Photo by Seth Sawyers

Photo by Seth Sawyers

The closure and bankruptcy of a West Sacramento charter school this fall highlights the State Board of Education’s increasing role in granting charters to charter schools—and its limited ability to oversee those schools.

As charter schools continue to expand dramatically across the state, the number authorized and overseen by the board has grown from six charter schools five years ago to 31 today.

Nearly two decades after California’s charter schools were first established, the oversight structure of charter schools may need an overhaul.  That could include setting up a separate charter authorizing board to relieve pressures on an overburdened State Board that is spending increasing amounts of time on charter schools, which serve about 6 percent of students in the state’s public schools.

“One of the things we have learned is that the work of authorizing and oversight is a lot tougher than anyone thought it would be,” said Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center.

In a report issued last November, the Little Hoover Commission, a state oversight agency, concluded that “the State Board lacks the capacity to provide effective oversight for its growing stable of charter schools while simultaneously setting statewide education policy, its broader and more significant role.”

The State Board itself, which is scheduled to meet only once every two months over the coming year, has no oversight staff, but relies on the Charter Schools Division in the California Department of Education to carry out its responsibilities under the law. On a most basic level, charter schools consume growing chunks of State Board agendas, crowding out the time the board can devote to policy decisions affecting the vast majority of California’s students.  On the first day of its September meeting, for example, seven out of 11 agenda items related to charter schools.

Richard Zeiger, chief deputy superintendent in the California Department of Education, pointed out that the entire charter school division in the department has a staff of about 30 people. They are responsible for handling the funding streams for all charter schools and numerous other aspects of charter administration for the entire state, on top of intensive oversight of schools authorized by the state board.

“We have ended up with more and more of them (state-authorized charters) because the board has approved them after they were rejected at a local level,” he said.  The state, he said, was never meant to be put in a position of being a major authorizer of charter schools. That function was supposed to be carried out a local level.

In fact, the vast majority of the state’s nearly 1000 charter schools received their charters from local school districts. But anyone wanting to open a charter school can appeal to the State Board of Education to seek a charter, after its application has been rejected by a local school board or its county office of education.

That is what happened in the case of the California College, Career and Technical Education Center or CCCTEC, which was first denied a charter by the Washington Unified School District and then by the Yolo County Board of Education, which in a unanimous vote last year described in painful detail the charter applicant’s numerous shortcomings.

“The petitioner is demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition,” the Yolo County Board of Education concluded in its denial of the school’s charter application.  (Disclosure: The president of the Yolo County board was Davis Campbell, who is an EdSource board member.)

The would-be charter school appealed to the State Board, then consisting of members appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, many with a very strong pro-charter tilt.  The board granted the charter—along with assuming the responsibility for overseeing it.

Poster at CCCTEC Charter School on opening day, September 2011 ~ Photo by Louis Freedberg

Poster at CCCTEC Charter School on opening day, September 2011 Photo by Louis Freedberg

There were problems with the school from its opening day, as the operator of the school has himself conceded. Enrollments never came close to original projections, and the charter struggled financially throughout its existence until its closure on September 2 this year, one year after it opened.

Over the last few months, the board and education department officials have spent large amounts of time trying to sort out the mess, including lengthy letters from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson seeking explanation for checks spent on items like pizza from Straw Hat.

Michael Kirst, the president of the State Board, said that the board does have a role to play in granting charters. “There are charter schools that are turned down by both local districts and counties that deserve to operate and so there needs to be some state appeal mechanism,” he said.

He said that he felt the board could handle its current responsibilities. But if the board was asked to take on an ever-increasing role in granting charters and along with them more oversight responsibilities, the state board would either need more staff or to consider a separate charter board along the lines recommended by the Little Hoover Commission. As proposed by the commission, a “Board of Charter Schools” would be appointed by the governor and the Legislature.

“I’m not sure if it’s the right way to go, but it is certainly on the table in terms of being thought about as our charter school role expands,” Kirst said.

Kirst also said the large—and growing—numbers of charter schools in the state “raise real issues about the capacity of the board and the department (the California Department of Education) to do this job that we’re being asked to do  regarding charter schools.”

