Diana Lambert / EdSource
Students from charter schools throughout the state protest pending legislation in Sacramento limiting the growth of charter schools.
This story was updated on June 19, 2019.

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.

Correction: This story was changed to include the correct source for the report "Uncharted Waters" and to indicate that some other states also have a decentralized approach to authorization.

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  1. anthony Stromas (TONY) 3 months ago3 months ago

    Why would anyone let the OUSD be authorizer or overseeing any charter school, Ask yourself how did they get to this point? Why are families taking the children out of public schools? Well, if they did the job they suppose to have done.....this would not be happening. What happened to the funds they were given in the past? $30,000,000? We already know that OUSD will not authorize any charter schools because they claim it’s taken … Read More

    Why would anyone let the OUSD be authorizer or overseeing any charter school, Ask yourself how did they get to this point? Why are families taking the children out of public schools? Well, if they did the job they suppose to have done…..this would not be happening. What happened to the funds they were given in the past? $30,000,000? We already know that OUSD will not authorize any charter schools because they claim it’s taken away money from them. Wake up, people!!! Smell the flowers growing. Something is not right with that picture. Let the state be the authorizer!! That’s what I think should take place.

  2. Carol Burris 4 months ago4 months ago

    You do not understand the problem, Louis. California districts have been allowed to authorize charters outside of their districts, even in adjoining counties. Poor, low enrollment districts used authorization as a cash cow. For three years, I have written about this problem and many in the state have tried to get the law changed. The California Charter Schools Association has fought change tooth and nail. Some of the worst charters were approved by appeal to the … Read More

    You do not understand the problem, Louis. California districts have been allowed to authorize charters outside of their districts, even in adjoining counties. Poor, low enrollment districts used authorization as a cash cow.
    For three years, I have written about this problem and many in the state have tried to get the law changed. The California Charter Schools Association has fought change tooth and nail. Some of the worst charters were approved by appeal to the county and state. State authorization is not the solution.
    Allow districts to authorize only in their own district and you fix the problem that gave rise to McManus.

  3. Daniel Arevalo 4 months ago4 months ago

    Let's make all public schools adhere to the same set of rules. By that I mean, make every local school go through the same reauthorization process required for charter schools. A failing school is a failing school, failing the students. And have the same outcome when any school is denied reauthorization: either a charter school replaces the "traditional" school, or vice versa. Only then will there be true improvement in student outcomes and the accountability for school leaders (teachers … Read More

    Let’s make all public schools adhere to the same set of rules.
    By that I mean, make every local school go through the same reauthorization process required for charter schools.
    A failing school is a failing school, failing the students.
    And have the same outcome when any school is denied reauthorization: either a charter school replaces the “traditional” school, or vice versa.
    Only then will there be true improvement in student outcomes and the accountability for school leaders (teachers and administration).
    Fair is fair.

  4. Todd Maddison 4 months ago4 months ago

    Generally good recommendations, more oversight is needed, along with a clear set of standards. Having charters managed by a single authorizing entity would be a great step forward. Outside of government it's easy to recognize when you can get economies of scale as well as a method of identifying and implementing best practices across an organization, but for some reason people don't think that applies to government. The reason we have Wal-Marts is because they've figured … Read More

    Generally good recommendations, more oversight is needed, along with a clear set of standards.

    Having charters managed by a single authorizing entity would be a great step forward.

    Outside of government it’s easy to recognize when you can get economies of scale as well as a method of identifying and implementing best practices across an organization, but for some reason people don’t think that applies to government.

    The reason we have Wal-Marts is because they’ve figured out how to make things work as efficiently as possible, in ways that meet the needs of the largest number of their customers. They may have regional differences in their stores, but each store manager doesn’t have to figure out how to manage inventory, deal with HR issues, communicate to vendors, etc – that’s all done by specialists who can get really, really good at what they do.

    The education business would benefit from that – both in this issue (charter oversight) as well as in their regular public schools.

    There are a huge number of districts across the state that have small numbers of students – there are 392 (out of 1029) that have 1000 students or less.

    Every single one of those districts has to expend a huge amount of time to independently handle all the processes required of them both by their business as well as by the state.

    And every one of those districts has the management structure to do that – usually a superintendent (usually making $150K+ not counting benefits) plus associate superintendents, CBO’s, etc. All making six figures.

    If we simply consolidated those with nearby larger districts, with the goal of having perhaps 5,000-10,000 kids per district, we would likely save billions of dollars in wasted overhead – and end up with districts that could afford the expertise to have specialists in various areas.

    But …that would then be efficient management of our tax dollars targeted in a way that would improve overall performance, if it were not government doing it.

  5. SD Parent 4 months ago4 months ago

    What isn’t discussed here is whether school boards and county offices of education provide effective accountability oversight on their non-charter schools. With so many public (non-charter) schools across the state still having poor student achievement and poor student outcomes, it’s debatable whether LCAPs are actually providing meaningful accountability.

