Earlier this year, it looked like California charter schools faced a mortal threat in the face of the first serious attempts in the state Legislature to put a cap on their growth.
But those efforts have fizzled, at least for this year.
Unhappiness with charter schools was an underlying theme in the two high-profile teacher strikes earlier this year in Los Angeles and Oakland. As a result of the strike, the Los Angeles Unified school board passed a resolution calling on Sacramento to impose a temporary moratorium on expansion in the district. Oakland Unified issued a similar call, as did the nearby West Contra Costa Unified School District, which has also seen rapid growth in charter school enrollments in recent years.
In the wake of these calls, the state’s major teachers unions backed two bills in the Legislature that would have imposed a cap on charter expansion in the state. In the Senate, SB 756, introduced by Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, formerly a prominent labor leader in Los Angeles, would have imposed a five-year moratorium on any new charter schools. And in the Assembly, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, introduced AB 1506 to cap charter schools at the number in operation on Jan. 1, 2020. His bill would have allowed for new charters in a district as long as they didn’t push the charter enrollment to over 10 percent of the district’s total student enrollment.
Durazo amended her bill to call for a two-year instead of a five-year moratorium, but that was not sufficient to move it along in the Senate.
Last week, both Durazo and McCarty, reading the political tea leaves, decided not to put their bills to a vote in their respective chambers and instead turned their bills into two-year bills, which means they will be considered in the next legislative session.
That does not mean that charter schools have escaped possible further regulation. Two bills are still alive that could have a significant impact on charter expansion in the state.
AB 1505 would remove the power of the State Board of Education to approve charter applications after they have been denied by school districts and county offices of education and also allow those offices to take into account whether new charter schools would have “negative financial, academic, or facilities impact” on the schools in their authorizing districts.
Currently, school districts are barred from taking financial impact into account. Many charter school advocates think that giving districts the right to take financial impact into account would give districts the license to reject virtually any charter application.
Another bill, AB 1507, would prohibit charter schools from opening additional schools outside the district where they received their original charter.
Nonetheless, Myrna Castrejon, the CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, hailed the stalling of the two bills that would have placed a cap or moratorium on charter expansion as a major victory. “The collective power of charter school leaders, teachers, families and students defeated this extreme legislation,” she said.
The California Teachers Association, which backed both bills that did not get enough support this year, says it does not view deferring their consideration until next year as a defeat. Claudia Briggs, a CTA spokesperson, said the bills “are not dead.” Rather, she said, “the authors made them two-year bills to make sure they pass a bill that hits the pause button long enough to thoroughly address the problems with the current law so we can eliminate the potential for ongoing harm and negative impact to our students in charter and neighborhood public schools.”
She also pointed to the two charter reform bills that are still being considered in the Legislature.
Complicating the passage of the legislation was that Gov. Gavin Newsom had not taken a position on the bills and it was far from clear that he would have supported them. During his campaign for governor, he had indicated that a “temporary pause” on charter expansion might be justified, but only if charter schools were not more open and transparent in their operations. Earlier this year, he pushed for, and signed, fast track legislation that did impose more transparency in charter school governance, rendering moot his earlier calls for a pause.
In the governor’s office, Newsom has argued for a “balanced approach” to charter reform law, which would seem to preclude the drastic measures embodied in McCarty’s and Durazo’s legislation.
Another complicating factor is that Newsom called on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to establish a Charter Task Force to make recommendations on a range of charter school reforms. That panel is still meeting and is due to issue its recommendations by the end of this month. There was significant disagreement in the Legislature over whether to proceed with reforms of California’s 27-year-old charter law, or whether to wait until the task force had an opportunity to issue its recommendations.
McCarty suggested Monday that was one reason he decided to hold his bill for later consideration. “The measure to cap the growth of future charter school enrollment, and part of our Charter School Reform legislative package, will now await recommendations from the superintendent of public instruction task force, which is evaluating the financial impacts of charter schools on state school districts.”
Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, which supports and lobbies for small charter schools, said the decisions to hold the bills indicate that “support for charter schools among more moderate legislators is a lot stronger than some had anticipated.”
At the same time, he said “we will learn more when a bill with task force recommendations comes up.” For years, he said, “legislators have not had to think much about charter school policy; charter schools have been relying on Jerry Brown and billionaires to carry their water (and defeat or veto the bills). Now legislators are seeing a genuine grassroots base that they will not want to take lightly.”
Despite complaints from many charter advocates about obstacles they face in establishing schools, the charter sectors have enjoyed a relatively steady growth over the past quarter century, although the growth has slowed considerably over the past five years. With over 1,300 charter schools serving over 600,000 students, about one-sixth of the nation’s charter school student enrollments are enrolled in California charter schools.
EdSource reporter John Fensterwald contributed reporting to this story.