Promise Academy’s Failed Launch Underscores Heightened Tension Between Public Schools, Charters

The class sizes would’ve been small and would’ve prepared students for coveted careers in Silicon Valley’s technology sector. That was Promise Academy’s promise.

The K-8 charter school backed by Silicon Valley philanthropists, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and the city’s Tech Interactive museum hoped to offer some of the city’s poorest students opportunities that are sometimes harder to come by in neighborhood schools.

That’s why Adelita Gomez Alvarez joined Promise in petitioning for its charter authorization through the San Jose Unified School District. Gomez Alvarez signed on to the effort for the sake of her son, Junior Gomez, who attended Grant Elementary School from third to fourth grade.

Frustrated by how her son fared in the local elementary school, Gomez Alvarez transferred him to its charter counterpart, Rocketship Discovery Prep, which only offers classes through fifth grade. She hoped Promise would open in time to prevent her son from returning to a SJUSD school.

Just days before Promise Academy’s long-anticipated opening, however, Gomez Alvarez and the parents of close to 100 other children were told that the school they signed up for didn’t exist. “I didn’t have a plan B,” Gomez Alvarez says. “Promise was my plan. I stood there crying as I toured different charter schools, trying to enroll my son.”

Promise and San Jose Unified blamed each other for the fiasco. Who bears how much responsibility for leaving parents scrambling is the subject of debate. What’s clear is that the conflict represents a broader and intensifying clash between public schools and privately run charters, especially in cash-strapped districts like San Jose Unified that see charters like Promise as a drain on their resources. Charter proponents, on the other hand, view districts like SJUSD as defenders of the status quo, perpetuating an achievement gap that leaves the most destitute and disadvantaged students behind.

After learning that Promise’s planned opening was scuttled, the charter school deployed a public relations firm to contact local media about the situation, which largely stems from a disagreement with SJUSD over projected enrollment.

When Promise surveyed parents to get an idea of how many were “meaningfully interested” in enrolling their kids in the proposed academy, the district launched counter-surveys to challenge the results. When Promise projected rates of daily student attendance, the district responded with counter-projections. When Promise proposed changes to its facilities agreement, according to the charter’s spokespeople, the district ignored their requests. The district disputes that characterization.

The back-and-forth transpired over two school years and morphed into litigation. Less than a week before Promise’s planned launch, SJUSD affirmed that it would not authorize the charter’s opening because it fell short of legally required enrollment threshold. But the district says it notified Promise school officials months ahead of time—and provided San Jose Inside with documentation to prove it.

But Promise still had a card in the deck—its pending lawsuit accusing SJUSD of undercounting projected enrollment.

A week after the Promise Academy’s failed opening, however, it got hit with more bad news. Earlier this month, Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled that the charter’s projections were unreasonably rosy and that SJUSD’s scrutiny was justified, having identified numerous errors in the intent-to-enroll forms submitted by Promise.

The court ruling came as welcome news for district officials after a summer of unresolved dispute. “It is an unprecedented issue for us, dealing with this much uncertainty about what their enrollment is actually going to be,” SJUSD spokesman Ben Spielberg tells San Jose Inside. “It was hard to ascertain what facilities what they wanted, which made it difficult for us to plan for facilities.”

That said, the district shoulders some responsibility for the ongoing brouhaha.

In 2018, a judge ruled that the district used a flawed process in rejecting petitions from families that expressed interest in Promise Academy.

When SJUSD was vetting signatures by contacting the parents, it simply discarded some forms if they couldn’t make contact. And instead of following legal standards by asking whether parents were “meaningfully interested” in the charter, SJUSD officials asked whether they planned to enroll their children in Promise—a seemingly subtle, yet materially significant distinction.

Consequently, the court reminded SJUSD to comply with Prop. 39, which mandates that school districts provide facilities to charter schools. “The school district was not operating in good faith with us from the beginning,” Gomez Alvarez says.

Yolanda Samano, another mother of an aspiring Promise pupil, agrees. “We thought this year would be different,” she says.

Yet still, the tug-of-war continued.

When Promise proposed six sites for the new school, including central locations in the heart of the city, the district offered a site several miles away at Allen and Steinbeck.

