Our View | Charter Schools Need Oversight, Not Elimination

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By The Signal Editorial Board

Charter schools aren’t for everyone. But then, neither are mainstream public schools.

California’s 1992 Charter School Act cleared the way for a new breed of schools, a new kind of choice for parents seeking the best scenario for their kids. And the result has been both a blessing and a curse for California education. 

It’s been a blessing because many charter schools offer unique programs and learning opportunities that meet kids in that space where they learn best, in particular kids who don’t necessarily thrive in the standardized test-oriented culture of public schools.  The success stories are not difficult to find, particularly at well-run charter schools that emphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning, and project-based learning, in which kids learn not just by reading about how something is done, but by actually DOING it.

It’s been a curse because there have been some unscrupulous or misguided charter schools that either mismanaged finances, or the quality of education they provide, or both. Those failure stories, too, are not difficult to find.

But make no mistake: Eliminating charter schools due to those failures would be equivalent to throwing out a whole lot of success with the bathwater.

That brings us to the landmark package of legislation working its way through the California Legislature. 

The package has been dubbed “Series 1500,” and is comprised of Assembly Bills 1505, 1506, 1507 and 1508. Together, the bills seek to redistribute the power of approving and re-instituting a school’s charter into the hands of local elected bodies — namely the publicly controlled school board in any particular area. 

If signed into law, the bills would also prohibit school districts from approving charter schools outside of their own boundaries, cap the number of charter schools in a district and the state, and also establish more ways for school districts to deny a charter school petition.

In other words, it’s the beginning of the end for charter schools. And that should not be the goal.

Two of the bills in question were authored or supported by our own Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita, a former Newhall School District board member who worked closely with former NSD Superintendent Marc Winger to craft the legislation. 

We respect them both, and believe they both want what’s best for California education. They’ve both drawn on their experience dealing with the former Albert Einstein Academy, which opened across the street from the NSD offices after being chartered by the neighboring Acton-Agua Dulce Union School District. 

The irony of the location was not lost on anyone. Ultimately, the Einstein Academy closed last year due to financial issues.   

Proponents of the new legislative package have said Series 1500 is a recognition of individual school boards’ authority that shows respect to their knowledge of their constituencies. Critics contend the bills effectively “unravel” much of the Charter School Act, putting local charter schools in jeopardy.

On the one hand, we agree with Assemblywoman Smith and we commend her for trying to create a better system of oversight for charter schools. The need is real.

However, we believe the currently proposed package of legislation goes too far and will ultimately lead to the demise of the charter school option in California, and that’s an option that should be preserved — not only in the interest of promoting parental choice but also recognizing that not all kids learn in the same ways.

We believe there is a need for charter schools, particularly if they fill a niche that an area’s public schools do not. We also believe in the fundamental rights of parents to have a choice in where  and how their kids are educated.

So, while we do not advocate the particular reform put forth in the 1500 series, we do have a suggestion for a different reform that would accomplish many of the goals of those who see a need for change, while preserving charter schools as a viable option in the long term.

A quirk in the current law allows for a new charter school to be approved outside of the boundaries of the approving district. That just seems wrong, and is one of the issues sought to be remedied in the 1500 series of bills. The new legislation would require a charter school to be chartered by the school district in which it will locate.

That seems reasonable, right?  

Well, not really.

In many school districts, there’s an institutional bias against charter schools. There are two very powerful reasons for this bias:

One, a charter school siphons state funding away from a school district’s core product, the “regular” schools. That’s because schools receive funding based on average daily attendance (ADA), the average number of students in school each day. A charter school draws ADA funding away from “regular” schools, and you can imagine the competitive powers at play, even though a charter school is technically part of the district that approves it.

As Einstein Academy founder Mark Blazer puts it, it’s like Burger King having to go to McDonald’s to ask for permission to open.

And secondly, many charter schools do not employ unionized labor — i.e., teachers — and it’s no secret that teachers unions have a great deal of influence in school districts, and even legislative districts, throughout the state. For school board members and state legislators who want to get elected, a teachers union is a rather influential constituency.

Yet, clearly some kind of reform is needed, not only to protect school districts from unacceptable impacts due to charter schools but also to ensure that charter schools are well-run and financially responsible. 

That’s why we are proposing a different reform: We suggest the creation of a statewide panel to approve all charter schools in the state and serve as an oversight agency for these schools. The new agency’s mission would be to approve or deny new charter school applications — whatever the location is, and giving careful consideration to the input and interests of all constituents, including school districts and parents — and then to oversee the charter schools to make sure they are being run appropriately.

Now, normally we are not for large government, and yes, we agree, there is too much regulation in California and in general the last thing we need is another statewide agency.

But there are certain areas in which governance is important — for example, in helping those who most need it, like the homeless, disabled and unemployed, and in providing for general law and order, and on the national level, the defense of our country and the protection of our borders. 

We believe education is one of those areas in which governance is crucial, at the local level and on a broader scale, too. In this case, we believe there’s a need for a third party to oversee the conflicting interests at play, and to protect them all: Not only the right and responsibility of a local school district to provide a quality education to an entire community, but also the right and responsibility for individual parents to make a choice that is in the best educational interests of their own particular child.

Therefore, in lieu of the 1500 series — or perhaps as a major overhaul of the legislation — we ask that Assemblywoman Smith and her colleagues establish greater state oversight on charters, eliminate any arbitrary “cap” on the number of charter schools in the state, and put forth legislation that delivers the reform charter schools really need, without diminishing the role of parental choice in education.

We all want what’s best for our kids’ education. And a one-size-fits-all approach won’t accomplish that. 

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