Courtesy of Education for Change Public Schools
This story was updated June 18 to correct Alameda County board vote based on meeting minutes.

A California State Board of Education decision to approve a charter school over a school district’s objections laid bare the limits of the state’s charter laws.

Oakland Unified had refused to approve a charter for the proposed new Latitude 37.8 high school in part because the district faces a fiscal crisis and can’t afford to lose more students, along with the state aid that follows them when they go to charter schools. Already, 43 charter schools operate in the city, enrolling one in four students in the Alameda County district.

The district is under pressure to cut at least $5.8 million next year and to close district schools to close its budget deficit.

“We did make a tough decision,” Oakland school board President Aimee Eng told the state board. “And we hope the state stands behind our tough decision.”

After intense discussion amid sympathy for Oakland’s situation, the state board during its meeting Thursday approved a new charter high school expected to open in the fall, based on the California Department of Education’s recommendation, which said it met all legal requirements. The board said the state law does not allow it to consider the charter school’s financial impact on the local district.

However, Glen Price, chief deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education, said California’s charter school laws — passed in the early 1990s — were outdated and needed to be revised.

He pointed out that both the Oakland and Alameda County school boards have approved many charter schools in the past.

“But, they know that at some point, we have to consider the whole ecosystem — the whole community we’re operating in,” Price said, adding that no other local planning body would make a decision about expanding services without considering the financial impacts.

“It’s time for us to take a fresh look at policies in the state,” he said.

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Some state board members struggled with the decision. State board member Ilene Straus said she understood that the Oakland school board was grappling with managing its finances and reducing the number of schools in the district.

“I think we’re stuck between wanting great things for kids, which everybody wants, and really clear guidance about what we can approve,” Straus said.

The Education for Change Public Schools charter management organization expects to open Latitude on the site of the organization’s Epic middle charter school next month in the Fruitvale area of Oakland with 50 9th-graders. It will expand to 320 students in grades 9-12 by 2022-23.

The school plans to personalize learning for students by creating individual plans for them that will include weekly off-campus excursions into the community to learn from professionals in various businesses and organizations.

Price said he and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson supported the department’s recommendations, but were concerned that current charter school laws did not take into consideration the rapid growth of charter schools in some districts.

Although California has moved toward giving districts more control over decision-making regarding their use of state funds, he said elected officials are “handicapped” by charter school laws passed in 1991 and 1992, which make it difficult for them to do what they believe is best for their communities. 

In the case of Oakland Unified, this quandary for local and state officials is especially pronounced because the district is paying back state loans from 2003 due to financial distress and “the superintendent of public instruction is charged with returning the district to financial health,” he said.

Yet, the state superintendent has no authority under current law to evaluate the financial impact of a charter school on the district when considering whether to grant a charter.

“So, a lot of responsibility has been given to the superintendent” to help the district improve its finances without the necessary authority,” Price said. “The education and charter landscape has changed dramatically since 1992, while the charter authorization process has only been tweaked slightly.”

The state board is now the second-largest charter authorizer in California, overseeing 51 charter schools, behind Los Angeles Unified. The department’s resources are “stretched incredibly thin,” Price said, noting that centralized oversight from Sacramento “flies in the face of our commitment to local control.”

The Oakland school board voted 6-1 to reject the charter school petition last November, saying the application did not meet all of the state’s requirements. Jumoke Hinton Hodge voted in favor, saying that she had followed district staff’s recommendation for approval. Alameda County’s board also denied the petition in a 4-2 vote. The California Department of Education said the county lacked grounds to support their denial.

At Thursday’s state board meeting, many speakers said the new charter school would hurt the district financially by draining students away from Oakland Unified, which would cause it to lose state aid for each pupil. Recent reports from outside agencies, including the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team and civil Alameda County Grand Jury, said the district needed to close schools to stay fiscally solvent. Over the last 15 years, enrollment in district schools has dropped by 31 percent to about 37,000 while enrollment in the charter schools in the city has grown as new charter schools have opened and expanded.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, and state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland, sent letters to the state board urging it to deny the charter school, saying the state should uphold decisions made by local school boards.

“Oakland Unified School District is fighting to get their financial house in order,” Skinner wrote. “Stripping the elected school board of the ability to make local decisions regarding when a school will be added to their portfolio threatens that stability.”

Although the California Department of Education recommended approval of the Oakland charter school petition, Lisa Constancio, director of the department’s charter schools division, said the proposed school must secure adequate funding and further clarify some of its charter elements as conditions of approval. The school will be called Latitude 37.8 after Oakland’s latitude.

The state board approved the charter in a 7-1-1 vote, with board member Patricia Rucker opposed and board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon abstaining. Both expressed concerns about the charter’s ability to attract the same demographics as the district’s, especially the percentage of African-American students.

Board member Trish Williams voted in favor saying that the petition “doesn’t meet any of the reasons for denial.”

Ortiz-Licon also raised questions about under-enrollment and low academic performance in some of the other six schools currently operated by Education for Change in Oakland, based on the California Schools Dashboard, which rates schools by color in various categories. Red indicates the lowest performance. The next rung up is orange, followed by yellow, green and blue, which signifies the highest performance among schools statewide on the dashboard.

Although Cox Academy was rated green for its progress among English learners, it was rated yellow for math scores, orange for English language arts scores and red for suspension rates.

Hae-Sin Thomas, CEO of the charter management company, said the Latitude school would conduct a lottery to ensure that students come from every zip code in the city, instead of giving preferential admission to those who live in the Epic middle school neighborhood. That should attract more African-American students, she said, noting that the organization’s other schools are located in largely Latino areas.