“They said they didn’t have any space except for Allen and Steinbeck until a month-and-a-half before school,” Samano says. “We didn’t have buses for parents who thought it was going to be in the downtown area.”

As a result, Promise had to delay its opening from 2018 to this year.

SJUSD officials say Allen and Steinbeck was the only available site that had “reasonably equivalent facilities” to other schools in the district. But Promise made it clear that it didn’t need locker rooms, a gym or science labs.

“It was absolutely an excuse,” Gomez Alvarez says. “When they told us that, we told them that we have decided not to include those particular amenities. Instead, we wanted a high-quality education. But they would not budge.”

The battle over Promise is bigger than a single charter petition.

Public schools have long seen charter schools as a threat because they divert per-pupil funding and take up physical space in districts with the least resources. “Districts had always been wary of charter schools because the money follows the student,” says Robin Lake, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “The teachers unions have often felt threatened by charter schools.”

Indeed, charters have become increasingly major players in the public education system since California passed the Charter Schools Act in 1992. From 2013 to 2018, SJUSD alone saw a 57 percent uptick in charter enrollment. Though charters receive funding from the public school system, the law grants them more leeway in hopes that they’ll create more innovative curricula and learning models.

That’s what Promise said it would offer. “Our school provides a choice for students who aren’t successful in traditional schools,” says its would-be principal Samantha Hanlon.

Yet charter critics say the answer to languishing public schools isn’t to divert more resources from them. San Jose Unified is already stretched thin, since high housing costs have driven teachers out of the South Bay in search of cheaper locales, leading to a shortage of educators. Almost 300 classrooms Santa Clara County and about 30 in San Jose Unified this year are staffed with substitute teachers.

“Charter schools have become a big red herring,” Lake says. “It has become a much bigger fight around school funding.”

As the dust settles between Promise and SJUSD, it’s clear that both sides shoulder responsibility for leaving families and prospective charter employees in the lurch.

This article has been updated. 

Nicholas Chan is a journalist who covers politics, culture and current events in Silicon Valley. Follow him on Twitter at @nicholaschanhk.

9 Comments

  1. > an achievement gap that leaves
    > the most destitute and disadvantaged
    > students behind

    That’s exactly what publicly-funded private schools do, is drain resources away from other schools, leaving the most destitute and disadvantaged students behind.

    If a parent wants to send their kid to a private school, why don’t they just send them to a private school?

    • > That’s exactly what publicly-funded private schools do, is drain resources away from other schools, leaving the most destitute and disadvantaged students behind.

      The public schools get huge gobs of money to educate “the most destitute and disadvantaged students”. Are you saying they can’t do the job with the money they’re given?

      Well then — to borrow a phrase from our President — “you’re fired”.

      Take the gobs of money AWAY from the public education bureaucrats and give it to someone who DOES know how to educate “the most destitute and disadvantaged students”.

  2. Just keep electing the same old Democrats to do the same old thing, keep your kids stupid and beholding to the government for a handout as they sweep floors, weed gardens, wash dishes, and clean up homeless camps. San Jose schools are the pits and have been for 40 years and they keep getting worse.

    But wait Kalifornia is planning a whole new curriculum that will teach your child America is bad, white people are the source of all their troubles and socialism and a life of government dependency is their only hope if they just keep voting for more Democrats and follow the party dictates.

    Rich corporations run and owed by billionaires and maned by well educated foreigner’s will pay for your welfare. Just keep voting for the same party and expecting things will get better. Your doomed Kalifornians!