    Replies

    • Dr. Bill Conrad 4 months ago4 months ago

      LCAPs are purely bureaucratic documents that are long on volume and very short on value. They are an eclectic grab bag of actions that align with amorphous non-measurable goals that conflate means with ends. They fail to articulate a theory of action that aligns a few measurable student outcomes with professional practices, curricula, and assessments. This should be the core work of every school district! They should all be able to be distilled … Read More

      LCAPs are purely bureaucratic documents that are long on volume and very short on value. They are an eclectic grab bag of actions that align with amorphous non-measurable goals that conflate means with ends. They fail to articulate a theory of action that aligns a few measurable student outcomes with professional practices, curricula, and assessments. This should be the core work of every school district! They should all be able to be distilled down into a coherent big picture of no more than a few pages. I dare you to actually read an LCAP monstrosity from beginning to end. Really! I have not been able to yet!

      And evaluation of the LCAPs? Please! That is so 1980. We are now in whole child world! And accountability! Believe me no one is going to be fired for not implementing professional practices well or if student outcomes fall! The system is set up for the care and feeding of high paid schmoozers who love feeding from the public trough while maintaining a thin almost transparent veneer of professionalism!

  6. Dr. Bill Conrad 4 months ago4 months ago

    As the Director of Assessment and Accountability for both the Alameda County Office of Education and the Santa Clara County office of Education I had the opportunity to critique numerous charter school applications that I would charitably categorize as laughable! A third grader could see through these scams! Assuming of course that the third grader was from a state other than California as only about 1/2 of 3rd graders in CA can even read! Even … Read More

    As the Director of Assessment and Accountability for both the Alameda County Office of Education and the Santa Clara County office of Education I had the opportunity to critique numerous charter school applications that I would charitably categorize as laughable! A third grader could see through these scams! Assuming of course that the third grader was from a state other than California as only about 1/2 of 3rd graders in CA can even read!

    Even though I easily rejected the flimflam applications, governance leaders were more than happy to support them to approve them.

    We need to look at K-12 education as an organized crime network primarily designed to move public money to support well-connected adults. And the children who these charters serve? Please! They are just collateral damage to the massive money-making bottom feeding operation!

    You can understand the anxiety and urgency of the parents who are willing to roll the dice on charters because their K-12 public school districts are disasters!

    Unfortunately, we live in a political world as Bob Dylan sang to us!

  7. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 4 months ago4 months ago

    With the proliferation of charter schools in California, better oversight is a good idea. It should produce better education for the children of families who are forced to leave standard public schools which are too often underfunded, have huge classes and struggle with safety and discipline issues. I just hope the focus on charter regulation and standards does not divert scarce resources from improving the operation of standard public schools K-12.

  8. Clare Crawford 4 months ago4 months ago

    There are numerous states around the country that allow school districts, along with other entities, to approve charter schools - It is inaccurate to claim that California has "decentralized the way charters are approved to an extent unmatched by any other state." About half or more of states with charter laws have districts as authorizers (based on ECS review of all states), many in addition to other entities. Yes, California is bigger, and … Read More

    There are numerous states around the country that allow school districts, along with other entities, to approve charter schools – It is inaccurate to claim that California has “decentralized the way charters are approved to an extent unmatched by any other state.” About half or more of states with charter laws have districts as authorizers (based on ECS review of all states), many in addition to other entities.

    Yes, California is bigger, and has more districts, but this is also how our (and most other) school systems are run – by districts (and as you point out, only a third of California districts oversee charters). It’s an important consensus point that there needs to be more robust guidance and support around charter oversight (as well as better funding of this function), given how little guidance there is in state statute.

    This article muddies the issue of providing some standardization and support for oversight by giving the impression that it is unheard of that districts would serve as authorizers. One thing some other states do is limit authorization by districts to schools that will be located within their boundaries – AB1507 proposes this for California.

  9. Trish Williams 4 months ago4 months ago

    I am in support of the need to "create a statewide entity" to develop standards for providing oversight by authorizers of charter schools and to provide training on those standards for authorizers. I also support giving this entity the ability and sufficient authority to intervene when disputes or inconsistencies arise related to authorization and renewal, including a lack of adequate oversight. It is critical that such a state entity be independent, nonpartisan, and nonpolitical … Read More

    I am in support of the need to “create a statewide entity” to develop standards for providing oversight by authorizers of charter schools and to provide training on those standards for authorizers. I also support giving this entity the ability and sufficient authority to intervene when disputes or inconsistencies arise related to authorization and renewal, including a lack of adequate oversight. It is critical that such a state entity be independent, nonpartisan, and nonpolitical as well as have substantive expertise in authorization and oversight in California’s specific and complex context. This body could also potentially be designed with adequate staffing to assume the CDE’s role in the oversight of State authorized charters, thus addressing several concerns and Charter Task Force recommendations.