Although declining to specifically endorse the idea of a separate state charter board, Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association, said the Little Hoover Commission report contained “thoughtful recommendations” and that his association would be “happy to be part of any conversations” regarding alternative authorizing procedures.

On a more basic level, Eric Premack raised concerns about having local school districts oversee the vast majority of charters. He said school districts are arguably “the most ill-suited agencies you can think of (to do that), especially those in financial difficulties themselves.”

Premack proposed a range of charter authorizers who could specialize in different types of charter schools and in different geographic regions.  For example, one charter board could specialize in overseeing online or virtual charter schools. Another could oversee the dozen or so Montessori charter schools. Yet another could focus on a particular geographic area.

Whatever new structures are settled on, some changes will be essential, the state education department’s Zeiger said. He said his department is constantly called on to put out fires, which consumes vast amounts of time. “We need to move from putting out fires, and talk to the Legislature about how to prevent there being so many fires to begin with,” he said.

For more background on the charter school movement in California, check out EdSource’s previous publications on the subject and a related edpost, State looks into loss of funds by start-up charter schools

Update September 30, 2011.  Based on revised figures from the California Department of Education, this story contains slightly different figures of the number of state-authorized charters than its original version.  CCCTEC is not part of the tally because it has relinquished its charter.  For a list of charters, see the list here. 


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  2. Paul Preston says:

    Mr. or Ms. Local School Board Member:

    Do you have a name and a school district where you’re a board member?

    Paul Preston
    Superintendent
    CCCTEC

    paul@ccctec.org
    530 632-9786

  3. Local School Board Member says:

    Why does Mr. Premack believe that local districts are “the most ill-suited agencies you can think of (to do that), especially those in financial difficulties themselves.” Some reasons that I can think of:
    - Local boards might actually try to hold charters to reasonable requirements like equal funding of special education students.
    - Local school districts which are already financially impacted by providing facilities and losing funds to charter schools may not have additional resources to pay for charter school oversight.
    - Local school boards want to see the best possible education for an entire district of children and want to see equal support for the 95% of kids who are NOT enrolled in charters.
    - Publicly elected local school boards may want to see openness and tax payer input into the leadership of charter schools.

    Every school model has good and bad points. Whenever local board members question charter schools, we are labeled as greedy, anti-competition, union puppets, and worse. Surely there are a few such representatives out there, just as surely there are cheating, union hating, exclusive and worse charter leaders.

    It is time to recognize that charters, while helping many children, are also hurting many districts that really do work hard to provide a good education.

    There needs to be some middle ground on education.
    - Teachers unions need to work harder on protecting only good teachers and facilitating ways to support and retrain under-performing teachers. When a teacher’s performance cannot be improved, there needs to be a cost-effective way to help them find another career. Requiring $100K and more to fire a teacher is not cost effective.
    - Union bashing needs to stop. Unions provide an important role in insuring that teachers are adequately paid and protected.
    - State legislation that restricts how local districts can hire and fire to balance budgets should be rescinded.
    - If charters need freedom from burdensome regulations to succeed, then the burdensome regulations need to be dropped for local school districts too.
    - There is great value in a common curriculum and evaluation systems, but expensive, once-per-year, standardized tests do not really provide a good measure of a child’s education. The tests encourage cheating, shuffling of student populations to game results and the dreaded “teaching to the test”. Standardized tests do not need to be completely discarded – there is great value in determining if children are achieving some basic level of factual knowledge – but other assessments of student success and better tracking of students throughout their educational career is needed. Perhaps some of the huge donations made to support a limited number of children in charter schools could be used to put a small, independent team of people together to develop a state-wide system.
    - The public and teachers need to recognize that teachers come with different levels of skills. Standard lesson plans and alternative delivery methods do not denigrate good teachers. They can provide support in weak areas and provide resources allow a teacher’s strengths to be fully employed. We need ways to make good techniques and needed technology easily accessible for both teachers and students.
    - Many students do not come to school ready to learn. Training parents, providing decent health care, and supporting early education are proven to be much lower cost interventions than prisons, welfare and underemployment.

