year, about 2 percent of Bullis students spoke English as a second language, compared with 11 percent in the district, county data show. Bullis had about half the percentage of Hispanic students or those with disabilities.

The charter school makes it tough for non English-speaking students to attend because it doesn’t have materials in Spanish, Doug Smith, a trustee on the Los Altos school board, said in an interview. Lower-income families aren’t even aware that the school is an alternative, he said.

‘Private School?’

On a recent afternoon, Anna Barragon, a 33-year-old immigrant from Mexico, picked up her kids at the Los Altos district’s Santa Rita Elementary School, down the street from Bullis. Every day, she drives by the charter school.

“I don’t know anything about it,” Barragon said of Bullis. “Is it a private school?”

“Bullis doesn’t fit with the spirit of the law,” said Gary Rummelhoff, a former president of the Santa Clara County Board of Education who sits on the board of a charter school in nearby San Jose. “It only existed to serve a very wealthy area.”

Bullis doesn’t discriminate because it accepts children through a random lottery and broadly reflects the demographics of the community, said Moore, son of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore.

“Bullis is a public school, free and open to all,” said Moore, who chairs the Bullis board.

The school plans to translate materials into Spanish and advertise in Spanish-language papers, he said. Bullis offers free lunches to low-income students and doesn’t participate in the federal program because of administrative costs, Hersey said. Less than 1 percent of students would qualify for the program, she said.

Broadway and Stocks

On a recent school day at Bullis, a kindergarten class studied Mandarin. Second-graders, sitting cross-legged under pictures of Bach, Mozart, Liszt and Stravinsky, learned to read music. A seventh-grade math class worked on algebra — a year or two before most U.S. schools — while an advanced student did linear equations at a high-school level. The school offers electives in Broadway dance and the stock market.

“We’re lucky to have so many different things we can study here,” said third-grader Ishani Sood, 8, taking a break from her Mandarin class.

A foundation set up to help fund the school asks Bullis parents to donate at least $5,000 for each child they enroll. Those who can’t afford to pay should discuss the reason with a foundation member, “recognizing that other school families will need to make up the difference,” the foundation said on its website.

‘Aggressive’ Requests

In an interview, Anna Song, a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Education, said she received about 20 phone calls from parents who felt pressured to give because of repeated solicitation in school parking lots, e-mails and phone calls.

“They are very aggressive in asking parents for money,” said Laurie Uhler, a former Bullis parent. “If you don’t pay it, word gets out that you aren’t doing your part.” Parents often refer to the payments as “tuition,” she said in an interview.

Donations are “purely voluntary,” Moore said. They are necessary because Bullis receives less public money than the district, which has a foundation that asks for $1,000 per child, Moore said. The Los Altos School District last year spent about $10,000 per student, according to state data. Bullis receives about $6,000 in public funding, primarily because it doesn’t qualify for money from a local tax that the school district receives. On average U.S. charter schools get 19 percent less local, state and federal money than traditional districts, according to a 2010 Ball State University study.

District Cuts

The Los Altos school system is cutting back. Since 2009, the district’s budget has fallen 9 percent to about $40 million. Los Altos cut 20 teaching and other positions and eliminated many of its music programs. Maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grade rose to 25 from 20. Bullis averages fewer than 20.

Along with leaving the district with the hardest-to-serve students, Bullis-related expenses have hurt the Los Altos school system in other ways, said Randy Kenyon, an assistant superintendent.

For each district student who attends Bullis, the system loses about $5,000 in per-pupil funding, Kenyon said. Los Altos pays about $300,000 a year for the school’s facilities, he said.

Hersey said Bullis can provide its enriched education with the same amount of funding as the district, including donations, because it has less bureaucracy and overhead.

Bullis last month won an appeal of a lawsuit against the school district saying Los Altos must provide more space and buildings under the state’s charter-school law. Bullis currently operates out of portable classrooms. The case cost Bullis $900,000 in legal fees, according to its tax filings. The district spent about $700,000.

‘Sense of Entitlement’

Song, who originally supported the school, changed her mind when Bullis’s charter came up for renewal last month.

In an open letter, Song cited the school’s “sense of entitlement and lack of understanding of what it means to be part of public education.”

Bullis “performed abysmally in serving socioeconomically disadvantaged students,” she wrote. After a more than four-hour session, attended by 200 people, many of them Bullis parents wearing school T-shirts, the Santa Clara County school board voted to renew the charter, 5 to 2.

During a break, Arash Baratloo, a Google Inc. software engineer and Bullis parent, said he considered the $5,000 donation requested every year by Bullis to be “money well spent.” He previously sent his child to a private school where tuition was about $25,000 a year.