  3. The CA State Education Code is huge – like 3 miles thick – of bureacratize that covers soup-to- nuts about education. But no place in the ed code does it point out that “professional educators” know anything more about what is good for a child than a parent might. over a hundred years ago we didn’t have Union, or Unified or Joint Union, etc – school districts. when we were more rural and agrarian – each school was “community based” and fairly independent- parents hired a school teacher – and the teacher got busy teaching – like the 3 R’s.
    as we grew schools started amalgamating, joining together for efficiency, costs, materials, building and staffing. this necessitated centralized school administration – and a bureaucracy was born – it became incipient- there for the sake of itself and not for the charged purpose of – – – education. out of this grew teacher unions. Now we have King Kong and Godzilla battling it out in the classroom every day. WHY? it’s all about the money – – – – education in this state is very big business. Here’s the irony — in that HUGE education code- – – -there are lots of rules about attendance and compulsory attendance – – no where does the code call for compulsory education. the most important thing that happens in the classroom starts each morning with ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ roll call/attendance. Why? that’s where the money comes in. so take away kids from a classroom to place in another learning environment- – – and there will be conflict.

  4. Charter schools are merely one of the newer ways of clever capitalist for profit enterprises to get their hands on guaranteed revenues of public money. I feel bad for the lady (and others) who actually buy into the propaganda. Let’s see what else is there that we can fix with privatization – the military, check done, post office, working on it, prisons, check done, carpool lanes, check done….wait, there is one you forgot….Libraries!! We need a charter library because the public one has dumb books. They are so inefficient at putting books on the shelf. Quick, let’s set up a library corporation who truly cares about our lack of quality reading so we can provide an improved reading experience and have readers ready for the high tech workforce of the future!

    • You’re right… I’m sure some clever, freshly minted MBA capitalist is already working on privatizing the public library concept. But the *really* clever ones are working on privatizing the air we breath. Now if only they could bottle it, charge a monthly subscription, it will be oh-so-better for humanity. The market solves all problems! The invisible hand is all-knowing! Put your faith in an unseen force and all humanity’s problems are solved!

      • > But the *really* clever ones are working on privatizing the air we breath.

        SCCezzy:

        The flip side of your idea is that “everything should be free for the taking for everybody”.

        Humanity has actually tried this approach. It was primitive tribalism.

        Humans made their living as hunter-gatherers and foraged wherever they wanted. And wherever they wanted to forage was their “tribal lands”. And even better! Everything they gathered or hunted was SHARED!

        Perfect, simple, beautiful SOCIALISM!

        A couple of minor problems, though. There weren’t many “Garden of Eden” spots to support a big population of hunter-gatherers. And, other tribes had the same idea and would forage were OUR tribe wanted to forage.

        Result: tribal warfare. Endless tribal warfare. Violence. Killing. Genocide. Whole tribes wiped out or enslaved. Only the strongest tribes survived.

        Oh. And then there was famine and starvation, and natural disasters. If other tribes didn’t wipe you out, maybe mother nature would!

        BUT EVERYTHING WAS FREE!

        AIR WAS FREE! FOOD WAS FREE! LAND WAS FREE! Just help yourself.

        And then, six or eight thousand years ago, a wise ruler unknown to history figured out that maybe it wasn’t smart to pillage and wipe out the scattered humans who were trying to grow things, because the king could have something to eat even when the hunting and foraging was bad. So the king ORDERED the tribalists to NOT wipe out the farmers and herders and instead gave the farmers and herders privileges and royal protection.

        And probably along the way, the king probably whacked a few primitive socialists in the head with a stone axe for helping themselves to the king’s PRIVATE PROPERTY.

        History shows that many kings eventually figured out that PRIVATIZING valuable resources would actually benefit larger numbers of people BEYOND the greedy and selfish socialist foragers who only believed that the purpose of anything they could get their hands on was immediate consumption.

        The judgement of history and civilization is: PRIVATIZATION benefits the many by restraining the mindless, ignorant consumption of the primitive and the stupid.

        Privatize land. Privatize production. Privatize libraries. Privatize education. Privatize air.

        ANYTHING that socialists think is unlimited and free should be privatized.

  5. > Charter schools are merely one of the newer ways of clever capitalist for profit enterprises to get their hands on guaranteed revenues of public money.

    It would be far, far better for civilization and human society for clever capitalists to “get their hands on guaranteed revenues of public money” rather then turn it over to the never satiated welfare clients of the Democrat dependency state.

    Clever capitalists will do something clever to provide for the future needs of humanity. The ungrateful clients of the Democrat dependency state will only do more of what they already do which is consume and exhale carbon dioxide — until there is nothing more to consume.

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