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CUSD Board Member Michael Parham Blames Charter Schools for Enrollment Drop


As CUSD considers job cuts in light of waning funds, Board Member Michael Parham alleges charter schools are one of the reasons public school enrollment is “far below where we were before.”


At last week’s civic council meeting in Ladera Ranch, Capistrano Unified School District Board Member Michael Parham faced a concerned crowd of residents to address the district's significant drop in student enrollment. In doing so, Parham alleged that the popularity of charter schools as an alternative to government-run public schools is one of the reasons enrollment is “far below where we were before.”


For context, CUSD's current enrollment sits at around 40,000 students. Prior to the pandemic, the district was staffed for around 50,000. This reduction has led to decreased funding and the need to consider cuts within the district office.


One concerned resident asked Parham what he attributes the decline in enrollment to.


“Well that’s a part of a bigger problem—a statewide problem mostly—but public schools are declining in enrollment. They’re going to private schools, they’re going to charter schools, or they’re leaving California,” said Parham. He also mentioned the district gets “particularly screwed” because of “the way the charter school language is written.”


By this, Parham meant that CUSD is responsible for allocating resources out of its budget to meet the needs of charter schools within its jurisdiction whether or not the students at that school live in-district. The alternative to this is limiting families' school options by their ZIP code, rather than allowing them the freedom to choose the best educational fit for their children.


“I’m a fan of charter schools,” Parham alleged. “I really think that charter schools make a lot of sense.”


Despite this claim, Parham has never voted to approve a single charter during his tenure at CUSD. 


For context, most of the charters were approved by the Orange County Board of Education rather than CUSD itself. The CUSD Board currently retains an anti-charter school majority, with the exceptions being Lisa Davis, Judy Bullockus, and—on occasion—Gila Jones.


While charter schools are in many ways independent from the school districts within which they fall, they are still required to report to their Boards and rely on their districts for various resources. For instance, Education Code (EC) Section 47607(d)(1) requires charter schools to report annual enrollment data, as well as projected growth based on signatures gathered from families who would like to enroll in the future, to their respective school districts. The districts are then required to provide resources (such as additional portable classroom facilities) to the schools based on the year ahead. Historically, CUSD tends to refute and underestimate the number of students that want to attend charter schools so that they do not have to turn over additional resources—unless purporting a bigger number fits a political narrative, as in the case of Parham’s argument.


“I don’t know the total number [of students enrolled in CUSD’s charter schools]. I know the number roughly that is from Capo is maybe a thousand students. It’s several times more than that that are not—that don’t live in this area… We are particularly inundated in Capo,” Parham said. “That’s the short way of saying it.”


“I think it’s good to have options. Parents should have options,” one attendee responded.


Many parents and advocates of school choice argue that if public schools provided a higher quality education, more families would choose to enroll their children there, thereby increasing the schools' funding from the state. After all, CUSD schools tend to produce lukewarm results at best. Only 53% of high school students and 58% of elementary school students tested above the “proficient” level for mathematics.


In other words, it costs the CUSD $12,000-$14,000 to put a single student through one year of schooling—and the chances that they will emerge as proficient in reading and math comes down to the flip of a coin.


Instead of improving educational outcomes, it’s easier for failing public schools to blame charter schools for cutting into their monopoly over education.


Whether or not they actually do adversely affect public school funding, Parham's remarks reveal how a majority of CUSD’s Board thinks. They feel threatened by the success and appeal of charter schools. They feel entitled to their students that live in the district—that families should have to send their kids to their schools rather than being able to shop around for a better opportunity elsewhere. They feel that charters are an easy scapegoat to blame for their own failings as they lay off their own workers.


Ultimately, that mentality is a shame for students, parents, and all the district office employees whose jobs are about to be pulled out from under them.


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