Commentary

Marc Winger | Charter Reform Is Overdue for California

Charter school reform bills are on their way to final votes and then, if successful, signature by the governor. The bills, as amended after months of testimony, negotiations and hearings, update the antiquated Charter Schools Act of 1992. They focus on the impact of charters, transparency and accountability. The bills reinforce the concept of local control by elected school boards, which are charged with approving and monitoring the educational choices provided within their jurisdictions. 

As with all negotiations, there are voices on both sides of the proposed legislation that say they didn’t get what they wanted and the “other side” got too much.  

Reformers gave up some major goals and charter representatives acknowledged problems in the charter world. That is why, after the legislative dust settled, the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) is taking a “neutral” position on the final votes. CCSA had been the loudest voice opposing the original versions of the bills. 

Recently, a local charter leader was quoted in The Signal saying, “Charter schools are here to be real partners in change with districts, trailblazing a new way for the future, while providing high-quality options for families in the present.” 

No one is arguing her point. Charter schools are a piece of the educational landscape in California. The original intent of the law was for charters to provide new and creative programs. But, it should be noted that after years of operation, most research has found that charters perform much like traditional schools: some accomplish the goal of high achievement, especially for students living in poverty, some are abject failures, and most sit somewhere in the middle. 

Existing charters that have been legally established are performing adequately, and are good stewards of the public’s money, will not be affected by the upcoming changes. Those that came into existence under questionable approvals and/or are located in districts that did not approve them will be grandfathered until their renewal dates arrive. They will then be required to seek approval by the district in which they operate. 

Even with CCSA’s neutral position, the local charter leader quoted in The Signal was still critical of the new elements of the legislation that allow for local districts to have expanded authority. In her words, “…the blanket moratorium and additional regulations cast too wide a net and risk holding back students, and our communities, from reaching their greatest potential and new educational frontiers.” The proposed laws are “redundant and detrimental to some students’ growth.”

By law, the authority for approving charters has always been locally elected school boards, which, if they are concerned about accountability, take their responsibility seriously. 

Critics of the reforms brush aside the many stories of charter fraud, fiscal irresponsibility and failure to educate students. They ignore the reality that some charters simply replicate what traditional schools provide without adding any new educational options and don’t enroll student populations reflective of their communities. These charters siphon away state funding to the detriment of school districts with substantial educational challenges created by large numbers of students living in poverty. Critics ignore those small, fiscally distressed districts that have approved charters not for the lofty goals of the Charter Schools Act, but for revenue streams. 

The new bills moving toward a Sept. 13 deadline include these changes:

• School boards will be able to consider the impact of additional charter approvals on the fiscal health of their district. Districts in fiscal distress, as certified by the county office, will be allowed to disapprove charter applications. Charters will also have to show that their programs are different from those offered by traditional schools in the district. 

• Charter schools and their “resource centers” will be required to operate only within the district that approved them.

• Teachers at charter schools will be required to be fully state-credentialed and to pass a state-level criminal background screening. 

• Charter school renewal periods for high-performing schools will be extended.

• The State Board of Education will be removed from the appeal process for denied charters, but the county board appeal remains. The State Board is far removed from local decision making and made some terrible charter decisions after districts and counties denied inadequate charter applications.

• On renewal, charter authorizers will be allowed to close a charter school for fiscal and governance concerns or if the charter school is not serving all student populations.

• A two-year moratorium will be placed on the approval of online charters — the scammiest corner of the charter world. Online charters have the worst academic achievement and graduation rates among charters and some of the most spectacular stories of fraud. The moratorium provides time to study the problems and enact reforms. There is no “blanket moratorium.”

• Charter schools will be required to submit their local control and accountability plan (LCAP) to their district board for review and approval. This is no more or less than what is required in traditional districts and will heighten accountability for academics, focus on the students most in need, and define how state funding is used to meet the needs of all students. 

If you have followed the story of charter schools in the Santa Clarita Valley, you will recognize that many of these reforms are necessary to ensure transparency, hold charters accountable, better monitor fiscal issues surrounding charters, and to reinforce the jurisdictional sovereignty of the school boards. You elected these boards to make decisions about educational programs in your community. While some of the reforms may not apply to charters in the SCV, these are statewide reforms that will address districts that have reached a tipping point in terms of charters’ fiscal impact.

Charter proponents should accept the Charter Schools Association’s “neutral” position on these bills. The time has arrived to update this 26-year-old law to reflect the realities of the charter school world today. 

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

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