There was widespread agreement at a legislative hearing Wednesday on a lack of clarity and consistency in how the state’s charter schools are approved and overseen.
But school and county district officials and charter school leaders characterized the problems very differently and disagreed over how to fix them.
Charter schools, which receive public funding and are managed, with few exceptions, by nonprofit boards of directors, are free from a number of regulations governing the state’s school districts. There are more than 1,200 charters in California – double the number a decade ago – and this fall they will educate an estimated one of 10 public school students.
Testifying before the Senate Education Committee, district leaders argued that the vagueness of the state’s charter school law and regulations fostered inequalities and a lack of accountability. They complained that charter schools aren’t required to publish financial reports and contact information for board members, many of whom live distant from the school they serve. They said that charter schools can suspend and expel students without an appeals process required of district schools, and many enroll fewer proportions of English learners and disabled students, who are more expensive to educate.
While district schools must provide school lunches to students, charters are exempt from the federal government’s school lunch requirement, and 18 percent of the state’s charters don’t offer meals. That’s a disincentive for low-income students to enroll, said Silke Bradford, who directs charter oversight for the 37 charters that operate in the Oakland Unified School District.
And unlike school districts, the state’s charter schools don’t have their annual LCAP, a comprehensive budget and planning document, reviewed by county offices of education to ensure compliance with the state’s new funding law.
“Clearer standards for accountability are needed,” said Dina Wilson, director of the Charter School Office of the Los Angeles County Office of Education.
But Nicole Assisi, chief executive officer of the San Diego charter school network, Thrive Public Schools, cited “the need for accountability for both sides” and for “consequences” for districts whose school boards reject charter schools out of hand. In the case of her charter school, the staff of San Diego Unified recommended approval, she testified, but school board members “unfairly and illegally denied” the charter. That started a time-consuming and expensive appeals process, first to the county office of education, and then to the State Board of Education, which unanimously approved it, she said.
There is “an inherent conflict of interest” in having school boards, which consider charters competitors for money and students, as the first-line and primary authorizers, Assisi said.
Assisi said she “felt outnumbered” as the only charter operator among nine panelists. But other charter school leaders relayed similar experiences of delays and antagonism during public comments.
Andrew Crowe, chancellor of the Oxford Prep Academy in Chino, blamed “local politics” for the vote of the Chino Valley Unified school board to deny a renewal of its charter, due to expire next year. The K-8 charter has 900 students on a wait list, he said.
Illegal admissions criteria, lax oversight
Two days before the hearing, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and the public interest law firm Public Advocates released a report that said 253 charter schools – more than one in five in the state – have restrictive admissions requirements or exclusionary practices that violate the charter law’s requirement to “admit all pupils who wish to attend” charters except for space limitations. An Internet search of charters’ admissions requirements – which the state and district authorizers easily could have done – found academic and grade prerequisites, English language proficiency criteria, parent volunteering requirements, and applications requiring essays and immigration documentation that overtly exclude or indirectly discourage low-income students and English learners from enrolling, the report said.
Richard Urias, the director of Charter School Support and Oversight for the Ventura County Office of Education, said that his county office monitors charter expulsions and suspensions and efforts to recruit a diverse student body. It requires that charter high schools undergo regional accreditation, though that is not required under state law.
To fix the system, district officials suggested that clearer state guidance and standards and changes in the charter law are necessary, particularly to clarify charters’ latitude to modify their charters on appeal. That would especially help small districts or those with few charter schools, they said. They also complained that the 1 percent fees on a charter’s revenue aren’t enough to cover adequate oversight.
But charter operators recommended an expansion of authorizers beyond local districts, particularly for charters in small districts without the monitoring capacity or expertise. “It’s a big mistake in putting all authorizing work on districts without staff to do it,” said Eric Premack, director of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center.
As an alternative, Greg Geeting, vice president of the Sacramento County Board of Education, suggested creating a statewide clearing house that would review all charter applications and hold initial hearings. That would provide consistency, avoid duplication and reduce the need for appeals, he said.