“It could be considered a bargain, but that’s not why we came,” Baratloo said. “We were looking for the best education out there, and that’s what we found.”

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21 Comments
  1. Admission to charters usually ALWAYS have a waiting list and is selected by lottery. Rich, poor, minority all can get in. Are you suggesting otherwise? Further, the added curriculum found in charters is usually because of the longer school days and longer school year. It is nice for parents who want their kids out-of-the-home and spending more time in schools similar as that found in other developed nations.

    Most charters (and many other schools) request donations.

    The bigger issue is the lack of collaboration by all stake holders found in most charters. They are either ran “for profits” or simply a top-down managment system. These are union-busters who simply take away lunchperiods, force yard duty, long days with massive meetings/trainings, and simply disrespect the professionalism of teachers as an equal to the educational outcome. Pay scales and Board Minutes are kept secretaive. Chareter organizers are usually paid higher than educators with more years of experience. Steps are usually unheard of. It is time that management also be held accountable for its practices and start to recognize that it takes a village. Charters is an experiment that is already being shown to be going astray. Scores will go up with more time in the classroom, but many charters are so poorly ran that increased instruction does not always equal increased performance. It is time for the public and educators to unite and set the record straight: teachers are not the scapegoats!!

  2. I agree with you that teachers are not, or shouldn’t be anyone’s scapegoat. I also agree that charters by nature are union-busting organizations, and that is by design. What I, and the author of the article, are suggesting is that this charter, in this location, is subsidizing the education of very wealthy parents who are gaming the system. See below quote from article:

    “Arash Baratloo, a Google Inc. software engineer and Bullis parent, said he considered the $5,000 donation requested every year by Bullis to be “money well spent.” He previously sent his child to a private school where tuition was about $25,000 a year.”

    Is there a reason that Bullis Charter should be subsidized when Arash Baratloo can and did afford private school tuition previously?

    • I really appreciate your great posts and issues raised. However, with this issue I personally feel charters can open anywhere, and yes in wealthy areas public schools and charters can show inequality in wealthy areas. Those areas the public can afford to donate more, thus the schools have many more perks.

      Since any taxpayer can choose to send their child to a private or public school (even a Charter) I don’t see a conflict. What irkes me is the ignorance of our public as to why there is a demand for Charters (waiting lists) and it is because of the long hours and low pay by desperate teachers in a slow economy. Union organizers need to enter these sites to ensure there is collaboration and professionalism. It is fair to have a system (even within a union) to get rid of bad teachers, but it is also fair to require the respect of reasonable due process. The extremes of both sides are all that we hear about: much like our current national political system.

      Thank you for the great topic!

      • I agree with a lot of what you have to say, the public’s education on charter schools is not what it should be, and our current political system is a mess for sure. Thank you for sharing.

  3. BCS Parent permalink

    I am a parent at BCS. This is really a very unfair article. I am not really sure what Mr. Hechinger’s intention is, perhaps we wanted to fire a shot in the class war. Here are some facts he failed to mention:

    The Los Altos School District has very few poor or even middle class students. Santa Rita, the school that he visited, has 7 % of it’s students that qualify for free or reduced lunch. All of the other schools have less than 3%. Bullis does not participate in the program, but does provide free lunches to students who need them.

    The average home price is Los Altos is actually closer to 1.5 million. The article unfairly implies that the BCS is enclave for the uber rich, a private school run with tax payers dollars. Almost everyone in Los Altos is well off. Home prices have averaged above 1 million since the late 90’s and they haven’t lost much value, even in the last couple of years. There are portions of Mountain View that are part of Los Altos School District. The average home price there is around 1 million.
    My point? All Los Altos Schools fit the headline, but taxpayers are getting billed quite a bit more for the kids in the District Run Schools.

    Bullis receives the state minimum in tax dollars, which averages out to around $6,500. That’s it.
    LASD, with the same wealthy parents receives $11,000. In addition, the school foundation asks parents to contribute about $1000 per student. At BCS the ask is $5000, because we are making up the difference. Some people can not afford to pay. No one knows who these people are, and no one hounds you. Last year, when funds were tight we waited to pay until the end of the year. No one bothered us.

    The District is laying off teachers because of very poor decision making; It gave a very generous benefits package to its’ employees and retirees. Paying 95% of dependents and 100% of employees heath care benefits, and the kicker was they offered to pay for any plan they wanted. HMO or PPO. This plan was very unfair to younger teachers, older teachers raked it in, while younger ones lost their jobs. It was also unfair to the students, who now have larger class sizes.

