Bay Area district joins others in calling for moratorium on charter school expansions

February 28, 2019

Charter school supporters attend a West Contra Costa school board meeting on Oct. 3, 2018.

Amid concerns that it could experience the same level of charter school growth that Oakland Unified has seen, a nearby Bay Area district is calling for a statewide moratorium on charter school expansion.

The West Contra Costa Unified school board, which oversees K-12 campuses in Richmond and surrounding communities, approved a resolution Wednesday in a 4-1 vote calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion statewide and the strengthening of transparency and oversight in the way they are governed and operated.

Charter school enrollment has grown from 1,451 in 2014-15 to 3,192 last year, rising from 4.7 percent of all students in the district to 10.1 percent, according to the California Department of Education. District officials say those numbers have risen even higher this year. However, state data is not yet available. Oakland’s charter school enrollment has reached 30 percent of students, according to Oakland Unified.

When newly elected West Contra Costa board member Consuelo Lara decided to bring this idea to the board about a month ago, legislation approved by the state Legislature this week and headed to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature had not yet been introduced.

Senate Bill 126, which the Assembly adopted with a 63-to-9 vote, will require charter schools to follow the same laws governing open meetings, public records and conflicts of interest that apply to school districts. They include ensuring board meetings are open to the public, providing records to the public upon request and, to prevent personal gain, banning board members from voting on contracts in which they have a financial interest.

But since the Los Angeles teachers’ strike and subsequent Oakland teachers’ strike, Lara said public attention is more focused on the impacts charter schools can have on such districts.

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The school board in Los Angeles passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools in that district. And the Oakland school board has adopted “legislative priorities” that among other things seek to “suspend, for a specified time, the approval of new charter schools or the renewal of existing charter schools that include enrollment growth” when it is in fiscal distress.

“At this point, public opinion is really turning against them,” said Lara, a retired West Contra Costa school teacher who was elected to the board in November, referring to charter schools. “Laws are coming down.”

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who represents the communities that make up the West Contra Costa district, has been championing some of the proposed legislation that would more tightly regulate charter schools, Lara said.

“I’m hoping there are very strong oversight and transparency laws that come through,” said Lara, who was heavily backed in her election by the United Teachers of Richmond union, which also pushed for the board resolution.

Board President Tom Panas was the lone vote against the resolution. In a recent interview, he said he had concerns about a moratorium, but supports a statewide discussion on laws governing charter schools. “I just think it would benefit the state to have a conversation about ‘what is our intention these days?’” Panas said.

The district’s resolution noted that “current law requires district campuses to accommodate co-locations of charter schools, resulting in shortages of resources and space and increasing tension and conflict within school communities.” Co-locations refers to charter schools being located in district buildings on the same campuses as district schools. 

Four other bills have been introduced in the Assembly to further restrict charter schools by eliminating the right of appeals to the county and the state, cap the number of schools to the number operating now, let school districts reject charter schools based on their financial impact and prevent charter schools approved in one district from setting up in another.

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 and several other East Bay communities.

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