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In September 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and an array of local leaders and dignitaries gathered in Southeast San Diego to celebrate the opening of Gompers Charter Middle School.

It was a lot of attention for a neighborhood in San Diego that hasn’t had much of it over the years.

Gompers wasn’t exactly opening. It had been a fixture of the community for years. But the 2005 school year was its first as a charter school. Gompers became part of a growing and controversial movement in San Diego.

San Diego County is home to 62 charter schools, according to the San Diego County Office of Education — more than any other region in the state. Within the county, the San Diego Unified School District has the most. There are 36 charter schools and 13,000 charter school students in the district — about 10 percent of its total enrollment.

A charter school, which can serve any combination of kindergarten through 12th grades, is a public school funded by the state on a per-pupil basis, just like most other California public schools.

The schools are called charters because they operate under a set of guidelines specifying goals and objectives, operating procedures, terms and conditions — all outlined in an agreement called a charter, which is a contract between the charter organizers and an authorizing agency. The agency is usually the local school district but can also be the county or the state board of education.

Controversial charters were approved in 2005 by the SDUSD for Gompers and http://www.keillerleaders.org/“target=”_blank”>Keiller Leadership Academy, both formerly failing schools that were classified by the district as conversions.

Charter schools are developed around a business model that puts their on-site, independent governing boards, rather than the district office, in charge of all aspects of the school — from pedagogical decisions and salary schedules to buying pencils and cleaning toilets.

Charters are not bound by teachers’ union rules and regulations, which proponents say is key to charter school success, because they can hire teachers based on performance rather than seniority and can offer incentive and merit pay. But the district sponsoring a charter school can swiftly revoke the charter that governs it. In July, in fact, San Diego Unified School District, rapidly revoked the charter of the A. Phillip Randolph Leadership academy after its first year of operation. The district alleged that the academies leaders had mismanaged and couldn’t account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in district funds.

Charter schools represent a loss of income for school districts, because the money from the state follows the students. SDUSD, for example, stands to lose over $71 million this year due to charter school enrollment.

Facilities issues are also thorny. The California Charter Schools Association alleges that a lack of access to adequate facilities is the primary reason charter schools fail. In the SDUSD, heated battles between the district and its charters over access to facilities have enraged charter proponents.

In recent elections, the Board of Education of the San Diego Unified School District has been transformed from one generally supportive of the charter school movement to one in which the majority of its members share concerns of the critics of the innovation. Some say charters take desperately needed money away from school districts, base success rates on questionable data and dismiss the value of unions that work to protect the interests of teachers.

Advocates, on the other hand, say inflexible union rules have led to a shortage of experienced, qualified teachers at the neediest schools, creating insurmountable obstacles to student success. Charter schools, they say, can only succeed if they are free from union restrictions that stifle reform. The structures of the schools, the supporters say, are less encumbered by bureaucratic barriers, give parents options, break the cycle of failure for low-income students and inject a healthy spirit of competition into the public education system.

Charter school students must be tested annually using the same statewide assessment measurements as California’s other public school students, and must show consistent progress. Charter skeptics are unimpressed with the data so far, while the movement’s supporters say studies prove that charters show great promise.

In San Diego, the superintendent of San Diego Unified School District, Carl Cohn, has tried to strike a conciliatory tone recognizing the potential benefits of charter schools while holding that desperate parents shouldn’t have to think that route is the only one to school reform.

It’s been more than a year since Gompers and 12 other schools in San Diego opened their doors under the charter model. Gompers reports that at its once-violent school, a new culture and active parental involvement has helped it dramatically reduce the number of student suspensions. Officials and observers of the charter school movement will eagerly await the test scores from Gompers and the other schools over the coming years to determine the merits of the public school innovation.

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