Only about one in four California students is proficient in math. Or in English. Or in science. California’s K–12 school system has been broken for decades, and it is getting even worse, despite a school budget that now spends on average nearly $500,000 per year, per classroom. This is failure on a grand scale, and what makes it so much worse is that our kids are the ones paying the price.  

This could be turned around quickly, and it would not require more spending or new educational philosophies. All we need to do is follow the K–12 success stories that are quietly advancing the ball: schools that are spending less, that have less bureaucracy, and whose vision is focused on their students. The Kairos charter school in Vacaville, California, can teach the rest of California’s schools so much. Kairos has generated so much enthusiasm in their small community that their 650-student school, which admitted its first students only in 2015, has a waiting list for admissions that recently hit 1,000 students.

It is obvious why parents are flocking to the Kairos school. Compared to students in the district’s traditional schools, Kairos students are performing at very high levels. Since Kairos began in the 2014–15 school year, English language arts proficiency for students has averaged 64 percent at Kairos, compared to 48 percent for traditional schools in the Vacaville school district and 48 percent for all California schools. This performance advantage exists across all demographic groups: among poor households, 52 percent of students are proficient at Kairos, compared to 35 percent for the district and 36 percent for California; among Hispanic households, proficiency is at 54 percent for Kairos kids versus 38 percent for the district.  

There are similar performance differences in math: on average since the 2014–15 school year, 52 percent of Kairos students have demonstrated proficiency, compared to 36 percent of students in both district traditional schools and in all California schools; among poor households, 37 percent are proficient at Kairos, compared to 23 percent in both the district and in all California schools; among Hispanic kids, proficiency 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 broadly deliver Kairos-level learning outcomes, California’s school ranking within the United States would rise from well below average to among the best-performing state school systems in the country.

Kairos also operates a non-classroom-based homeschool program to support families homeschooling their children. During the pandemic, the school’s experience with this program helped Kairos manage teaching during mandatory school closures much more effectively than many other schools were able to. Kairos also chose to reopen their school much earlier during the pandemic than traditional schools, providing their students with seven additional months of in-person learning during the 2020–21 school year.

Kairos’s mission statement describes how it put students first: “Kairos Public Schools is committed to empowering generations of learners to think critically, analyze and apply knowledge strategically, and utilize relevant tools to interact thoughtfully within a global community.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Jared Austin, the cofounder and executive director of the school. He explained how the school has economized on the number of staff, which not only expands funding available for education but also creates a leadership team of a manageable size. Both the 650-student main campus and the homeschooling enrichment program together operate with an administrative staff of just six. Austin serves not only as the school’s executive director (superintendent) but also as the school’s principal, facilities director, and technology director.

Kairos is run efficiently. Kairos is building a new campus on a 27-acre site, land that was recently acquired using funds that the school had saved. The first phase of construction—a 12,000-square-foot learning center that will provide enrichment classes in areas such as math, science, and robotics for homeschooled children—will be completed early next year.

I asked Austin how they could possibly design the project, receive permits, and finish construction on a project of this size in less than a year. For California, this is the construction equivalent of light-speed space travel. “We have a great relationship within the community, including the fact that our students perform 5,000 hours of community service each year. The community really came together to help us make sure we could get this done as quickly as possible.” A 45,000-square-foot campus to address the waitlist will follow.

School success requires passionate and dedicated teachers. Austin described how teachers are included in key decision making within the school, including the decision to reopen the campus well before other California schools reopened. It is interesting to note that the Kairos faculty has chosen not to unionize.

The Kairos charter school recipe for success can be replicated. But a recent California law has made it difficult to form new charter schools. California Assembly Bill 1505, which passed in 2019 despite strong opposition from the Senate Republican Caucus, changed the approval process for new charter schools. Under AB 1505, an application for a new charter school can be denied if the charter would have a negative fiscal impact within the district. Traditional schools do not want to face the competition created by a charter school, since students who matriculate to a charter school take much of the associated per-pupil funding with them.

Under the new law, a charter school application could be denied if it would substantially undermine existing services or academic or programmatic offerings provided by incumbent schools. A new charter school could also be denied if the existing school was performing so poorly that it was in either state receivership or if the introduction of the charter school would draw enough resources away from the existing school that it could not meet its financial obligations.

Yes, the new law is written to keep students trapped inside the worst-performing schools. The truly awful aspect of this new law is that the worst-performing schools tend to be in low-income neighborhoods, where parents cannot afford private schools or other educational alternatives. If this law were about any other good or service provided today, it would represent a blatant violation of our antitrust laws. Somehow we continue to tolerate a horribly performing monopoly, one that substantially damages our children and our future.

The Kairos charter school shows that we don’t have to accept California’s failed school system. California’s school system could improve quickly and significantly if our political leaders were willing to permit competition within our education sphere. This would incentivize traditional schools to adopt best practices. But California’s school system is not focused on educating our kids. If it were, our schools’ performance would have been turned around decades ago. Instead, the system is focused on doling out a multibillion-dollar budget to satisfy a vast array of vested interests. And if you doubt this, just ask your local elected representative where they send their own kids to school.

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