Charter school authorizers come under greater scrutiny in California

June 19, 2019

Students from charter schools throughout the state protest pending legislation in Sacramento limiting the growth of charter schools.

As charter school conflicts intensify in California, increasing attention is being focused not only on the schools themselves but on the school boards and other entities that grant them permission to operate in the first place.

They’re called charter authorizers, and unlike many states, California has hundreds of them: 294 local school districts, 41 county offices of education, along with the State Board of Education.

In fact, California, with over 1300 charters schools, has more authorizers than any other state. That’s not only because of California’s size but also because it has an extremely decentralized approach to charter school authorization.

Someone wishing to start a charter school, or to renew a charter, must apply to a local school district to get the green light to do so. If a petition is turned down by the district, applicants can appeal to county boards of education, and if they are denied there, they can go to the State Board of Education as a last resort.

An emerging question is whether California’s authorizers have the skills, capacity and guidance to adequately oversee the charter schools under their jurisdiction.

That question figured prominently in the deliberations of the California Charter School Policy Task Force convened by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond at the request of that Gov. Gavin Newsom. The task force issued its recommendations earlier this month.

The 11-member task force representing all sides of the charter debate was able to come up with only five unanimous recommendations, of which four had to do with the authorization process. In the report it sent to Newsom, the task force expressed concern that authorizers “provide oversight with great variance.” It pointed out “there are no statewide standards, beyond the charter petition and the charter elements applicants must address.”

It called for “clearly articulated, reasonable and rigorous statewide oversight standards” that it said were needed to “ensure a fair means of evaluating charter schools.”

That view also emerged in a study for the Getting Down to Facts research initiative by Harvard University researchers Kirsten Slungaard Mumma and Martin West. They wrote that “every school district is designated as a potential charter school authorizer, regardless of their capacity or intent, and authorizers act with minimal oversight, guidance or accountability.”

They pointed out that one of the problems is that school districts aren’t adequately reimbursed to be able to effectively oversee charter schools. Under state law, districts typically collect only 1 percent of a charter school’s revenues to support their oversight functions, or in some cases 3 percent if they provide “substantially rent-free facilities” to the school. In a district with only a handful of charter schools, that doesn’t generate enough money for even one staffer. By one estimate, a school district would need to oversee seven charter schools to be able to hire a full time charter director.

California’s approach contrasts with states like Massachusetts and North Carolina where charter schools are overseen by a single state entity. In states like Indiana and Michigan, a mix of nonprofit organizations and higher education institutions can serve as authorizers. Others have set up charter boards independent of districts or the state.

California’s challenge is compounded by the fact that only 1 in 3 of California’s school districts even have a charter school within their boundaries.

That means that the vast majority of school districts have relatively little experience in managing charter schools. Los Angeles Unified, which has more charter schools than any school district in the nation, has its own Charter Schools Division, with over 60 employees listed on its website. But most districts have nothing like that, with charter oversight relegated to one or two staffers who typically have many other responsibilities.

“Managing charter school growth remains a challenge for school districts and county offices of education,” the California School Boards Association said in its report, titled “Uncharted Waters.” “Limited resources are a real threat to the ability of authorizers to build the needed oversight capacity.”

The association established its own task force to make recommendations for reform. One of them was to “ensure that all board members have access to guidance, training, and other support regarding their responsibilities as charter authorizers.”

“I don’t think too many people have looked at all the elements and the decision-making process that authorizers have to go through to decide whether it will lead to a sound education for students,” said Carlos Machado, a legislative advocate and the report’s co-author. “It is a complex process, and authorizers need a lot of support around charter petitions and renewals.”

The California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, which represents school superintendents in all 58 counties, also set up a task force that issued a report focused entirely on the authorization process.

Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Karen Monroe, who chaired the task force, said the most important need is to have a plan for training and technical assistance for charter authorizers. That, she said, was especially critical in very small districts or counties, and school personnel are “wearing lots of hats and don’t have the bandwidth” to fully oversee the charter schools in their jurisdiction.

To that end, Monroe’s office has established a training initiative for charter authorizers called the Charter Accountability and Resource Support Network, or CARSNet. It offers a range of services, including “boot camps” in places like San Bernardino and Fresno for district and county school representatives to improve their charter oversight capacities.

CARSNet was funded for its first three years by a U.S. Department of Education grant that ran out a year ago, and since then has pieced together funding to keep it going from a range of sources, including several involved with the authorization process.

The Charter School Policy Task Force has recommended to Gov. Newsom that California establish a statewide body not only to set uniform standards for authorizers, but also to create a statewide institute to provide training, presumably along the lines of what CARSNet has been providing.

In light of the complexities of approving charter school applications, the task force is recommending that authorizers be given 90 days instead of the current 60 days to approve a charter petition.

It also floated the idea that the statewide body it has proposed also have the authority to intervene and to impose more accountability on charter authorizers, especially if disputes arose in the approval or renewal process.

How all of this will play itself out politically and practically is as yet unknown. Gov. Newsom has not yet responded to the task force’s report that Thurmond sent to him on June 6,  and there is currently no legislation being considered in Sacramento that would implement its recommendations regarding charter authorizers.

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