Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this week signed into law Senate Bill 126, which ensures that all private charter schools are held to the same transparency and accountability standards as their public counterparts.
During the debate on the state Senate bill and several pending Assembly measures, charter school advocates expressed concern about the impact of the legislative initiatives aimed at their growing industry, which includes nonprofit and for-profit schools. Public school officials and teacher unions argued that stronger oversight of charter schools is long overdue and will establish an equal playing field for the district that govern them.
“The charter schools industry is concerned with the package of bills that was introduced as they could have a devastating impact on the ability to provide equitable choices and education for all students,” said Kirsten Carr, of the nonprofit Navigator Schools, which operates charters in Santa Clara and San Benito counties.
SB 126, along with Assembly bill 1505, 1506, 1507 and 1508, could change the landscape of how charter schools have been allowed to operate under the existing law established in 1992 and amended in 1998. The bill signed into law this week will make charters abide by the same opening-meeting requirements as traditional public school agencies, and require public elections of board members, who have until now been appointed. The bill also requires conflict-of-interest disclosures by charter board members.
Santa Clara County is currently home to 70 charter schools.
At the deade-old Charter School of Morgan Hill, Executive Director Paige Cisewski said her school already follows all open meetings laws.
Her school “believes in transparency and follows open meeting, conflict-of-interest and disclosure laws,” she said, adding it “adheres to the Brown Act, the Public Records Act and the Political Reform Act—just like district schools.”
“As an integral part of the local public school community, Navigator believes in and practices transparency at our board meetings,” Carr continued. “Our meetings have always followed the Brown Act, are open to the public, have our agendas posted online, and all of our board members adhere to our conflict-of-interest code.”
At the county level, where Santa Clara County’s Office of Education alone oversees more than 20 charter schools, Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan explained that open meeting laws are incorporated into the binding pacts it makes with charter companies as a condition of their permits. “It doesn’t specifically say that (is required) under the existing law. That lack of clarity creates a gray area in some cases for some charter schools and for some authorizers,” Dewan said. “A majority of charter schools do a pretty good job and share in the understanding, but just having that clarity would be helpful and provide transparency with the use of public dollars.”
Four charter-related Assembly bills introduced by the California Teachers Association are the source of much of the charter schools’ anxiety.
AB 1505 focuses on more local control by requiring charter schools to gain authorization and renewal solely with the local school district, and takes away the ability to appeal the local decisions with the county and state boards.
Navigator has two schools authorized through Gilroy Unified and Hollister school districts. However, it was rejected twice by Morgan Hill Unified as well as losing on appeal with the county. More recently, Navigator—which was also unsuccessful in two Salinas school districts—won on a state appeal for its Watsonville charter after failing to do so in Santa Cruz County. Promise Academy is another charter that lost petitions in San Jose Unified and the SCCOE board before appealing to the state.
The Assembly bill would take a hefty workload away from the county office, which reviews charter petitions at nearly every one of its meetings. Dewan acknowledged that some local school districts could reject a charter school petition regardless of what it brings to the table, because of a perceived negative impact on the district.
AB 1506 puts a cap on the growth of charter schools, only allowing new ones to open in place of old charter schools that go out of business. AB 1507 assures that charter schools only operate within its operating district. AB 1508 would change the existing charter law to “allow authorizers to consider facilities, fiscal and academic impact on the district when considering new charter school petitions.” Currently, boards are not allowed to take into account the impact on their district.
“These bills, with the exception of SB 126, as introduced and if passed, can have traumatic effects on students who have already been among the traditionally underserved for generations,” Carr warned. “Charter schools provide an opportunity to incubate and beta test new learning and teaching strategies which can then be shared with other traditional public schools.”