Chartering a new course in education: Part III


This two-part package is intended to break down and explain the bills and their potential impacts, taking into account the local context and history of charter schools in our community, as well as the views of those in favor, and those opposed.

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The Charter Schools Act of 1992 paved the way for school districts up and down the state to build new schools that proponents said would allow parents the choice to tailor their child’s education to a student’s individual growth.

In 1998, the landmark law would be updated by Assembly Bill 544 to give the nontraditional public schools the ability to appeal a rejected petition and allow for the creation of up to 100 charter schools a year.

In the years since, the Santa Clarita Valley has become no stranger to charter schools as the area’s school boards have approved several — with Santa Clarita Valley International and the Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Science being among the more prominent approvals.

Today, thousands of students in the SCV, Acton and Agua Dulce areas are receiving an education at a charter school, according to EdData, which puts the communities on par with the 10 percent of California students who attend the nearly 1,300 charter schools scattered throughout the state.

Statistics like this are financially troubling to school districts because funding, which has been hard to come by lately, is determined by the number of pupils attending a school. This means the more students seated in charter schools, the less money local districts will have to spend on special education and other programs they deem necessary.

As a result, all but one of the local school boards adopted a resolution this month calling for extensive reform of the California Charter Schools Act. Trustees who approved the resolution also agreed to send a letter to Sacramento voicing support for the various pieces of charter-related legislation.

While discussing Assembly Bill 1506, former superintendent of the Newhall School District Marc Winger said he didn’t see a need to cap the number of charter schools at their current number of 1,323, but he does support Assembly Bills 1505 and 1507, which he believes puts local school boards back in control.

“The local school board, local control, more transparency (on) charter schools operations,” Winger said. “It’s all about local control, which is a really big theme in AB 1505 and AB 1507.”

New Rules

Current California law allows charters to petition the county’s Office of Education, or the state Board of Education, if the school’s charter petition was rejected or revoked by a school district, but Winger has outlined the ways AB 1505 would change the procedures that date back to the late-1990s and early aughts.

“If AB 1505 is successful, the law will be amended to require a prospective charter school to submit its petition for operation to the school board of the district in which it intends to operate,” Winger said. “In this way, only local school board members, as the Charter Schools Act intends, can decide — in the legal, prescribed and required manner — whether the proposed program meets the needs of local residents, whether the organization’s fiscal structure is sound, and whether the program is a fit for their district.”

Opponents of Series 1500 and charter advocates like Caitlin O’Halloran, a school governance and policy specialist with the Charter Schools Development Center who has worked with charter schools across the state through the years, said the bills could fundamentally change charter schools and lessen the educational options that Santa Clarita Valley families have.

“The voters have been very clear that they want charter schools in their communities,” O’Halloran said, citing the passage of the 1992 Charter Schools Act and other recent charter-related measures as one of the many ways constituents have proven they support California charter schools.

Other involved parties, like Winger, believe the failures of the Einstein Academy and other charter schools like it are too harmful to ignore, which is why he has been active in assisting with the creation of the aforementioned school board resolution and Assembly bills.

As the principal author of AB 1507, Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita, hopes her legislation will close a loophole in the Charter Schools Act that allow districts to authorize charters — like the Einstein Academy — outside of their jurisdictional boundaries.

“AB 1507 passed in the Assembly with the full support of every local school board I represent, as well as districts and stakeholders across the state,” Smith said.

Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that was similar to one that former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed three times before he left office.

Senate Bill 126 was signed into law by Newsom back in March, and explicitly subjects charter schools to open meetings, public record and conflict-of-interest requirements that apply to school districts and other governing boards, according to LegInfo, a website that tracks legislation in Sacramento.

Many in the state viewed Newsom’s signature as a sign he’s willing to at least consider legislation seeking to reform charter schools, but that won’t matter unless the legislation is able to pass the Senate, which all of the Series 1500 bills have yet to do.

There have been previous attempts to allow districts to reject charter schools based on their negative financial impact and to ban charter locations beyond an authorizing district’s boundaries, according to the Charter Schools Development Center, and they were unsuccessful on their way to becoming law.

This isn’t too dissimilar from an instance in 2014, when SCV school districts sponsored Senate Bill 1263. The bill, which was very similar to Smith’s AB 1507, tried to close the location-exception “loophole” before it was vetoed by Brown.

But Smith said she worked closely with local school boards, charter operators, education stakeholders and the California Charter Schools Association to craft a bill that would allow existing charters to have a clear path forward in continuing their operations, which has her hopeful the bill will gain enough partisan support to pass.

The assemblywoman added legislators and education leaders are more motivated than ever to look for the most effective delivery of education at every local public school, including charter and traditional types, because they understand that empowering local school boards is critical to being able to serve all students.

“We are at a critical tipping point in public education,” Smith said. “Even the most successful districts are challenged to meet rising costs and balance budgets while providing a robust education for all California students with very diverse learning needs. There is no room for resource waste at this critical moment.”

Assembly Bills 1505 and 1507 are currently being considered in the Senate Education Committee, according to LegInfo, and AB 1506 can be brought up for consideration again next January.

“Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state superintendent of public instruction have (also) convened a task force to examine the most pressing issues impacting our school system with regard to charter reform,” Smith said, prior to Friday’s release of state Superintendent Tony Thurmond’s Charter Task Force Report recommendations.

“The Charter Task Force Report highlights many concerns associated with the proliferation of charter schools our state has seen since 1992,” Smith said in a statement this week.

“The report finds that more local oversight, accountability and transparency of charter schools are crucial, and these findings validate the immediate need for the legislation my colleagues and I have worked on this year in the state Legislature, including my Assembly Bill 1507… ” the assemblywoman added. “I thank the state superintendent, members of the task force and the Department of Education for their close examination of charter school growth. We must not lose sight that California still ranks in the bottom 10 states in per-pupil spending nationally. As we continue to assess how to better serve our diverse student population across the state, we must keep these recommendations from the report in mind.”

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