Marc Winger | Charter Bills Deserve SCV Support

SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
SCV Voices: Guest Commentary

School districts in the SCV were embroiled in conflict and controversy when the Albert Einstein Academy charter school was approved by the Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District. They exploited a loophole in the Charter Schools Act and ended up operating in the Newhall School District after being denied by Newhall, Saugus and three other districts. 

The problem centered on the concept of jurisdictional sovereignty of local boards. Like city councils and water boards, school boards are elected by voters to represent their interests in a geographically defined boundary. School board members are charged with deciding on a wide range of educational issues, including charter schools offered to families within their jurisdiction. 

Over the 25-year existence of California’s Charter School Act, school districts, county boards of education, and state education agencies have unearthed many shortcomings in the law. Those looking to reform the law understand that charter schools are part of California’s educational landscape. Like traditional schools, some charters are effective, some are middling, and some are dismal. They don’t appear to be the magic bullet that will improve education. The best of them will provide effective programs for low-achieving students and parental choice, as stated in the intent language of the law. 

My views about charter law reform are based on these guiding principles:

1) Fiscal matters and governance of charter schools should be fully transparent to the public, as charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools.

2) Charter schools should be held accountable for their use of public funds, student achievement, and for equity and fairness in admissions practices.

3) Local boards need to determine educational programs offered within their jurisdiction. Because they are locally elected they are the best representatives to assure the quality of a school, fiscal and governance transparency, and accountability of the programs in their jurisdiction, whether traditional or charter. Charters would still be overseen by their own boards and design their own educational program.

I look at the current charter reform effort through the lens of elected officials’ responsibility for the oversight of the educational offerings within their district and the desire to hold all public schools to the same standards. 

The school boards I worked with had the best interest of all students in mind as they fulfilled their governance responsibilities and the high achieving schools in Newhall have been recognized multiple times at the state and federal level. California funds it schools through the Local Control Funding Formula, and requires every district to address state goals by completing a Local Control Accountability Plan. It’s time to bring the approval and oversight of charter schools firmly under local school boards’ control as well. 

After the location controversy that erupted over the Albert Einstein charter school, and the fiscal mismanagement that led to its closure, it’s time for our local legislators to reaffirm the jurisdictional sovereignty of local school boards. 

The current set of bills being considered in Sacramento bring charter school decisions back to the local level. Assemblywoman Christy Smith’s bill (AB 1507) deserves special attention from Senators Scott Wilk and Henry Stern and Assemblyman Tom Lackey. 

As a member of the Newhall School District board, Smith experienced firsthand the problems caused by the current charter law. The Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District and the Einstein charter school were engaged in egregious abuse of the location loophole in current law. Without a change there will continue to be controversy over the issue across the state.

These are the charter school reform bills being considered by the state Assembly. If successful they will move on to the state Senate for consideration, and eventually will come to floor votes in both houses:

AB 1505 (O’Donnell) would require a charter school to submit its petition to the district in which it intends to operate. The current law gives charter schools the right to appeal a local denial to a county board of education and ultimately to the state Board of Education. This bill removes the appeals. Both major changes are aligned with the state’s shift to local control of education funding and programs. 

AB 1506 (McCarty) The final language of this bill is still in flux but it intends to place a cap on the growth of charter schools statewide. The number of charters operating currently, 1,323, would become the new cap. New schools would open as other charter schools close. This is not a new concept. Only 100 charters were allowed in the 1992 law. The cap was increased to 250 in 1998, and then 100 new charters were permitted annually after that. The intent is to slow growth in districts that have experienced financial strain due to charter schools operating in their districts.

AB 1507 (Smith) rescinds the loophole that allows a charter school to locate in another school district that did not approve the school.  

AB 1508 (Bonta) states, “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. 

It may be a surprise to some, but current law doesn’t allow districts to consider the fiscal impact of charter schools in the approval process. The district is mandated to approve them if they satisfactorily meet the petition requirements. A large number of charter schools in a district may reduce the size of traditional schools by drawing away students, yet each traditional school still incurs the fixed cost of operations. There is a tipping point where a district’s traditional school program costs become unsustainable. It’s like being required to purchase a car you can’t afford and making payments that eat into your rent and food budget.

Charter schools in Santa Clarita have impacted district budgets, but the impact has been manageable. However, Oakland, Los Angeles and other school districts have approved numerous charters and the fiscal impact on their operational budgets has been considerable. Some charters also request district facility space in which to operate, causing conflict. Because charters sometimes tax the district’s operations, affecting the quality of programs for all students, this bill allows school boards to decide how many charters may be too many charters. 

The package of charter reform bills will be fiercely debated and amended as it moves through the legislative process. All have the common theme of local control. If amendments reflect that principle, the law will be changed for the better. Only local school boards have the full picture of the impact of charters on their district’s operations, funding, and facilities. And the local board is responsible for the all students in their district. If charters impact their school district, the impact on all students must be considered. 

The State Auditor issued a report on out-of-district charter placement as a revenue generating scheme, prominently featuring Acton Agua Dulce Unified. The current superintendent has stated the district would address the concerns expressed in the audit. 

Marc Winger is the former superintendent of the Newhall School District. 

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