Lawmakers Advance Raft of Charter School Curbs

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 15051506 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.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

5 Comments

  1. The impact of for profit charter schools on public education is serious. Two candidates for State Senate, Ann Ravel and Dave Cortese have investments associated with large charter school operations.

    • Jerry Tuttle says:

      “The impact of for profit charter schools on public education is serious.”

      Yes, it is. Offering an alternative to the racket known as ‘dotEDU’ is a real threat to their gravy train.

      A quick search will find plenty of ‘money vs test score’ charts. They show the money being shoveled into state schools has been steadily rising at about a 45º angle.

      But what have the state’s taxpayers gotten for all the money they’ve had to pay?

      This: the same charts show that California students are still bumping along the bottom of the 50 States; California students typically score 49th or 50th in student acheivement.

      There has been no improvement in California students’ test scores for decades. But the money flooding into California teachers’ and administrators’ pockets has been steadily ratcheting up, year over year over year (but the money doesn’t make it to school maintenance — the usual tactic is to spend it all on teacher pay — and then beg the public for more bond issues to “fix our decaying infrastructure”).

      There are two inescapable conclusions:

      1) More money does NOT improve students’ learning.

      2) Alternatives must be found, because the present system has been an abysmal failure.

      After decades of promises and many $Billions of wasted money, students and taxpayers alike are being cheated.

      The dot-EDU racket is an organized conspiracy designed to extract the maximum number of dollars from already hard-bitten public taxpayers. They have been as successful at bilking the public as they have been a failure at their jobs.

      If the private sector had engaged in a similar racket there would be dozens, if not hundreds of CEOs and their co-conspirators in state penitentiaries.

      But the dot-EDU racketeers get a better pass than Jessie Smollett and Hillary Clinton combined, so that remedy is unavailable.

      What else is left, except for some healthy competition?

      Charter schools may not be perfect, but they don’t have to be. Compared with public “education”, charter schools are miracle workers.

      And finally Jerry, your comment about Cortese and Ravel was poisoning the well. They may have seen an opportunity to actually improve education — something the current dot-EDU racketeers are clearly incapable of accomplishing.

      However, if you insist on casting aspersions, would you mind if we bring people like Dominic Caserta into the discussion… ? ☺

  2. This is not equality, this is RACIST and hypocritical.
    White and Asian parents with fat pocketbooks can afford to buy homes in districts where all of the people “look like them”, and they of course have safe schools with the best teachers.

    Meanwhile, diligent students who happen to be born into poor and working class families are relegated to schools where gang violence, drugs, and bullying are occur DAILY. Only the worst teachers will work there. And do they allow the high performing kids to switch to safer schools in Cupertino or Saratoga? Not when I was growing up.

    In the worst of the districts, charter schools give safe schools, solid education and path to success. These kids can go on to lift their families out of multi-generational dependency. Charter schools actually succeed in their mission to educate kids, and of course that’s why the politicians want to “curb” them.

    The teachers’ union once again proves it cares much more about protecting teachers’ jobs than about educating students.

    I AM NOW CONVINCED THAT THE ROOT CAUSE OF THIS IS RACISM.

  3. This is just another monopolistic tactic. If your product sucks, get government to make it illegal to compete.
    SCHOOL FUNDING IS THE CLEAREST EXAMPLE OF INSTITUTIONAL RACISM in the USA.

    • Exactly.

      But . . . I don’t think it is obvious to progressives how the public education monopoly is “racist”. In their simple minds, those who seek out better educational opportunities are the “racists”.

      The public education monopoly is founded on “the soft bigotry of low expectations”: whatever the progressive elites decide to offer the “minority” masses is probably better than what the minorities what get otherwise, so, they should be grateful to progressives and their compassionate, generous, big hearts.

      But, the progressives have to be careful to NOT offer education to minorities that is TOO good, because that might be seen as encouraging minorities into “acting white”.

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