Reforms > Charter Schools

Aspire and State Board give up fight over controversial charters



After a six-year legal battle, Aspire Public Schools and the State Board of Education have agreed to give up the permit that enabled Aspire to open a half-dozen charter schools without local district approval.

The much-watched settlement, reached last month, will likely discourage the State Board from granting similar “statewide benefit charters” and marks a clear victory for the California School Boards Association, the California Teachers Association and other education groups that had filed suit. They had argued that the State Board had violated the law in granting Aspire authority to open schools under a statewide benefit charter. Two courts agreed with them, leading the State Board and Aspire to give up the fight, except for a procedural issue that the State Board is still contesting.

Under the deal, Aspire will forgo the right to apply for another statewide benefit charter for five years. Aspire and the State Board will split $300,000 of the plaintiffs’ legal fees. However, Aspire won’t have to close the six schools that opened in San Juan Unified, Stockton Unified and Los Angles Unified while the case was being litigated. In moves that made the settlement possible, all three districts have agreed to become the new charter authorizers for the schools.

At issue was a section in the state Education Code that permits the State Board to grant a statewide charter to an organization that “will provide instructional services of statewide benefit that cannot be provided by a charter school operating in only one school district.” The statewide benefit charter and a similar provision allowing county offices of education to issue countywide benefit charters were to be the exceptions. The Legislature otherwise intended school districts to be the primary approvers and overseers of charters operating within their borders.

The quality or effectiveness of Aspire’s schools wasn’t at issue. The state’s largest charter school organization, with 34 schools serving mostly low-income minority students, has had consistently high state test scores and rates of graduation of college-ready students. Aspire was recognized by a McKinsey & Company study among the 20 most improved school systems worldwide. But two courts – a State Court of Appeals panel in a unanimous 2011 decision and the Alameda County Superior Court judge in a subsequent ruling last year ­– said that the State Board’s approval did not meet the high threshold required by state law.

Aspire had argued that its distinct statewide benefits were the ability to issue cost-efficient school construction bonds enabling Aspire to expand its operations and a teacher credentialing program and residency program, producing top-notch new teachers. Both benefits were made cost-efficient and effective through a statewide permit that avoided the expense, length of time and conditions that individual districts could impose. But the courts ruled that potential cost savings didn’t constitute a statewide benefit, and there wasn’t enough evidence to show that Aspire couldn’t achieve what it wanted through local approvals.

The State Board also has granted two other statewide benefit charters. One is to High Tech High, a San Diego-based charter management organization that has a project-based approach to learning and also runs its own graduate school of education; it has opened five schools with two to go, under the state permit. The other is Magnolia Public Schools, a math- and science-focused organization, for 10 schools, although it has opened only two under the statewide approval, according to its website.

The California School Boards Association has not sued the State Board for the other two approvals. However, Judy Cias, chief counsel for the State Board, acknowledged that the Aspire decisions may have had a chilling effect. No other applications for a statewide benefit charter are pending, and Cias said she knew of no others in the works. The rulings “might make other statewide benefit applicants uncertain about moving forward,” she said.

Filed under: Charter Schools, Policy & Finance, State Board

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10 Responses to “Aspire and State Board give up fight over controversial charters”

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  1. Paul on April 4, 2013 at 10:37 am04/4/2013 10:37 am

    • 000

    Oops, the first sentence of my last paragraph should read: “How does a charter authorizer OTHER than a local school board, a county office of education, or the state board of education ensure ongoing oversight…”

  2. Paul on April 4, 2013 at 10:34 am04/4/2013 10:34 am

    • 000

    Trish, California is a state that exercises strong ongoing oversight of charter schools (relative to the level of oversight that other states exercise for charters but not, of course, relative to the level of oversight that conventional, district-run schools receive). The recent decision to close the American Indian Model schools in Oakland is a case in point: despite strong political pressure stemming from the high academic performance of those schools, the local district and the state produced thorough reports about issues such as related party financial transactions, insufficient teacher credentials, non-response to official information requests, and deficient board meeting records. I mention this example because I myself had been fooled. Before reading the reports, I was firmly convinced of the merits of American Indian.

    How does a charter authorizer than a local school board, a county office of education, or the state school board ensure ongoing oversight of the charter schools that it authorizes? More fundamentally, whose interests does a third-party charter authorizer represent? Legally and organizationally, local school boards, county offices of education and the state school board represent the interests of voters.

    Replies

    • navigio on April 4, 2013 at 12:03 pm04/4/2013 12:03 pm

      • 000

      And theoretically, they also represent the interests of their students. In my opinionated reality, however, very few charter proposals are approved for that reason. It is more likely meant to appease community sentiment, frustrated district staff, and affluent benefactors (yes, there are exceptions, but imho, they are hard to find). This also extends to ongoing oversight, as virtually every charter revocation I have seen from up close of has been a result of extreme and blatant financial mismanagement.

      And your point about the oversight difference between charters and district-run schools is an important one.

  3. CarolineSF on April 4, 2013 at 7:55 am04/4/2013 7:55 am

    • 000

    So, Magnolia parent, are you saying that the Magnolia schools are NOT part of the national network of schools run by Gulenists?

    There are some controversial aspects of these schools, including the very high number of H1B visas they secure due to the high number of foreign nationals they employ as teachers. It’s a subject that seems to deserve more local scrutiny than it receives.

    The news reports say that Gulenists run schools all over the world, but only in the U.S., thanks to the charter school laws, do they run publicly funded schools.

  4. Magnolia parents on April 3, 2013 at 10:49 pm04/3/2013 10:49 pm

    • 000

    No one has the right to stick labels to the schools that we and our children enjoy being part of.

    We want our children to proudly mention their schools in their resume. The below website is our collective effort to respond to false accusations and share our experiences at Magnolia with the public.

    http://parents4magnolia.org/

    John, please visit below links as well:

    http://parents4magnolia.org/2011/05/11/gulen-charter-schools-labeling-campaign/

    http://parents4magnolia.org/2013/03/18/louding-gulen-charter-schools-propaganda/

  5. Priorities on April 3, 2013 at 11:59 am04/3/2013 11:59 am

    • 000

    We already have more than a thousand authorizers in California! Our state leads the nation in the number of authorizers. Multiple authorizers outside the public school system simply means that charter school petitioners will shop around for the easiest authorizer that will grant them the best deal. Bad for oversight and accountability!

  6. John Fensterwald on April 3, 2013 at 11:13 am04/3/2013 11:13 am

    • 000

    Interesting point, Carl. Would that require legislation alone or could the State Board take any steps toward that with its authority?
    Caroline, thanks for the links. The Gullen movement connection to Magnolia is interesting.

  7. Carl Cohn on April 3, 2013 at 10:52 am04/3/2013 10:52 am

    • 000

    A lot of conflict and wasted money that could be avoided by having multiple charter authorizers at the local level…It’s time for California to consider that option.

    Replies

    • Trish Williams on April 3, 2013 at 12:16 pm04/3/2013 12:16 pm

      • 000

      Increasing and diversifying the types and sources of quality authorizers in CA for charters is long overdue. There are many approaches to this — local, regional, state authorizers — LEAs and other institutions or independent boards. There are examples in other states and from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. One important key is to ensure they use professional expertise in determining whether a petition satisfies all the required elements to be authorized, in negotiating the MOU with the charter, and in exercising appropriate oversight of the charter once its up and running.

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