Only about one in four California students can do math. Or in English. Or in science. California’s K-12 school system has been broken for decades, and it’s only getting worse, despite a school budget that now averages nearly $500,000 per year per classroom. This is a failure on a grand scale, and what makes it worse is that our children are the ones paying the price.
This could be turned around quickly, and it would not require additional spending or new educational philosophies. All we have to do is follow the K-12 success stories that are quietly pushing the ball: schools that spend less, that have less bureaucracy, and whose vision is centered on their students. Kairos Charter School in Vacaville, California has so much to teach the other California schools. Kairos has generated so much enthusiasm in her small community that her school of 650 students, which only admitted its first students in 2015, has an admissions waiting list that recently reached 1,000 students.
It’s easy to see why parents flock to Kairos School. Compared to the students in the district’s traditional schools, Kairos students perform very well. Since Kairos began in the 2014-15 school year, student English language proficiency at Kairos has averaged 64 percent, compared to 48 percent at traditional schools in the Vacaville School District and 48 percent at all California schools. This achievement advantage exists across all demographic groups: Among poor households, 52 percent of students are proficient in Kairos, compared to 35 percent in the district and 36 percent in California; In Hispanic households, literacy among Kairos children is 54 percent versus 38 percent in the district.
Similar performance disparities exist in math: As of the 2014-15 school year, an average of 52 percent of Kairos students demonstrated proficiency, compared with 36 percent of students in both traditional county schools and in all California schools; 37 percent of poor households are proficient in Kairos, compared to 23 percent in both the district and all California schools; among Hispanic children, competency is 42 percent for Kairos versus 26 percent for the district.
These performance differences are enormous. To put them in perspective, if California schools could generally deliver learning outcomes at Kairos levels, California’s school ranking within the United States would rise from well below average to one of the top-performing state school systems in the country.
Kairos also runs a non-classroom based homeschool program to support families in homeschooling their children. During the pandemic, the school’s experience with this program helped Kairos manage instruction much more effectively during mandatory school closures than many other schools have been able to. Kairos also opted to reopen her school much sooner than traditional schools during the pandemic, offering her students an additional seven months of in-person tuition in the 2020-21 school year.
Kairos’ mission statement describes how it puts students first: “Kairos Public Schools is committed to empowering generations of learners to think critically, analyze and apply knowledge strategically, and use relevant tools to create thoughtful thinking within a global community to interact.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Jared Austin, the school’s co-founder and CEO. He explained how the school has cut back on staff, which not only expands the funds available for education but also creates a manageable-sized leadership team. Both the main campus with 650 students and the homeschooling enrichment program operate together with only six administrative staff. In addition to serving as the school’s Executive Director (Superintendent), Austin also serves as Principal, Facilities Director, and Technology Director.
Kairos is run efficiently. Kairos is building a new campus on a 27-acre site, land recently purchased with funds saved by the school. The first phase of construction — a 12,000-square-foot learning center where homeschooled children will receive enriching instruction in areas such as math, science and robotics — will be completed early next year.
I asked Austin how they could possibly design the project, get permits, and complete construction of a project of this size in less than a year. For California, this is the structural equivalent of space travel at the speed of light. “We have a great relationship within the community, including the fact that our students do 5,000 hours of community service every year. The community has really come together to help us ensure we can get this done as quickly as possible.” A 45,000 square foot waitlist campus will follow.
School success requires passionate and dedicated teachers. Austin described how teachers are involved in important decisions within the school, including the decision to reopen campuses well before other California schools reopen. It is interesting to note that Kairos faculty has chosen not to unionise.
The recipe for success of the Kairos charter school can be imitated. But a new California law has made it difficult to start new charter schools. California Convention Law 1505, passed in 2019 despite strong opposition from the Republican Senate Committee, changed the approval process for new charter schools. Under AB 1505, an application for a new charter school may be denied if chartering would have adverse tax implications within the district. Traditional schools do not want to face the competition created by a charter school because students who enroll in a charter school take with them much of the associated funding per student.
Under the new law, an application to establish a school could be rejected if it would significantly undermine existing services or academic or programmatic offerings of established schools. A new charter school could also be denied if the existing school performs so poorly that it is either in government receivership or if the introduction of the charter school would deprive the existing school of sufficient resources to make it unable to meet its financial obligations.
Yes, the new law was written to keep students trapped in the worst performing schools. The truly horrific aspect of this new law is that the worst schools tend to be in low-income neighborhoods where parents can’t afford private schools or other educational alternatives. If this law applied to any other goods or services offered today, it would be a flagrant violation of our antitrust laws. Somehow we continue to tolerate a horribly functioning monopoly that is causing significant damage to our children and our future.
The Charter School Kairos shows that we don’t have to accept California’s failed school system. The California school system could improve rapidly and significantly if our political leaders were willing to allow competition within our field of education. This would encourage traditional schools to adopt best practices. But the California school system is not focused on the education of our children. If it were, the performance of our schools would have turned around decades ago. Instead, the system focuses on dishing out a multi-billion dollar budget to gratify a variety of stakeholders. And if you doubt it, just ask your local ombudsman where they send their own children to school.