The Charter School Compromise – Putting Lipstick on a Pig

Recent headlines blared that Democrat lawmakers, the California Teachers Association, and the California Charter School Association had reached a compromise in the charter school wars in Sacramento.  For many charter-school supporters, however, the “compromise” was like putting lipstick on a pig.

Charter schools, created under a 1992 state law, are publicly funded schools that are independent of school districts and have greater flexibility to innovate.

The 1992 law says that charter-school organizers must meet two requirements to receive approval of their charter from a local school board: financial viability and a sound educational program.

If a local school board turns down the charter petition, organizers can appeal to the county board of education and then to the State Board of Education.

AB 1505 would have drastically changed the 1992 law.

As originally written, the bill would have allowed a local school board to consider the supposed fiscal impact of a new charter school on the district budget and disallow the charter if that impact was negative.

Further, the bill would have eliminated appeal to the county and state boards.

Under the AB 1505 compromise, local school boards can disapprove a proposed charter school if it determines that the fiscal impact would be negative, but charter organizers would retain their appeal right to the county board of education and an extremely narrow right to appeal to the State Board of Education.

To the average person, the compromise might seem reasonable, especially with the California Charter School Association saying that the agreement balances “consideration of the academic needs of students against the fiscal impact considerations of new petitions” and restores “county appeal rights.”

Yet, the harsh reality is that the compromise largely dooms the prospects for the establishment of new charter schools in California.

Under the compromise, local school boards can deny a charter petition if it finds that the proposed charter “is demonstrably unlikely to serve the interests of the entire community,” which is a carte-blanche reason to deny any charter petition.

This anti-community-interests provision requires the inclusion of “considerations of the fiscal impact of the proposed charter school.”

Of course, every school board will claim that charters adversely impact the district bottom line, making budgetary mountains out of tiny charter molehills.

Also, proposed charter schools can be denied if they “would substantially undermine existing services, academic offerings, or programmatic offerings,” an excuse big enough for school boards to run a train through.

In addition, school boards can disapprove proposed charters if they “duplicate a program currently offered within the school district,” with nothing said about whether the district is effectively providing the duplicated program.

Further, in districts that have been judged as being unlikely to meet their financial obligations, a rebuttable presumption of denial of a charter petition will now be the standard, which Governor Newsom’s office interprets to mean, “The presumption in those districts will be that new charters will not open.”

Yet, districts in dire financial straits have inflicted their wounds upon themselves, through union contracts they cannot afford and agreeing to unsustainable health and pension benefits, and often have students in the most need of better educational alternatives such as charter schools.

Given these new subjective open-ended criteria for school boards to deny proposed charter schools, the continuance of charter organizers’ right of appeal to county boards of education is a pyrrhic victory.

County boards would have to consider denials based on these new criteria and, as the Charter Schools Development Center (CDSC) notes, “counties could deny charters with considerably less concern of reversal at the state level.”

The CDSC concludes that the compromise version of AB 1505 “represents a near-catastrophic setback to California’s charter school sector” and “likely will sharply curtail the growth of charter schools, both individually and collectively, and will make renewals more contentious and difficult, thus effectively inhibiting operational flexibility that facilitates innovation.”

In the award-winning documentary Waiting for Superman, audiences cried when they saw poor minority children unable to access high-performing charter schools because there was not enough room for them in those schools.

The AB 1505 compromise will ensure that most such children will never get a chance at a better education.

Lance Izumi is the senior director of PRI’s Center for Education and is the author of the recently-released book on charter schools, Choosing Diversity.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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