For the past eight years I’ve had a front row seat to the growing tensions over fiscal impact between school districts and public charter schools. As a member of the California State Board of Education from 2011-2018, I was one of two leads on 52 board public hearings for petitioners appealing a local district or county denial of a new charter school or an existing charter school renewal. In the past few years those hearings have become particularly contentious.
The legislative intent of the Charter Schools Act of 1992, found in the statute, was to allow for the establishment of schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure, as a method to accomplish the following:
- Improve pupil learning.
- Increase learning opportunities for all pupils (with special emphasis on those identified as academically low achieving).
- Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods.
- Provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in types of educational opportunities.
- Provide vigorous competition within the public school system to stimulate continual improvements.
On the whole, California’s public charter schools are fulfilling the original legislative intent. In the charter appeals to the board, I heard over and over from parents who were looking for very specific kinds of educational opportunities they believed would best meet the learning needs of their children.
Many of those parents were low-income and determined to get their child the kind of education, perhaps one that would lead to college, to which they had not had access.
Some felt their student would thrive best in a performing arts school or a science academy or a military academy or with project-based learning or a multi-age setting or a dual language setting or a school model specifically designed to raise African-American achievement or that of English learners.
These parents cared about improving the academic achievement of their students, but they cared just as much about the specific instructional model and mission/vision and culture of the school that they believed would be the best fit for their students’ learning style, interests and social and emotional needs.
For-profit charters are against the law in California. The state currently has 1306 public charter schools serving just over 600,000 students (about 10 percent of the state’s K-12 students) and their parents, who have chosen these schools for reasons very important to each family.
Not every charter school is doing a great job and neither is every traditional public school. But the majority of both are working very hard to educate and improve the lives of their students. California needs all its K-12 public schools to be academically and financially strong: traditional and charter. We need to substantially increase the state’s ranking nationally on per-pupil expenditures for all our public schools, as well as to ensure that supplemental funding under the Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, is targeted specifically, as the law intended, to increase or improve services to low-income students, English learners and foster youth. And a school’s lowest-performing student subgroup should be added to that list.
The fiscal stress some of the state’s largest districts are currently facing is critically important and its causes are complex. I hope Governor Newsom’s administration and the Legislature will move decisively to support those districts to develop long-term solutions to such major structural challenges as rising pension and health-care costs as well as special education expenses, in the context of an overall declining student enrollment in California.
As the Senate and Gov. Newsom consider coming recommendations to change charter law, I urge them to keep intact an appeals process that preserves a role for the State Board of Education as a last resort. The inherent tension and conflict of interest that exists in district approval of charter schools demands a dispassionate state role as a question of due process, to provide checks and balances.
To increase the state’s capacity for appeals, one option might be to expand the membership and role of the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, first established by State Board of Education policy in 2002, to more strongly support the state board and the California Department of Education in authorizing decisions and in oversight of charters authorized by the state board. The state board already has the authority to choose to delegate the oversight of these charters to a third party, such as county offices of education.
Alternatively, the state board’s role in an appeals process could be replaced by the creation of a new independent professional state entity, or independent regional entities, with authority to authorize on appeal, set authorizing norms and standards and oversee local authorizer practices.
California’s 6.2 million students have great diversity in their learning styles and educational needs, and too many low-income, English learner and students of color continue to struggle to meet the state’s academic standards. They need the expanded choices in types of educational opportunities that charter schools help provide. They need a state role in appeals and authorizing that will provide due process.
Trish Boyd Williams is a former member of the California State Board of Education.
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