State burdened by oversight of more charter schools

September 28, 2011
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

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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