Besides changing the admissions process, she said the organization has “doubled down on instructional improvement” in the past year. Already, she said, preliminary results from standardized tests administered last spring show gains of 20-25 percentage points in the organization’s current schools. These results, however, have not yet been publicly released by the state.

To help attract more African-American students, Thomas said the organization has hired more African-American teachers. Admitting that she was “embarrassed” by the low performance of some of her charter schools, Thomas said she has traveled the country to see how others with similar demographics are “killing us.”

She reiterated that schools such as Epic — where only 8 percent of students met or exceeded math standards and 22 percent met or exceeded English standards on state tests in 2017 — have seen dramatic improvement in the past year. Statewide, 38 percent of students met or exceeded math standards and 49 percent reached those goals in English language arts.

After the meeting, Eng, Oakland school board president, said she stood by the local school board’s decision to deny the charter school, but understood the state board’s rationale for approving it, “given that California’s existing charter law makes no exception for potential financial impact on school districts when granting new charters.” But she said Oakland officials agree with Price that “California’s charter law is outdated and needs to be more aligned with the state’s recent policy shifts toward decentralization and greater local control.”

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  1. Jatinder 5 months ago5 months ago

    Oakland Unified had refused to approve a charter school for Latitude 37.8, partly because the District is facing a fiscal crisis of $5.8 million, and to make up for the budget deficit it has to close district schools! And if it lets more students leave for charter schools, then along with those students will also go that much state aid! Are they running a corporate business or schools? What a way to manage the … Read More

    Oakland Unified had refused to approve a charter school for Latitude 37.8, partly because the District is facing a fiscal crisis of $5.8 million, and to make up for the budget deficit it has to close district schools! And if it lets more students leave for charter schools, then along with those students will also go that much state aid! Are they running a corporate business or schools? What a way to manage the education of school children? It is preposterous that the Oakland district thinks of reducing the number of schools to manage its finances. The California Department of Education doesn’t exist in a poor African country to save on funds for school education. Is that how USA would become great again?

    Why did they allow the district schools to decay over the last 15 years, causing the enrollment in them to drop by 31 percent to about 37,000?

    Will the closure of district schools not cause a trauma to the children who have to shift to other schools? Still worse is the news of rural elementary schools closing in some districts of USA. The Arena Community Rural Elementary school, running since 1952 in Wisconsin, was recently shut forever by the school district. The number of students in it was declining, but was still over 90, in its dying months, which was considered low and expensive to employ minimum staff. Consequently, Arena’s 800 residents, have no school now, and its children must travel nine miles to Spring Green, for the nearest public elementary schools!

    The State Board approved this new charter school charter for Latitude 37.8, parents wanted it, but the objection comes from district authorities. Strange tussle, which the young school-going kids may not be able to grasp. Why cannot the district worry about under-enrollment and low academic performance in its schools and find solutions?

    What do they do across the world when the number of students dwindle? Let me mention, two state-run schools in rural part of Maharashtra state of India have continued to run, even when just a single student is left in each of them. One of these two schools is in village Kopra, which has a single girl-student, Tanu, who is yet in third standard, so the school will be kept running till she graduates from it, or even beyond if another student joins, whatever maybe the cost to run this school! The other school is at the remote village Chandar, which too has just one student, Yuvraj Sangale, age 8 yrs. His teacher, Mr. Ranjinikant Mendhe has rigged up an “e-learning facility” with an old TV, 12-volt solar panel and two tablets, to keep the interest of his lone student, because Chandar has no electricity supply. Both these 1-teacher, 1-student schools have not been closed by the state to save money.

    Japan Railway (JR) kept its decision to close down the Kami-Shirataki station in abeyance for over three years, because a teenage girl, Kana, was using this station to go to her school every day. Even though she was the only passenger, a train stopped at station Kami-Shirataki twice daily until Kana graduated on March 26, 2016, after which the station was closed.

    Children education at schools should have priority over fiscal considerations. Let the 19 trillion dollar GDP economy not become great again by cutting corners on expenses related to school education.

  2. Trish Williams, member CA State Board of Education 5 months ago5 months ago

    These are certainly difficult times in CA K12 with districts trying to adjust financially to declining birth rates and diminishing student enrollment -- at the same time that increasing numbers of parents are seeking public school choices for their children. State law allows public charters that have been denied at the local level to appeal up to the State Board of Education. We are required by law to look at each charter petition with fresh … Read More

    These are certainly difficult times in CA K12 with districts trying to adjust financially to declining birth rates and diminishing student enrollment — at the same time that increasing numbers of parents are seeking public school choices for their children.

    State law allows public charters that have been denied at the local level to appeal up to the State Board of Education. We are required by law to look at each charter petition with fresh eyes to see if it meets all the legal conditions for approval and then to reach an independent judgment on approval.

    Of the charter appeals that have come before the current Board, appointed in Jan 2011 by Gov Brown, we’ve now approved 31/39 for new schools and only 2/10 appeals of schools on renewal. Of these 33 approved charter petitions, one has been revoked by the SBE and three were unable to eventually open – a loss of only 12%.

    SBE data indicates that as of the July meeting, the State Board of Education currently oversees 33 regular charter schools and one statewide benefit charter.

    Staff with the California Dept of Education are to be commended for their hard work in analyzing appeal petitions and overseeing the 33 SBE authorized charters, but additional resources for this function would definitely be welcomed.