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Friday, June 6, 2008 | Last month, San Diego Unified staff members urged the school board to reject the application of Urban Discovery Academy, a new charter school slated for downtown. They believed that the school would likely lose money and argued that it was an illegal conversion of a private school into a publicly funded charter.

But the school board approved it, overruling the advice of the school district staff, and set one condition: that the school raise $100,000 by July 15 to prove it would stay afloat financially. Trustees agreed with parents who complained the school hadn’t been given an opportunity to respond to the district’s objections. Parents were thrilled; they sobbed after the decision was made.

A Split over Approving Schools

  • The Issue: Over the past two years, the San Diego Unified school board has approved and renewed charter schools over the objections of school district staffers charged with overseeing and evaluating the schools.
  • What It Means: That split is one expression of the awkward and still unclear relationship between San Diego Unified and its charter schools, independently run public schools that are both San Diego Unified’s competitors and their responsibility.
  • The Bigger Picture: San Diego Unified currently lacks its own written policies on charter schools and has instead relied on the Education Code, which provides general guidelines but can prove problematic when gray areas arise in approving charter schools.

It’s not the first time that the school board has approved charters over the objections of staff. After several such schools closed amid financial scandals, San Diego Unified’s Office of School Choice has stepped up its criticism of charter petitions. But only one of its criticisms has been seconded by the school board, illustrating an ideological split within San Diego Unified.

That divide is one expression of the awkward and still unclear relationship between San Diego Unified and its charter schools, independently run public schools that are both San Diego Unified’s competitors and their responsibility. And it highlights the unanswered question of what school districts owe proposed charter schools — whether San Diego Unified should shepherd applications for charter schools through the hurdles to acceptance or merely judge the applications they independently create.

Some believe the absence of written policies on the approval of charter schools compounds the problem. San Diego Unified has lacked its own written rules for several years, although steps to create new guidelines are being taken.

In the meantime, San Diego Unified has relied on the state Education Code for guidance. But gray areas speckle the Education Code. It gives general reasons to approve or deny charters, but doesn’t spell out specifically how to determine if schools meet those standards.

“Staff shouldn’t be rejecting outright when they just don’t like a proposal,” said Jose Preciado, president of the South Bay Forum, a South County political advocacy group.

Preciado has been concerned with the expansion of charter schools in Barrio Logan, some of which he calls “experiments” rather than reforms. “But if staff can simply be overruled by a governing board that has no way of measuring or evaluating, they may set aside staff recommendations just based on their principles.”

“That does not help our kids,” Preciado said. “It needs to be codified somehow.”

Charter schools are typically created when independent groups such as parents, professors or nonprofits apply to a school district, which approves or denies their application. The petitioners submit a document called a charter, which outlines in detail how the proposed school would operate and presents the plan in a public hearing before the school board. School district staffers evaluate the charter and give advice to the board, which votes on whether to approve the school. Charters must also be periodically renewed by the school board to keep operating.

Over the past two years, San Diego Unified trustees rejected two of three staff recommendations that set conditions on charter approvals or renewals, and approved Urban Discovery over the recommendation for rejection. In contrast, all eight recommendations to approve or renew charters unconditionally have passed. The Office of School Choice confirmed those numbers, but declined further comment for this story.

Compare that record with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, where Sally Bachofer helped evaluate roughly 40 schools in three years. The state board followed the staff’s advice every time, Bachofer said, including recommendations to close two charter schools.

“This is not to say those decisions weren’t lengthy — that there wasn’t political pressure, that superintendents and mayors and elected leaders and busloads full of kids — you can imagine what happened,” said Bachofer, now the western regional manager of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

“But if you have clear standards,” she added, “that system filters a lot of the politics out.”

Education Code is not always clear. For instance, the code bans private schools from converting into charter schools, but doesn’t explain how to judge whether that has happened, according to the staff report on Urban Discovery Academy.

Staffers believed the new charter was effectively a reincarnation of the closed Harborside private school, where some Urban Discovery parents once sent their children. But the question is subjective. Harborside closed and was revived as a special program inside the public Washington Elementary School before parents, some of them formerly clients of Harborside, began crafting the new charter.

Trustee Mitz Lee was skeptical of the link, noting that the parents didn’t manage funds at Harborside. Urban Discovery lead petitioner MaeLin Levine declined to comment for this story, but echoed that argument in a rebuttal to the district’s criticism.

Under Education Code, charters can also be denied if they offer “an unsound educational program.” What that means isn’t specified. Nor does the code explain specifically what would make someone “demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement” their charter, another possible basis for denial. School districts are required to provide specific facts supporting those objections, but both district staff and the board can exercise discretion — and come to disparate conclusions.

Without clear guidelines, charters’ fates are more easily buffeted by political pressures. School districts have a financial incentive to quash applications to prevent charters from attracting their students — an accusation that has been levied against San Diego Unified in the past. The school district loses money when students choose charters over district-run schools.

But the San Diego Unified board faces considerable pressure to approve the schools, especially after a blitz of publicity in 2005 when trustees initially hesitated to approve Gompers and Keiller, two public middle schools that converted into charters to meet No Child Left Behind requirements and have since earned accolades for their orderly environments.

As a result, the Office of School Choice faces pressures from both sides. Last year, school trustees advised the office to stop giving feedback to new charter applicants to help them reshape and resubmit applications. Proposals to start schools should be complete upon submission, much like grant applications, trustee Shelia Jackson said.

Hand-holding could hamper a school district’s efforts to oversee charters later, said Robin Lake, director of the National Charter School Research Project. Help is available from other groups such as the California Charter Schools Association.

Yet when the Office of School Choice acted on the board’s advice, objecting to Urban Discovery’s charter without allowing them to respond and fix the errors, the majority of the school board sided with the charter. School board president Katherine Nakamura said curtailing the back-and-forth between prospective charters and San Diego Unified staff is unfair.

In February 2007, district staff criticized three other charter schools and requested that the board place conditions on approving or renewing them. The board ignored two of staff’s suggestions, and followed one.

Staff asked the existing Albert Einstein Charter School to scrap its admissions preference for German-speaking students, arguing that the preference violated the Civil Rights Act and undercut diversity at the school. School district lawyers backed their claim. But the school board disagreed, and renewed Einstein’s charter unconditionally.

They asked the new Health Sciences High School to modify its charter. Health Sciences had selected a location outside San Diego Unified, spurring outcry from neighboring Grossmont Union High School District; staff asked for evidence that the school had searched for a closer location, and failed to find one, within 30 days. The board decided no such evidence was needed, and approved the new school unconditionally. (Health Sciences found a San Diego location anyway.)

They asked the new Arroyo Paseo Charter High School to make a handful of changes to its charter, including writing health and safety policies, and to find a facility within 30 days. Trustees agreed that the changes were necessary, and voted to approve Arroyo Paseo on those conditions.

Explaining her decisions to buck staff recommendations, Nakamura said the schools filled needs that San Diego Unified had neglected — health care training for students, for instance, which is Health Sciences’ specialty.

“Same with the [Urban Discovery] school downtown — we need a school downtown, and the [San Diego Unified] administration has not been nimble enough to figure out a way to do it,” Nakamura said.

Politicized clashes over charter schools are to be expected, Lake said, but can be averted if school districts set clear policies about when to approve charters, and when to turn them down.

“Politics always come into play in any school board decision,” Lake said. “The challenge is balancing community desires and political realities with some objective criteria about what’s going to be best for kids.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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