After an emotional two-hour public hearing, the California State Board of Education on Friday denied a bid by the Rocketship Public Schools to open a new Bay Area school at a time of heightened debate over the role of charter schools in the state.
In a 9-1 vote, the board agreed with the California Department of Education’s recommendation to deny the charter organization’s petition to establish a new school in San Pablo near Richmond, which the West Contra Costa Unified school board and Contra Costa County board of education had also denied. Citing concerns about the charter school’s financial and educational plans, some board members said Rocketship — which operates 10 schools in San Jose, one in Antioch, one in Concord and one in Redwood City where the company is headquartered — may be trying to expand beyond its capacity. Board President Michael Kirst voted against denying the appeal.
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Board members said they were especially concerned about problems associated with the Rocketship Futuro Academy charter school, which opened in Concord two years ago, with the State Board’s approval. The California Department of Education has sent six letters of concern to the school, which is located in the Mt. Diablo district, related to finances and other issues. Rocketship said they expected new philanthropic support which would improve the school’s finances.
Chief Deputy Superintendent Glen Price, who was sitting in for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, said the California Department of Education was concerned about the lack of students with disabilities in Rocketship schools, lack of information about its English learner program, high suspension rates among some student groups and its governance model, which includes charter school board meetings held in San Jose. Price, who lives in Contra Costa County, said meetings that far away were “counter to all of our objectives for parent and stakeholder engagement.”
State Board members also expressed concerns about achievement gaps among students from different ethnic groups at current Rocketship schools.
Board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon urged Rocketship to focus on its existing schools. “Instead of petitioning for another school, why not focus on internal achievement gaps?” she said. “That is the nature of growing too fast, too soon.”
Although Rocketship officials acknowledged some internal achievement gaps, they said their students outperformed students in neighboring district schools, as well as in West Contra Costa Unified. Rocketship said 84 percent of its students are poor. Its schools are located in predominately Hispanic communities.
Marie Gil, Rocketship’s Bay Area Regional Director, said after the vote that 500 San Pablo students whose families had signed intent to enroll forms will now miss out on the ability to choose the Rocketship alternative for their children.
“Families in San Pablo deserve a high-quality public elementary school,” she said. “By voting against our petition, the state board silenced the voices of over 500 families who simply want the opportunity to choose a public school that will help their children realize their amazing potential.”
But several West Contra Costa teachers, principals, parents and district officials said they are working to improve the education of students in San Pablo and the rest of the district. In 2017 state standardized tests, 34 percent of students in grades 3-8 and 11 met or exceeded English language arts standards and 24 percent met math standards.
“I’m hoping we can continue with this energy and we can increase the academic achievement in our own schools so charters become completely unnecessary for us,” said Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond union, after the vote.
Expansion of charter schools has become one of the top issues in the race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, with both candidates saying they support charters but also agreeing that the state’s 26-year-old charter school law must be changed. The candidates, who will face each other on Nov. 6, disagree on how best to handle the impact of charter school growth on the financial health of school districts.
Tony Thurmond, who has the support of charter school opponents including the California Teachers Association, says he would consider a pause on new charter schools while Marshall Tuck, who has the support of charter school advocates, says he rejects the idea of stopping all new charter schools from opening.
In response to growing statewide concerns about charter school growth, Torlakson recently created an “Action Team on Charter Schools” to review current charter laws and make recommendations for changes to the next State Superintendent of Public Instruction, governor, State Board of Education and state legislature.
Drawn to Sacramento by the charter votes at the state board meeting, several charter opponents in a group called #WeChoose Bay Area rallied outside the state capitol to advocate for eliminating the charter appeal process to the state board and some spoke against the Rocketship appeal. Mike Hutchinson, one of the group’s organizers and a leader of the Oakland Public Education Network, a parent group that opposes charters, said in a news release they wanted to “make sure our elected officials know that public education is an issue that we will be voting on in this year’s election.”
Before the state board vote, Steve Zeltzer, a member of an anti-charter group called Defend Public Education Now, accused board members of having “a vested interest” in charter schools.
“It is right that education is the civil rights issue of our day and maybe we’re seeing it here because tempers are flaring,” said Ortiz-Licon, who defended her independent decision-making and shot back that she didn’t appreciate someone making incorrect assumptions about her role on the board.
State board member Patricia Rucker said she has become accustomed to charter appeal discussions where “passions are high, issues are personal and there is often hyperbole attached to the presentations made.” Despite claims that parents in San Pablo want the school, Rucker noted that she heard substantial opposition. Twenty-five people spoke against it and 15 spoke in favor.
State board member Trish Williams said she has supported charter petitions in the past “that do really great things for kids that need those opportunities and I won’t be put down for doing it.” She praised Rocketship’s educational programs and said she wasn’t worried about its finances, but she was concerned about the timing of the appeal, given the current controversy over charters in the state.
“I think this is an unfortunate time because the tensions around charter and district issues are at a fever pitch and will certainly remain that way at least through November and maybe later,” she said. “It affects all of us. People are speaking up more about charters than they would a year ago, even.”
Adding that she was in an “awkward position of feeling this is an outstanding charter management organization that does great things for students,” she said she was concerned about how fast it was growing.
“And it’s coming about in a time where the political environment makes it more difficult for you to do that,” she said, adding that the state’s concerns about Rocketship’s Concord school compounded the difficulty of approving the new school.
Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito, San Pablo and several other East Bay communities.