Thousands of charter school supporters gathered on the steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento Wednesday for a high-powered rally meant to send a clear message to legislators: Don’t pass laws that harm their schools.
Dubbed the “Stand for All Students Rally,” it was hosted by the California Charter Schools Association and was a highlight of the organization’s annual four-day conference that ends in Sacramento on Thursday. Speakers included Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education during the Obama administration.
At the rally were charter school administrators, teachers, parents and students, many of whom came by bus from schools across the state. They held signs that said “#kidsnotpolitics” and “Defend Great Schools” and were led in chants by adults on a stage flanked by giant screens projecting their images across the park.
“When charter schools are under attack, what do we do? Stand up fight back,” chanted the crowd.
“People, we are in a crucial moment in public education,” Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association told the crowd. “2019 is a watershed year. We have two choices. Do we stand divided, separated and fighting with each other or do we unite?”
Referring to the California Teachers Association, she said, “Let me be clear, we can’t be united if the CTA keeps taking bills out to kill us.”
“We have to be loud,” she said. “We have to activate. We have to talk to our allies, make new friends and build coalitions of support.”
The rally came exactly one week after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation requiring greater transparency in charter school operations. The charter schools association ended up supporting the bill and joined Newsom in a signing ceremony that seemed to promise greater collaboration between the opposing sides of the charter school conflict.
The introduction last week of four new pieces of charter school legislation has aroused passions among charter school advocates. It has raised fears among advocates that California’s charter school sector will face the greatest restrictions on its growth since the state’s first charter law was enacted a quarter century ago.
If approved, the bills would eliminate the right to appeal to the county or the state if a district denies a charter application; place an unspecified cap on charter schools; allow charter applications to be rejected based on their financial impact on a district; and prevent charter schools approved in one district from setting up in another.
“These broken charter laws need to be fixed and the ongoing misuse of taxpayer dollars has to stop,” said Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association in an interview Thursday. “We worked at the direction of our members, who work day in and day out with students, for years on trying to secure transparency, accountability and equal access for all students and this current package of bills, brought forth by a wide-ranging coalition of community groups, lawmakers and school employees, parents and labor partners, is much needed to ensure all students get the quality education they need and deserve at these corporate charter schools.”
Together, the bills would result in charter schools being banned in California, feared Margaret Fortune, the new board president of the California Charter Schools Association. Fortune heads an organization that runs seven charter schools. Six are in the Sacramento area and one is in San Bernardino.
California has 660,000 students in 1,323 charter schools, comprising just over 10 percent of the state’s public school population. Castrejon said conference-goers have been strategizing for two days about what to do and how to tell the charter school story.
Charter leaders didn’t hesitate to blame the California Teachers Association for inflaming anti-charter sentiment and for the four bills they are opposing.
“CTA and its local affiliates have been speaking with a very loud voice about real challenges in public education, but using us as a scapegoat, about a lot of problems that you know well have nothing to do with charter schools,” Castrejõn said in an interview after her speech.
“Fiscal insolvency in school districts is a real problem, but it is not due to charter schools,” said Carlos Marquez, senior vice president of government affairs for the California Charter Schools Association.
When asked to respond to these comments, the California Teachers Association’s Briggs said, “CTA supports all public schools, including public charter schools. We have members who work and teach in charter schools. What teachers have a problem with, and are opposed to, is the millions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse that has hurt our students over the last couple of decades.”
Marquez said he is hopeful that a newly convened task force put together by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond at the request of Newsom will make recommendations for charter school reform based on research, not politics.
The conference coincided with a new logo, motto and general rebranding of the Charter Schools Association. Castrejón said the rebranding and motto — Stand For All Students — is meant to help the association get the message out that they stand for the success of all students, in charter and regular public schools, along with more funding for all schools.