Taking aim at the majority of charter schools in the state, the California Democratic Party has included language in its platform declaring that these schools should be overseen by publicly elected boards, in contrast to the self-appointed boards that run most of them.
The new language, adopted at the state party’s annual convention in Long Beach over the weekend, was promoted by the 120,000-member California Federation of Teachers and strengthens an already strongly worded section of the California Democratic Party’s platform on charter schools.
It is especially significant because it comes from a state with by far the largest number of charter schools in the nation, enrolling just over 10 percent of all the state’s public school students. It also underscored the ongoing divisions within the party over charter schools, which have become about one of the most contentious issues on the nation’s education reform agenda.
“We need to keep certain services public, and education is one of them,” said California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas.
He said that according to the California education code, charter schools are public schools and therefore “should reflect the communities where we work and serve.” “One of the best ways to reflect the community and be accountable to the community is to be elected by the community,” he said.
Freitas did not go so far as to call for closing down charter schools that do not have publicly elected boards. Rather, he said, the new language “does tell candidates (for public office) that if they want the endorsement of the California Democratic Party these are beliefs that they should live by.”
The new language also calls for charter schools to adopt “fair labor practices” and respect labor “neutrality.” That means that if charter school teachers and staff want to join a union, school administrators should stay “neutral” and refrain from either supporting or opposing the unionizing effort.
As a result of a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown a year ago, California has already banned for-profit charter schools,
The California Charter Schools Association, which represents most charter schools in the state and supported the for-profit ban, pushed back against the tougher language in the Democratic Party platform.
“The resolution passed at the California Democratic Party convention seems to be a solution in search of a problem,” said Emily Bertelli, a spokesperson for the association. She said independent charter schools are “authorized by elected school boards,” even if they are not run by them. “They share the same mission to do better for kids by offering a free, quality public education to all students regardless of their income, where they live or their race,” she said.
As for bargaining rights, she said charter school staff are “free to pursue union representation and as a result, a number of them are represented by unions.”
However, Freitas said some charter management organizations have spent substantial sums to discourage employees from organizing, effectively “silencing their voice.” Sometimes they feel threatened, he said. “There have been charter schools where they wanted representation, but when they reach out to us, they ask us not to use their name.” He declined to name the charter organization he had in mind.
The California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, did not respond to a request for comment on the state party platform.
Who runs a charter school has been a flash point in the battles over charter schools in California and nationally. Most charter schools are nonprofit organizations run by a board of unpaid members. Typically, board members select who they want on their boards and who will succeed them.
Several prominent charter school supporters — notably Reed Hastings, the billionaire founder of Netflix — believe that self-appointed boards are among the strongest attributes of charter schools. They argue elected school boards, by contrast, is a key reason why performance of students in many public schools is so poor. Hastings in particular has argued that elected boards are prone to instability and frequent change, risking educational progress in the pursuit of short-term political agendas.
If only charter schools with publicly elected boards were allowed to operate in California, that would wipe out over 1,000 of the just over 1,300 charter schools in the state.
In California, 316 charter schools are actually operated by school districts and overseen by elected school boards. Known as “dependent,” “semi-autonomous” or “affiliated” charter schools, they typically have fewer freedoms than regular charter schools do. Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, operates 53 affiliated charter schools, out of the district’s 277 charter schools. These schools have governing councils made up of teachers and parents acting in an advisory capacity. But they ultimately are under the control of the district’s elected school board.
These schools are presumably the ones that would pass muster under the California Democratic Party’s newly revised platform.
But coming just weeks after the California Legislature approved major legislation endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom revising the state’s 25-year-old charter school law, it’s unlikely that there’s much appetite in Sacramento for making further major changes, at least in the near term.
At the same time, the stronger state party platform signals that the charter wars in California are not over, notwithstanding the recent reforms and an apparent truce between charter advocates and teachers’ unions.
The party’s action also comes at a time when opposition to charter schools appears to be growing on the Democratic presidential campaign trail. Both Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, have called for an end of federal funding for charter school expansion, among other restrictions on charter growth. Former Vice President Joe Biden recently charged that charter schools “siphon off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble.”
Other candidates are less critical. Pete Buttigieg has said that charter schools “have a place” as “a laboratory for techniques that can be replicated,” and Netflix’s Hastings has hosted a fundraiser for him. This week in an op-ed piece in the New York Times Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a strong backer of charter schools when he was mayor of Newark, made the case for what he called “high-achieving public charter schools.”
“We must be the party of real solutions, not one that threatens schools that work for millions of families who previously lacked good educational options,” Booker wrote.