    • Thank you for posting, all I am saying is that I do agree with the gist of the author in this article. This charter was created by millionaires and for the most part services millionaires who can afford to go to private schools. Its charter was rejected twice prior to being approved (see below). And, why does Buffy Poon need subsidizing? If Mark Brier of Beyond.com wanted to start a school for neighborhood kids, why not open a private school? He didn’t do that because the private school could NOT get ANY state funding, do you see the conundrum? This is a very wealthy group of people starting a school, a charter school specifically so they can receive government funding. The gentlemen from Google explained it all when he said what a “good deal” it was for them.

      From the article:

      Every child deserves a good education, Buffy Poon, a Bullis mother of three and former EBay Inc. (EBAY) executive and Merrill Lynch & Co. banker, said in an interview.

      “It takes all of us, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ (I cringe to use such blunt distinctions), to help improve the world.” Poon wrote in an e-mail to the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which oversees the school.

      Netflix Founder
      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.

      To get advice on starting Bullis, Breier said he consulted with Silicon Valley luminaries and charter advocates. They included Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix Inc. and former president of the California State Board of Education and venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers.

      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.

  4. Joan J. Strong permalink

    Sir, it’s actually a lot WORSE than that when you get into the details. Bottom line, a bunch of rich people got pissed off when the district temporarily closed their public school (re-opened three years later), so they hired a bunch of lawyers and told them HURT the district as much as they possibly could. Helping kids had NOTHING to do with it.

    What they came up with was ingenious: like figuring out how to “buy a Ferrari with food stamps”, these lawyers figured out how to use laws the voters put there to help poor areas in order to help millionaires to get revenge on school district administrators.

    This charter is EVIL and a shining example of why Charters need to be constrained. One SIMPLE rule they could add to the charter laws is this one:

    “Section N.N. The Charter shall maintain standardized test scores of at least 15% higher than surrounding schools.”

    Simple, easy, and even fair to Charters which actually might be making a difference. For boutique millionaire revenge plots like this one–which maintains test scores of only 1-2% higher than the district average even though they eliminate difficult kids by charging $5k/year in tuition–they would be toast.

  5. Thank you for your input. I don’t know about them being “evil” but I will say that to me I can’t see why public dollars should go to fund kids who can and in many cases did attend private school. As the man in the article Arash Baratloo says, it is “money well spent” when he “contributes $5,000 to the school instead of the $25,000 he was paying for a private school. Something just seems off, or unfair to me.

  6. Joan J. Strong permalink

    Look, I am facing my children’s school being CLOSED because of these awful people.

    I guess you missed the part where this school has sued our school district repeatedly with their ultra-expensive lawyers and wants nothing less than to CLOSE some of our existing public schools, scattering our children all over town, to make way for themselves. The billionaire founders of this school could have EASILY bought a campus for their kids but they instead chose to litigate and make all of our lives miserable.

    Its an absolutely terrible situation when kids have to face their school being closed because a bunch of billionaires got pissed off at something a long time ago and want to take it out on innocent kids.

    I think if you understood the situation better, you’d see that it’s not just “a little off”, it’s actually really, really insane. None of us can believe that this is happening to us, but it is. We’re facing our schools closing and our kids being moved all over town. We’re stuck in the middle of a billionaire’s revenge plot.

    By the way, did you get the part where a bunch of millionaires and billionaires are “suddenly” really concerned about teacher salaries and benefits? It’s complete BS. They do NOT care about such things. They only talk about this because they have been forced to find excuses to exist.

    They started their Charter for ONE reason: a school closure. Now the district re-opened that school after renovations. So guess what? They are now working really hard to CLOSE that public school again so they have a reason to exist again. I am NOT making this up. It’s completely insane, but it IS happening here.

  7. Are there any local reporters doing stories on what is happening? I am interested in learning more, and I am sure my readers would be too.

  8. Joan J. Strong permalink

    We’re trying, and we’re revving up our plans, but our battle has just begun.

    You see, only in the last four weeks did we, as parents, have our “Pearl Harbor moment”. It was in November that BCS won the key ruling in the court that allows them to force the district to close local public schools, and so emboldened BCS supporters that they now talk of “several” schools in our district they wish to close, not just one.

    The Charter school operates like an extremely well-funded Silicon Valley start-up. They have the absolute best lawyers and PR firms money can buy and a “win at all costs” drive.

    Our public schools are just… public schools. They are not equipped to deal with a battle in the marketplace like this, nor is our school district. They don’t plaster flyers all over town advertising themselves, or make parents engage in letter writing campaigns, or indoctrinate them to hate charter schools as BCS has done against public schools for years. As parents, most of us didn’t even know this war was going on whereas the BCS side are all hardened true-believer warriors.

