California Currents

Proposed legislation would substantially curb growth of California charter schools

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, who chairs the Education Committee, said the bills collectively would enable school districts “to make responsible and informed decisions” that are “critical for student success and taxpayer accountability.” (Photo courtesy of the office pf Patrick O'Donell via EdSource)

The chairman of the Assembly Education Committee and several Democratic colleagues introduced a package of bills on Feb. 25 that would impose severe restrictions on the growth of charter schools.

Three of the bills would eliminate the ability of charter schools to appeal rejected applications to the county and state, cap the number of charter schools at those currently operating and enable school districts to consider the financial impact of charter schools when deciding whether to approve them. A fourth bill would abolish the right of a charter school that can’t find a facility in its authorizing district to locate a school in an adjoining district.

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, who chairs the Education Committee, said the bills collectively would enable school districts “to make responsible and informed decisions” that are “critical for student success and taxpayer accountability.” Eric Premack, a veteran charter school adviser and advocate, called the legislation a “full-frontal” assault and “scorched earth” approach to charter schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that have greater flexibility in hiring, curriculum and other aspects of their operations. Unlike traditional public schools run by elected school boards, charter schools in California are nonprofit organizations with self-appointed boards.

The California Teachers Association, which put out the press announcement Feb. 25, other teachers and school employees unions and the California state chapter of the NAACP endorsed the bills. Their release coincided with the former teachers strike in Oakland Unified, where teachers are blamed charter school growth for weakening the district’s financial strength and are demanding restrictions on charter school expansion.

Another bill that O’Donnell co-authored with Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, requiring charter schools to comply with the state’s open meeting, public records and conflict of interest laws, passed the Senate in mid February. Many charter schools already adhere to the laws, but Senate Bill 126 would make enforcement universal. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who campaigned for more charter school transparency, has encouraged the bill’s quick passage.

Premack, who runs the nonprofit Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, said there have been previous attempts to ban charter locations beyond an authorizing district’s boundaries and to allow districts to reject charter schools based on their negative financial impact. Last year, Senate Bill 1362, by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, died in committee over disagreements about how to gauge a financial effect. What’s new, Premack said, are efforts to put a tight cap on growth and abolish the appeals process.

If the bills are approved as written, the effect could be to bring charter growth to a standstill or, Premack said, lead to approvals only of charter schools dealing with “dropouts and students who are difficult to serve.”

O’Donnell and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty are the primary or co-authors of all four bills. Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland and Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita, are primary authors of two of them.

Here is what they would do:

AB 1505, by O’Donnell, would give districts where a charter school would be located the sole authority for approval or denial. The 1992 charter school law gave charter schools the right to appeal a denial to a county board of education. The 1998 amended law clarified the criteria for hearing appeals and created a second layer of appeal, to the State Board of Education.

Charter advocates say appeals are critical because some districts are philosophically and reflexively opposed to charter schools, which they view as unneeded competition. County boards and the state board bring objectivity to charter reviews, they say. But O’Donnell said that limiting reviews to the home district is consistent with the state’s shift to local control, where governing boards best know how to manage their districts.

Data on county appeals is not available. Data from the state board show that since 2011, the board has approved 32 new charter schools on appeal and denied nine. The most — 12 — were approved last year but five of those were in response to a court decision related to non-classroom based independent study charter schools.

The state board has renewed two charters on appeal while denying eight. These numbers don’t include charter schools that withdrew their appeals after state Department of Education staff or a charter committee that advises the state board recommended denials.

AB 1506, by McCarty, would remove the current, liberal allowance for the growth of charter schools. Instead the number of charters now operating, currently 1,323, would become the new cap and new schools would open as other charter schools close, McCarty said in an interview.

“We have so many of these districts on the financial bubble. A lack of resources from the state of California and local tax dollars is a factor. Declining enrollment is a factor and the erosion of population because of charter schools is a factor,” McCarty said. “This would give school districts some breathing room and financial stability.” The bill’s wording is still being drafted.

The original charter law permitted 100 charters. That was increased in 1998 to 250, with 100 new charters permitted annually after that — creating unused capacity for hundreds of charter schools.

AB 1507, by Smith, would rescind an infrequently used exemption that allowed a charter school that couldn’t find a facility in the district that approved it to locate in a building in another district in the same county.

AB 1508, by Bonta, is one paragraph long at this point. It reads, “It is the intent of the Legislature to enact legislation that would permit chartering authorities to consider, in determining whether to approve a new charter school petition, the financial, academic, and facilities impacts the new charter school would have on neighborhood public schools.”

Unlike charter authorization in many states, approval is the default position. Charter petitions must detail 15 elements, including their education program, measures of academic progress and efforts to achieve racial and ethnic balance. A district must grant a charter unless it finds that the petitioners presented an unsound education program or demonstrated they would be unlikely to implement it or failed to comprehensively describe the 15 elements.

Districts aren’t permitted to consider a charter school’s financial impact on the district, although some boards do anyway — one reason there are appeals. Last year, in appearing before the state board’s hearing on a charter school appeal, the East Side Union High School District board openly cited the erosion of student tuition revenue in rejecting a new charter school that board members acknowledged had a sound program.

Bonta’s bill could create a conflict with Proposition 39, which voters passed in 2000. It gives charter schools the right to facilities equivalent to those serving district students. Districts have responded by placing some charter schools in wings of schools or in portables, where the sharing of facilities like fields and auditoriums have created tensions and in some cases eliminated rooms that schools had been using.

With 1,323 charter schools — double the number of a decade ago — California easily has the largest number of charter schools in any state. The 600,000 students who attend them make up 10 percent of California’s students and one-fifth of the nation’s charter school population.

But the departure of Gov. Jerry Brown, who three times vetoed charter transparency bills like SB 126 and for years staunchly protected the state’s charter school law, has created opportunities for the CTA and charter school opponents to impose new restrictions. The CTA has capitalized on the strikes in Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified, two districts with the largest percentages of students in charter schools, to press the case that charter schools are sapping the financial strength of districts. Other analysts point to other factors, including rising pension costs, special education expenses and financial mismanagement — particularly in Oakland’s case — as reasons for uncompetitive pay, a lack of school counselors and nurses, and crowded classrooms.

The CTA has escalated its rhetoric against charter schools over the past year, in campaign ads and its website Kids Not Profits. It continued Monday in the announcement of the bills.

“It is clear that Californians want significant changes in the decades-old laws governing charter schools that have allowed corporate charter schools to divert millions away from our neighborhood public schools, allowed for waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars at the expense of our students,” said California Teachers Association President Eric Heins.

Carlos Marquez, senior vice president of government affairs for the California Charter Schools Association, replied, “CTA’s extreme policy proposals undermine the unified case we must all make to fairly and adequately fund all of California’s public schools. Instead, they’re choosing to pit public school families against one another. California’s charter public schools will remain focused on sponsoring legislation that will support all public schools and our most vulnerable students.”

In introducing the bills now, O’Donnell and the co-authors may be moving ahead of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, whom Newsom has asked to create a panel of experts to look at the financial effect and other impacts of charter schools. Newsom was responding to the Los Angeles Unified school board’s request for a moratorium on new charters in Los Angeles while the state considers changes to the state charter law. The as yet unnamed commission is to recommend its changes by July 1.

EdSource staff writer Diana Lambert contributed to this story.

Story originally published by EdSource.