As charter school advocates rallied en masse and California’s teachers’ unions flexed their political muscle, a cluster of bills that would dramatically curb the growth of charters in the state cleared the Assembly Education Committee last week.
The votes were the first in what figures to be a lengthy, high-stakes battle this session between two of the state’s most powerful education interests.
That the legislative panel passed Assembly Bills 1505, 1506 and 1507 on April 10 wasn’t surprising—the authors of the trio of bills sponsored by the California Teachers Association made up two-thirds of the panel, which is chaired by a longtime public school teacher and former member of the CTA’s policymaking assembly.
But the hearing, which featured more than five hours of impassioned debate and testimony from hundreds of people, offered a glimpse of just how consequential the charter proposals are to teachers unions and charter advocates.
While the two sides have battled for decades—typically to a draw—the political momentum has shifted in favor of organized labor this session.
A wave of high-profile teacher strikes this year in Los Angeles and Oakland put the spotlight on unions’ claim that the growth of charter schools, which are mostly nonunion, has financially stressed traditional public schools, siphoning enrollment and public funding. And following the strikes, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who won office with the support of organized labor, signed fast-tracked legislation that requires charter schools to follow the same open-meeting and conflict of interest laws as school districts. The new law and other charter restrictions had been vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The three bills heard last week aim to make the most significant changes to California’s charter school law in the 27 years since its inception. Depending on the viewpoint, the bills either make long-overdue and necessary reforms to how charters are overseen, or mark the beginning of the end for charter schools in California.
Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, a Democrat from Long Beach who chairs the Assembly Education Committee and authored AB 1505, said his bill “returns local control to school boards.” O’Donnell and other legislators stressed that the bills would not close any existing charter schools, adding, “if you’re a good charter operator, there is nothing for you to worry about in this bill [AB 1505].”
“Some charter schools have exploited every loophole in the law, and this bill begins to close those loopholes.”
Charter advocates had a different take.
“Today, we could not be more clear: This package of bills is poison, and we will not go quietly,” Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, told a crowd of supporters before the bill hearings.
Combined, the bills would give local school districts the sole power to authorize charter schools, create state and local caps on the number of charters allowed to operate, and put strict limits on charter school locations.
- AB 1505, authored by Democratic Assemblymen Patrick O’Donnell and Rob Bonta, would repeal the ability for charter applicants to appeal denials from local school boards at the county or state level as is currently allowed. Local school boards would have the sole power to authorize charter schools, and they would also be allowed to consider the fiscal impact of charters in deciding whether or not to authorize them.
- AB 1506, authored by Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, would set state and local caps on the number of charters allowed to operate based on how many are operating by the end of 2019. (Currently, there are more than 1,300 charter schools in California, with majority of them concentrated in Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area.)
- AB 1507, authored by Assemblywoman Christy Smith, a Santa Clarita Democrat, sets strict limits on school locations and is in response to the practice of small school districts authorizing charter schools dozens or hundreds of miles outside of their geographic boundaries.
A fourth bill sponsored by the state teachers’ union, Senate Bill 756, was not heard Wednesday, but calls for a five-year moratorium on charters unless the Legislature passes specific charter reforms by 2020.
The latest legislative battle over charter schools comes as Newsom has directed state schools superintendent Tony Thurmond to lead a panel to study the financial impact charter schools have on school districts with recommendations due by July 1.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat from San Diego, cited this ongoing study as her reason for not voting in support or opposition of any of the three charter bills Wednesday. She noted that the fate of the bills was “a done deal because four of the six members of this dais are co-authors of these bills.”
“There’s no question that after 26 years, there’s a need for a serious discussion about charters in California,” Weber said as the committee debated AB 1505, later adding, “I can’t support it [AB 1505] until I get more information.”
McCarty, the author of the charter cap bill, noted that previous charter legislation battles have drawn out through the end of session, and that “we’ll be going at it, as we know, until the end of summer, end of August, early September.”
“The report that the governor and the [state superintendent] are working on will be out within a couple of months and allow us to take a look at their findings and recommendations and potentially bridge them into the proposals that we have here,” McCarty said.
As Wednesday’s hearings unfurled, the scene at the Capitol was raucous. A line of hundreds of teachers, parents, students, administrators clad in red (in support of teachers unions) and yellow (supporting charters) snaked outside the packed Assembly hearing room where legislators debated the charter bills. Opponents outnumbered those in support.
Earlier in the day, the charter advocates and unions held dueling press conferences, and charter proponents rallied and chanted outside a union event.
Tammy Stanton, CEO of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, arrived at the Capitol at 10 a.m. to secure one of the limited seats to the 1:30 p.m. hearing.
“This bill package threatens our existence,” Stanton said. “It repeals our right of due process and allows a school district to close us down if they cannot manage their own fiscal house.”
Steve McDougall, president of the Salinas Valley Federation of Teachers, said he had left Salinas at 4am to testify at the hearings. While unions and charter advocates have feuded for years, McDougall pointed to Newsom as the potential difference-maker after years of legislative gridlock.
“He’s our hope, that he will sign bills such as 1505, 1506 and 1507 and move forward and let everybody play by the same rules,” McDougall said outside the Assembly hearing room. “It’s public money, public funds. Everybody should be playing by the same rules.”
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