    Maybe I am just an idealist, but it really should be possible to get out of our extremist positions and work within an imperfect middle ground that could result in much better outcomes. Is it time for an educational analogy to “Occupy Wall Street”?

  4. CarolineSF says:

    So no low-income kids, or did the school cover their lunches from its budget and not seek reimbursement from the NSLP?

    1. Paul Preston says:

      Would have done so in the second year.

      Thank you

      Paul Preston
      Superintendent
      CCCTEC

      paul@ccctec.org
      530 632-9786

  5. Paul Preston says:

    Caroline

    You wrote: “Is CCCTEC providing lunches under the National School Lunch Program?”

    The answer is no.

    Thank you

    Paul Preston
    Superintendent
    CCCTEC

    paul@ccctec.org
    530 632-9786

  6. CarolineSF says:

    Is CCCTEC providing lunches under the National School Lunch Program? Because lunches from Straw Hat Pizza are extremely unlikely to qualify as reimbursable. If CCCTEC is being reimbursed under the NSLP, a meal program audit is another area of oversight that needs attention.

  7. Paul Preston says:

    In the above article you state the following:

    “Over the last few months, the board and education department officials have spent large amounts of time trying to sort out the mess, including lengthy letters from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson seeking explanation for checks spent on items like pizza from Straw Hat.”

    Note to author CCCTEC purchased daily school lunches from Straw Hat. In addition Straw Hat donated a substantial amount of time and resources to the students of CCCTEC. Straw Hat Pizza is to be commended for their commitment to the students of CCCTEC.

    Thank you.

    Paul Preston
    Superintendent
    CCCTEC

    paul@ccctec.org
    530 632-9786

  8. Stan says:

    “One of the things we have learned is that the work of authorizing and oversight is a lot tougher than anyone thought it would be,” said Eric Premack,…”
    What makes you think local school districts, who are forced to provide oversight have the time or personnel to do so?

    “Michael Kirst, the president of the State Board, said that the board does have a role to play in granting charters. “There are charter schools that are turned down by both local districts and counties that deserve to operate and so there needs to be some state appeal mechanism,” he said.
    It appears that Mr Kirst would have also voted to approve CCCTEC that the local levels said no to.

    “…the state board would either need more staff or to consider a separate charter board along the lines recommended by the Little Hoover Commission. As proposed by the commission, the “Board of Charter Schools: would be appointed by the governor and the Legislature.”
    “I’m not sure if it’s the right way to go, but it is certainly on the table in terms of being thought about as our charter school role expands,” Kirst said.”

    This last quote proves two things: (1) no one in the Education community not working at a charter thinks that the SBE gives a hoot about the majority of children in public school and (2) the SBE operates on the same level as the rest of Sacramento in believing that money will just start to miraculously just start falling from the sky because they want it too. 500 approved charter schools have gone out of business, can the same be said for real public schools?

  9. dks says:

    Charter schools can and should be a welcomed addition to the ‘public’ school set of options for parents. Many are very good and perform the way that they should. However, most of those that the CDE has had to oversee due to the political bent of the previous State Board of Education, have fundamental flaws. “Putting out fires” is the correct statement. All of the charter schools overseen by the CDE need to be independently examined by the State Controller and the Attorney General’s Office. Taxpayers are being ripped off for the personal gain of the school owners — opps, I mean operators. Some have made millions of $ personnally. Charter school zealots like Mr. Premack are hardly in a position to proposed balanced measures for for oversight.

    1. Educator Person says:

      Hi DKS,

      I’m curious — who has made millions operating charter schools? If what you say is true, then it is terribly sad, as that money isn’t going to students but to an operator. I do believe it’s good to compensate management at an adequate and competitive level, but millions is far too much. Could you say which organization you are talking about and share your source?

      Thanks,
      Concerned Educator

      1. dks says:

        “Some have made millions of $ personnally.”

        Check to see which State-approved charter schools were originally converted from private schools!!!! (Also illegal but has occurred!)