Chief of state's charter school division stepping down

October 14, 2011
Photo by Jessica Lucia

Photo by Jessica Lucia

The California Department of Education is looking for a replacement for the chief of its  charter school division, who is leaving her post after 18 months on the job.

The departure of Beth Hunkapiller at the end of October comes at a time of continuing expansion of charter schools in California. At the same time, the state faces considerable pressures regarding oversight of state and federal dollars, especially at start-up charter schools.  It is also examining its capacity to oversee 31 charter schools authorized by the State Board of Education between 2000 and 2010.

Hunkapiller said when she accepted the post she was planning to stay only six months, “just to step in and try to help.”  During her short tenure, she noted, she has worked with three executive directors of the State Board of Education, two State Boards, two governors, and two state superintendents of public instruction.

The reason she stayed is that “I was committed to high-performing, quality charter schools,” said Hunkapiller, a prominent figure in the charter school movement in California.

In 1992, she signed the petition for the first school granted a charter in the state—the San Carlos Learning Center. It was also the first school founded by Aspire, which with 34 schools is now the largest charter school company in the state. Hunkapiller served a stint as the chair of the Aspire board of directors, and was chair of the State Board’s Advisory Commission on Charter Schools.  She has also been an elected member of the San Carlos School District board for the past 19 years.

But as the Little Hoover Commission noted in a report last year, there has been significant turnover in the Charter School Division staff, including in its leadership.  Since 2004, it has had three directors, including Hunkapiller.

At the last State Board of Education meeting, Richard Zeiger, the Department of Education’s chief deputy superintendent, announced that tens of millions of dollars in state and federal funds have been lost by start-up charter schools that either never opened or closed within a year or two of opening.  At that meeting, Hunkapiller told the board that oversight procedures, especially of federal grants as high as $575,00 to beginning charter schools, should be stronger.

Hunkapiller said  yesterday that now-closed charter schools have defaulted on $5.5 million from the state’s Charter School Revolving Loan Fund, which gives loans of up to $250,000 mainly to start-up charter schools.  She said the defaults occurred primarily in the early years of the program, but have increased again “in the last year or two.”

State law requires charters to pay off their loans over five years, but if a school closes before that time, collecting on the loan has turned out to be exceedingly difficult if not impossible.

Hunkapiller said the Charter School Division also had to go through a rigorous federal audit in August in which federal auditors spent weeks in Sacramento looking at what happened to federal funds granted to charter schools that have closed their doors

The report is due in January.  Hunkapiller said the auditors “complimented us on many procedures” but “I am certain there will be issues with how we have followed up with schools that have closed.”

Hunkapiller painted a portrait of a staff that has numerous and at times conflicting responsibilities: “It is a tough job because there are many masters,” she said. She said the staff, among other duties, must prepare reports for the State Board, be responsive to the State Superintendent of Pubic Instruction, respond to pressures from charter schools which typically want the state to release funds quickly, as well provide oversight to the state-authorized charters.

With so many responsibilities, she said, “it is possible to be pulled away” from the state’s oversight functions.  She said she didn’t think that the answer was necessarily more staff, but that it was more important to set priorities and then let the existing staff focus on them.

She said she is concerned that there has been as much turnover in the leadership of the charter division. “The reason we need stability in this position is to help the staff remain stable, and to make use of their knowledge,” she said.

She said the charter division now has a staff of 22  She is thankful it has more funds to allow the hiring of three more people, bringing the total to 25.

Going forward, she said she thought that the state needed to separate its current dual role of authorizing charters as well as overseeing them.

For background on charter school funding,  check out this EdSource report.

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