    As such, the battle has thus far been completely one-sided. Now that parents are facing the very REAL possibility of their local school closing, I think the battle will change dramatically. Stay tuned.

  9. Keep me informed, I would be happy to post what is happening to the public schools in your area to call attention to it.

  10. Joan J. Strong permalink

    So check this out:

    http://bullischarterscam.org/

    Guess parents are finally starting to get organized her in Los Altos, CA…

  11. Henrietta Barton permalink

    Wow. Joan J. Strong really has a strong, extreme, opinion. I think it varies significantly from the majority of the community. 30% of the public school kindergarteners apply at the Charter School. It’s held by lottery, because the charter school simply does not have the space for 6 additional classes.

    The whole idea about funding millionaires education is ridiculous, because if you are saying that a millionaire should not have access to a public education, then we should shut down the entire Los Altos school district and make everyone in this community send their child to a private school.

    I think the community recognizes that not every child is the same, and some may do well using project based learning environment (or at least 30% of the kinder parents!) The district public schools have a one size fits all methodology in their curriculum. It’s not a bad system at all, it just doesn’t fit every kid.

    Lastly, I’m offended that anyone in our educated community would dare call a school “evil”. Instead of bashing the charter school, we should try and emulate their successes in the other public schools.

    • I think that the idea “about funding millionaires education” is NOT ridiculous. I am saying that many of these millionaires sent their children to private schools previously, now they are pining for taxpayer dollars so they can get a break on their tuition, that is not fair in my opinion.

      From the article: “Netflix Founder
      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.”

      “To get advice on starting Bullis, Breier said he consulted with Silicon Valley luminaries and charter advocates. They included Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix Inc. and former president of the California State Board of Education and venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers.”

      Did you ever stop to wonder why Breier consulted with Silicon Valley luminaries and charter advocates? He wanted to get his school funded via a charter, rather than a private school? Why? Because even though residents can afford private, they want taxpayers to foot the bill. This is so obvious, take off the blinders please.

      • Can't Afford to Live in Los Altos (Not Even Close) permalink

        I think the point that needs reiterating is that the majority of families within a twenty mile radius of that school CAN afford private school. Does that mean that there should be no local public school simply because most of these tax-paying citizens could technically afford private school? That seems absurd, but that is essentially the point you are making.

        But the bottom line is this: Every child in the United States is entitled to public education. If all of this had happened in a moderate or even a low income area, no one would have looked twice. By law, every child is entitled to a free K-12 public education regardless of race, nationality, native language, gender, or immigration status. But because the parents of these kids are “rich” they should have the right to a public education taken away from them?

      • The point of the article was that Bullis, is a publicly funded charter school, essentially, it is a charter school – run privately – for children of millionaires with public tax dollars. Now, if Bullis were a public school existing on tax dollars there would not be a problem. But as parents in the article stated…they are working the system. Sorry you can’t see this clearly…not sure what you are really looking at.

      • Bullis Charter School receives over half of its revenues from private sources. It’s board is under private (and basically secret) control.

        In a recent proposed “deal” with our District (terms of surrender they wanted them to sign) BCS specified that they wanted EXCLUSIVE use of a current public school campus and that NO CHILD WAS EVER TO STEP FOOT THERE unless expressly invited by them. No more weekend frisbee throwing on the grass across the street, no more ballgames in the baseball diamond, more more nothing.

        The principal of BCS recently was reported to have bragged to prospective parents that her school was “immune” to State budget cuts because her school has $6m in the bank.

        No honest person could possibly call this a “public school”.

      • This isn’t a public school, it is a school that is siphoning off public dollars and operating as a charter. It is using public dollars to subsidize the millionaires who don’t want to pay for private schooling as they stated in the article.

  12. Joan permalink

    My children’s school is GREAT. It has OUTSTANDING test scores, OUTSTANDING attention to the individual and the “one size fits all” smear is just that–a smear. It’s BCS marketing bullshit. Nothing can be further from the truth.

    The fact is that BCS has NO qualitative advantages over our already-outstanding public schools, and dead-even test scores–so there’s nothing to emulate. And lots of people “apply” to your school with no intention to go–as did I, for instance. Applications cost nothing, and they mean nothing.

    Evil? Well if the shoe fits. I have YET to hear a BCS supporter tell me that they are “sorry” my children will be forced from their school, torn from their friends and teachers and have their educations completely disrupted. The ONLY response if have EVER heard is that “they” had to suffer the same thing back in 2001 so my children should have to suffer as well. That rationale is not so much evil as it’s psychotic…

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