Gov. Newsom asks to review impact of California charter schools on district finances

February 5, 2019

Achieve Academy charter school in Oakland.

In one fallout from the recently settled strike of teachers in Los Angeles, Gov. Gavin Newsom has called on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to establish a panel of experts to examine the impact of charter school growth on district finances.

The panel will have four months to look at the issue, and to report back to Newsom by July 1. Thurmond has not yet announced who will be on the panel, but its formation raises the likelihood that California’s charter school laws may undergo revision over the coming year.  This would be the first time there has been an in-depth look at the financial impact of charter schools since passage of California’s first charter law in 1992.

The issue was a concern of Newsom’s even before the L.A. teachers  strike, said Newsom spokesperson Brian Ferguson.

“As Governor Newsom stated in his first budget proposal, rising charter school enrollments in some urban districts are having real impacts on those districts’ ability to provide essential support and services for their students,” he said.

Under a 1998 state law, districts are not allowed to take into account the financial impact of a charter school on a district in deciding whether or not to grant them a charter. Charter advocates fear that removing this prohibition could have a dramatic impact on slowing charter school school expansion in the state.

Newsom’s creation of a panel to look into the issue appears a response to a resolution approved by the Los Angeles Unified school board last month as part of the agreement it reached with the United Teachers of Los Angeles and its striking teachers last month. The resolution called for a “comprehensive study” of various aspects of charter schools in the district, including their “financial implications.”

The resolution also called for an 8-to-10 month moratorium on new charter schools while the study was being conducted.  So far, however, Newsom has been silent on these latest calls for a moratorium.

In a statement, United Teachers of Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl, representing 33,000 teachers and other staff in the district, “applauded” Newsom for recognizing what it said was obvious:  that L.A. Unified and other districts across the state are being “financially strangled” by what it called the “unmitigated growth” of charter schools.

But it questioned the need for a panel, saying that an “immediate cap on charter schools is urgently necessary.” Large urban districts, it said, were “well past the saturation point for charter school growth.”

Similar calls for a cap or a moratorium are coming from other districts with a large proportion of students in charter schools. In Oakland, where teachers appear to be on the verge of a strike, the school board also has set as one of its priorities convincing lawmakers in Sacramento to impose a moratorium on charter expansion. And in the nearby West Contra Costa Unified District, which includes Richmond, the board will consider a resolution this week calling for a statewide charter moratorium.

L.A. Unified has the most charter schools in the nation, and the schools’ impact on the district’s overall budget remains a major cause of discontent among teachers. An estimated 112,000 students are enrolled in 225 nonprofit charter schools in the district. They comprise 18.7 percent of the district’s total enrollment.

Claudia Briggs, a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association, which represents over 300,000 teachers across the state, said that the CTA would be happy to participate in the panel Newsom has called for, and that Thurmond would be a “good person” to head it. She said that the proposed panel was a signal that Newsom “is doing exactly what he said he would do when running for governor — always put kids before profits.”

Kids Not Profits is the title of a campaign the CTA has been running for the past several years calling for more transparency in the operation of charter schools, and focusing on the role of multibillionaires, such as LA philanthropists Eli Broad, and others in promoting them.

The California Charter Schools Association, representing most of the 1275 charter schools in the state, declined to comment on the proposed panel.

Even as Newsom awaits the recommendations of the yet-to-be-formed panel by July 1, the Legislature could take action requiring greater transparency in charter school operations and financial reporting.

During his gubernatorial campaign and as recently as last month, Newsom indicated that he would sign legislation along those lines — legislation former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed several times during his governorship.

“The Governor is working closely with the Legislature to improve charter school transparency,” said Newsom spokesperson Ferguson, “because tax dollars spent on education should only support schools that are accountable to the public.”

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