A Matter of Choice Part 1/4

A Matter of Choice Part 1/4

S. E. Williams 

California’s tumultuous relationship with charter schools part 1/4

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported more than 400 new public charter schools opened during the 2015-16 school year, adding an estimated 250,000 students to the charter school movement. 

There are now more than 6,800 public charter schools across the country, with an estimated 2.9 million students. Over the past six years, these schools sustained a six-fold growth rate, and charter school growth has been most expansive in the state of California.

California led the nation in public charter school growth in 2014-15. That year, the state added 87 new charter schools and 34,500 charter school students. In 2015-16, California again led the nation in charter school expansion, adding 80 new charter schools and 36,100 students. That year, California’s total public charter school enrollment reached 581,100 students at 1,234 charter schools. 

Unlike traditional public schools, public charter schools are not monolithic in management nor approach to education. From a management perspective, charter schools can be independent, single-site schools or be part of a network of schools run by a management organization. Such organizations, identified as charter management organizations (CMOs) are typically non-profit. In addition, some states, including California, allow for-profit companies to manage charter schools, identified as education management organizations (EMOs).

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) reported that of the more than 6,800 charter schools operating nationwide, nearly 60 percent are independent schools. Of the remaining schools, about two-thirds are managed by CMOs, and one-third by EMOs. 

According to the NAPCS, CMOs and EMOs play an important part in the scalability of the charter school movement because they enable the replication of models that work. This not only creates economies of scale, but also encourages collaboration between similar schools. California leads the nation in CMOs. 

Charter schools now educate nearly ten percent of California’s 6.2 million public school students. As these schools engage larger segments of the K-12 population, the push and pull between traditional public schools and charter schools has intensified.

This year, there are several pieces of legislation aimed at the charter school industry, fostering debate between the two educational systems. 

The California Teachers Association (CTA) is the force behind one major piece of legislation, Senate Bill 808. SB808 would limit the ability of charter schools to open new campuses or renew existing agreements by requiring approval to operate from local school districts only. The legislation would also limit the appeals process that would be utilized if a charter school is turned down by a school district. The California Charter Schools Association is opposed to this legislation.

Although SB808 is the most controversial piece of charter-school-focused legislation being considered this session, two other pieces of legislation are making their way through the state assembly—Assembly Bill 1360 and Assembly Bill 1478, which have raised concerns in the charter school community. 

AB1360 would establish new regulations regarding suspension and expulsion from charter schools, and would prevent charter schools from requiring parents to volunteer for school activities. On April 26, AB1478 passed from the Assembly Committee on Education to its Committee on Appropriations. 

Last year, the legislature considered a similar measure, SB322. It successfully passed the Senate, but was reportedly defeated in the Assembly due to pressure from the California Charter Schools Association. 

Charter school supporters claim the measure curtails their autonomy, while the opposition claims the measure permits charter schools to utilize discriminatory enrollment and disciplinary practices.

The final measure, AB 1478, is rooted in the application of conflict of interest laws to charter schools. It would ban charter school board members from having any financial dealings with the schools on whose boards they sit. 

The charter association has argued the legislation would seriously harm the financial viability of their schools because so many of them rely on loans and/or property leases from board members. 

This measure moved successfully from the Assembly Committee on Education to the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Simultaneously, a separate and opposing measure, SB806, supported by the charter schools’ association, is also winding its way through the Senate. 

The aim of SB806 is to allow members who sit on charter school boards to provide financial assistance to their schools. The measure successfully passed out of the Education Committee, but failed its first hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Tuesday. However, it was granted reconsideration. 

This year’s charter school legislation demonstrates the ongoing tension between traditional public school advocates and charter school supporters, though both, according to experts, are focused on the same goal: educating the state’s children. 

When America’s first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, it established three basic values for this system of education: choice, opportunity, and responsibility for results. 

This idea and belief in the possibilities it offered would eventually be embraced by the nation. California enacted the second charter school law, the Charter School Act, in 1992. By 1995, more than nineteen states had embraced and adopted the charter school legislation. Today, 43 states and the District of Columbia have charter schools in place. 

California’s Charter School Act initially capped the number of charter schools permitted in the state at 100, but that limit was soon dissolved. The impetus to transition from traditional public schools was enhanced and accelerated as traditional public schools continued to falter in students’ educational success and as campus infrastructure deteriorated, particularly at many inner-city campuses. 

Over time, more parents felt their children were trapped in failing and crumbling traditional public schools and charter schools appeared to offer a vibrant, creative, innovative approach to education that many believed had been lost in the traditional public school environment. 

Charter schools gave parents something they longed for regarding their children’s education—choice. Many charter school proponents also theorized that competition would naturally evolve between traditional public schools and public charter schools, which would lead to better a educational experience for all children. Next week, The Voice/Black Voice News will explore whether, after more than twenty five years, the implementation of charter schools delivered on that promise.

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