Nationally recognized charter organization seeks state approval for San Francisco school

January 10, 2012
Photo by Tiffany Szerpicki

Photo by Tiffany Szerpicki

UPDATE:  The State Board of Education unanimously voted to approve the charter petition of Rocketship Education, overruling the recommendation made by the California Department of Education to deny the petition appeal.

A battle over whether a nationally acclaimed charter school organization will be allowed to open a school this fall in San Francisco will come to a head today, months after the San Francisco school board voted decisively to deny the school a charter last fall.

The State Board of Education is expected to vote today on the petition submitted by Rocketship Education to open a charter elementary school in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point, a low-income, diverse neighborhood with a heavy concentration of African American residents.

Rocketship Education, which currently operates five charter schools in San Jose, has been hailed for its hybrid model of instruction which integrates regular instruction with using computers to allows teachers to give students more individual attention.

But last August its petition to open the school was decisively rejected on a 6-0 vote by the San Francisco board. By law, Rocketship is permitted to appeal that decision to the State Board of Education. The state board will hear that appeal at its meeting in Sacramento today.

The California Department of Education is recommending to the state board that it reject the petition, but for different reasons than those cited by San Francisco. Further complicating the picture is that the state’s Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, which is appointed by the state board, is recommending that the board approve the charter petition.

Rocketship officials were reluctant to criticize the department, but expressed optimism that their charter petition will be approved. “We are eager to partner with the state and the school district on this very important work,” said Evan Kohn, Rocketships’ senior policy manager. He said Rocketship schools have achieved results similar to schools serving far more affluent student populations.

Just last month, Rocketship got a far more enthusiastic reception than it got in San Francisco from the Santa Clara County Board of Education. The board voted to approve Rocketship’s petition for 20 additional charter schools in eight different school districts in the county. That is in addition to the five San Joe schools it already operates or has received charters for.

“Rocketship has shown what works,” San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed told the board before it made its decision. “Let’s take it, let’s replicate it.”

Once all Rocketship’s Santa Clara County schools are established by 2016, it will have enrolled some 15,000 students.

Among the reasons cited by the San Francisco school board in its 31-page denial were the following:

Kohn politely took issue with those conclusions. “We have an absolutely sound education program,” he said.

In its recommendation to the State Board of Education for denial of Rocketship’s petition, the California Department of Education focused on what appear to be relatively minor issues compared to the multiple harsh criticisms in San Francisco’s denial.

The department’s concerns focused on whether Rocketship could cover “debts or liabilities” in the event its San Francisco school had to close. It also said that Rocketship had failed to explain how grant funds would be spent on individual schools, how debt service payments would be made, or what kinds of services will be provided for the 15 percent management fee described in its petition.

“We do believe that these are minor findings which we will be happy to address,” Kohn said. “These are non-issues.”

Kohn said there is an urgent need for the services Rocketship is proposing to provide. “We are eager to partner with the state with this very important work,” he said. “There is an opportunity for the state to close the achievement gap in places like Bayview Hunters Point.”

But an additional complicating factor is that while the state board has the authority to issue a charter, it is already burdened with having to oversee 32 other state-authorized charter schools because of limited oversight capacity. This represents a far larger role than that envisioned by the state’s original 1992 Charter School Act, which anticipated that local school districts would be the primary issuer of charters. That is still the case, but as a result of denials for charters at a local level, the state board has ended up granting charters to a growing number of schools.

The Little Hoover Commission has recommended a separate state charter authorizing and oversight commission. But Sacramento insiders say that such a commission is unlikely to be constituted, so the state board will remain the body of last resort for organizations like Rocketship whose petitions for a charter were turned down at a district and county level.

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