CREDIT: Fermin Leal / Edsource
A kindergarten student at Aspire Inskeep Academy in South Los Angeles hopes to answer a question during a reading lesson.

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.

Trish Boyd Williams

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.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. We are running a series of commentaries on all sides of the charter school controversy, which has emerged as one of the most contentious issues on the education reform landscape in California. You can find other perspectives on this topic here. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Marc Winger 4 months ago4 months ago

    Ms. Williams was a member of a State Board of Education that granted notoriously bad charter approvals on appeal. The schools failed – or worse – as predicted by district and county analyses. The key to quality charters is in local control of the approval process, coupled with meaningful oversight. The state board and the California Department of Education fit neither of those criteria. If there have to be appeals of a … Read More

    Ms. Williams was a member of a State Board of Education that granted notoriously bad charter approvals on appeal. The schools failed – or worse – as predicted by district and county analyses. The key to quality charters is in local control of the approval process, coupled with meaningful oversight. The state board and the California Department of Education fit neither of those criteria. If there have to be appeals of a district’s denial, keep them at a level that can at least profess some familiarity and knowledge of the educational program and needs of the local district. This is about local control and the sovereignty of elected school boards – making decisions such as granting charter petitions is why they were elected by the voters in their districts.

    Replies

    • Trish Williams 4 months ago4 months ago

      The value of a State Board review is that none of the members need consider political consequences to themselves personally of their actions on appeals, freeing them to focus on the quality of the petition and its potential educational value to the parents and students wanting the school. The facts: from Jan 2011 to Jan 2019 the SBE heard 52 petition appeals, denied 16, and accepted authorization of 35. Thirty-one are still open … Read More

      The value of a State Board review is that none of the members need consider political consequences to themselves personally of their actions on appeals, freeing them to focus on the quality of the petition and its potential educational value to the parents and students wanting the school. The facts: from Jan 2011 to Jan 2019 the SBE heard 52 petition appeals, denied 16, and accepted authorization of 35. Thirty-one are still open and serving the students who chose them.

  2. T Kennedy 4 months ago4 months ago

    The fact is that charter schools have failed to improve both public school performance and charter schools themselves do not outperform public schools. Therefore they simply take public money that is intended for public schools and 90% of our children are impacted to provide 10% of our children no benefit greater than our public school system.

  3. Michael Brak 4 months ago4 months ago

    I appreciated the commentary, including the nod towards disadvantaged youth, as the research from Stanford and USC, etc. is quite clear: Charter schools are significantly better for urban and disadvantaged youth than traditional schools. But there is another type of demographic that I haven't seen measured and compared, but can anecdotally attest to after teaching/counseling in charter schools for over a decade (I taught in traditional schools for years as well), and it pertains … Read More

    I appreciated the commentary, including the nod towards disadvantaged youth, as the research from Stanford and USC, etc. is quite clear: Charter schools are significantly better for urban and disadvantaged youth than traditional schools. But there is another type of demographic that I haven’t seen measured and compared, but can anecdotally attest to after teaching/counseling in charter schools for over a decade (I taught in traditional schools for years as well), and it pertains to kids with high anxiety and depression. I can unequivocally state that charter schools, particularly at the middle and high school levels, are much healthier places for kids with high anxiety and depression. The reason is simple: Charter school sites are generally much smaller than the mega-sized middle and high schools, so these kids are able to be noticed and attended to more regularly by teachers and staff. And because of the smaller nature of charters, they can be more nimble about customizing these kids’ education according to their needs and obstacles. Every year I receive tear-filled expressions of gratitude from parents who thank our charter school for saving their child’s life – sometimes literally so, and often times in terms of saving them from dropping out of school altogether. And it’s not because I’m some superstar educator – it’s because of the personalized environment that small charters can create, which large traditional schools haven’t been able to do.

    As anxiety and depression rates among youth don’t seem to be declining, I hope that the positive effects of charters on these kids will be seriously considered.

    Replies

    • Trish Williams 4 months ago4 months ago

      You sound like a wonderful teacher Michael — your students are lucky to have someone like you on their side and paying attention to their socio-emotional needs. Thank you for your comments.

  4. Tony 4 months ago4 months ago

    We need these schools – I stand for the charter schools! They have provided students with a clear road map to a better education. Students seems to thrive more. Support the charter school movement!

  5. Norma Sandoval 4 months ago4 months ago

    It is very easy to blame charter schools for the failing education system in our state. As a 22-year education veteran and a National Board Certified Teacher who has worked in three different districts, I can say that traditional schools themselves need a lot of reform. I purposefully worked in schools with low-income communities. Yet my innovative and student-centered approach always faced the red tape of District politics. As an attendance dean, I had 17-year-old … Read More

    It is very easy to blame charter schools for the failing education system in our state. As a 22-year education veteran and a National Board Certified Teacher who has worked in three different districts, I can say that traditional schools themselves need a lot of reform. I purposefully worked in schools with low-income communities. Yet my innovative and student-centered approach always faced the red tape of District politics.

    As an attendance dean, I had 17-year-old 9th grade dropouts that had no chance of completing their education in a traditional school setting. District alternative schools had an endless list of students waiting for a spot to open. Rather than open another alternative school to address these students, the district did nothing. Many of these students ended up having to go to charter schools that allow them to complete their diploma.

    Charter provide when districts fail to serve. As English language coordinator for a district, I realized that how many bilingual programs disappeared in California after Proposition 227, with the exception of charter schools.

    Like this, I can describe many atypical settings provided by charters: arts, project-based, work-study diploma completion, and so on.

    As much as we hate to admit it, many traditional schools have not changed.

    As a parent and community activist, I believe that parents should have a say in what happens with their children’s education. The need creates the demand. The monopoly of education is controlled, not by charters, but by traditional schools that did not innovate to address student needs.

    Regardless of how we feel about charters, Californians need to support the power of choice. Doing away with it to sustain a failing monopoly is simply bad business.

  6. Dave K 4 months ago4 months ago

    Charter schools are a neoliberal racket. They divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools that desperately need them. They often don’t even open after getting millions in funding. When they show higher test scores, it’s because they cherry pick the best supported students, leaving the others to the underfunded public schools.