Underscoring the high priority he has placed on the issue, Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed into law a bill approved by lawmakers at lightning speed that will require more transparency in charter school operations.
Newsom had promised during his campaign that he would sign such legislation — similar to one that former Gov. Jerry Brown had vetoed several times — and had repeated that pledge several times since then, especially as charter schools emerged as a major issue in the teacher strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland over the last two months.
The bill, Senate Bill 126, bill was first heard by the Senate education committee chaired by Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, just two weeks ago, and was approved by both chambers in the state Capitol without any significant opposition. It was introduced by Leyva and Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, a veteran teacher who chairs the Assembly education committee. It will go into effect on Jan. 1.
The new law requires California’s 1,300-plus charter schools to follow the same laws governing open meetings, public records and conflicts of interest that apply to school districts. They include ensuring board meetings are open to the public, providing records to the public upon request and, to prevent personal gain, banning board members from voting on contracts in which they have a financial interest.
“In essence, to me, this made common sense,” Newsom said. “It’s a transparency bill and we are for transparency. And sometimes people claim they are for transparency for everybody else, but not for themselves. In this case it’s transparency for all of us. And I thought it was a very healthy thing as well.”
Indicating the behind-the-scenes work of the governor’s office and Newsom’s efforts to craft what he has called a “balanced approach” to the charter school controversy, he was joined by representatives of several major education organizations, including the California Teachers Association and the California Charter Schools Association.
“We’ve been at it for a long time and I don’t know about you but I’m a little exhausted by it,” Newsom said before he signed the legislation, an apparent reference to the charter battles going back many years.
Among other arguments, the CTA maintains that charter schools need to operate with greater transparency and public accountability and that they represent a push by billionaires to “privatize” public schools. Charter school advocates assert that charter schools offer choices to parents and students whose needs are not met by regular public schools
The CTA and the charter schools association have been waging a high-profile battle over these and other issues, so the fact that they were both at the table endorsing the same legislation sent a message that the opposing sides on the issue may have reached a new, arguably more constructive, level of dialogue on the issue.
“I’m hoping this is the beginning of a new conversation, where we can — forgive me — turn the page and begin to look anew at areas where we can work more collaboratively together and get back to the spirit that initiated the charter movement in the first place,” said Newsom.
The California Charter Schools Association called the bill “a fair, balanced application” of the Brown Act, requiring board meetings to be open to the public, compliance with the state’s Public Records Act and other laws. It said that the new law “makes permanent practices already followed by the majority of charter schools throughout the state.”
The bill also requires charter organizations with more than one school to set up a teleconference with two-way communication at each school to allow people to participate in a school board meeting, something that is not required of regular school districts.
Newsom said quick passage of the bill had nothing to do with the fierce opposition of charter advocates to his gubernatorial bid last spring, and their multi-million dollar support of his main Democratic opponent, former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
I’ve long supported high-quality nonprofit charters. I’ve been an advocate, not just a supporter. – Gov. Gavin Newsom
“I don’t take any of this personally,” Newsom said. “I’ve long supported high-quality nonprofit charters. I’ve been an advocate, not just a supporter. I’m very aware of the stress, particularly as demonstratively exampled in Los Angeles and Oakland, that issues related to charters, pensions are having at this moment in our education system. I think we have an obligation to get under the hood and see what we can collaboratively do to address those issues.”
Both sides lauded Newsom for his role in bringing the opposing sides together.
“For nearly a decade, CCSA has worked to secure a balanced and comprehensive resolution to this longstanding debate,” said California Charter Schools Association President Myrna Castrejón. “Gov. Newsom’s leadership made all the difference here.”
CTA president Eric Heins thanked Newsom and the Legislature “for ensuring there is transparency and accountability in all California charter schools.”
“Fixing these laws will put us on the right path to making sure all schools are held to the same standards,” he said.
The legislation does not address the calls for a moratorium on charter school expansion that the Los Angeles, Oakland and West Contra Costa Unified school districts have issued in recent weeks.
Last week O’Donnell and three other legislators announced four more bills that could significantly limit charter school expansion in the state, including limiting the right to appeal to the county and the State Board of Education if an application to open a charter school is denied by a local school district.
Newsom did not take a position on that slate of bills. “We will have to work through them, wade through them,” he said. “Some of these bills have been introduced for at least a decade.”
Newsom said he was eager to see the recommendations of a panel on charter schools he has asked State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to convene. The panel, whose members have yet to be announced, will be asked to report back by July 1. “We will get to some of the more challenging issues over the course of the next few months,” he said.