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I’ve been having a fascinating e-mail exchange with Eric Premack, director of the Charter Schools Development Center, who questioned whether extending conflict of interest laws such as Government Code 1090 to charter schools would actually prevent fiscal mismanagement.
Extending the code was one solution proposed by school districts and other major educational groups — and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just vetoed that plan. Premack pointed out that the code hasn’t prevented conflicts of interest in ordinary public schools, as this lawsuit alleges of a Sacramento school board member.
Premack gave me permission to share our discussion with readers. Here’s his take on the problem. School districts “enjoy broad powers to shut down a school in a hurry,” he said, but they don’t exercise their powers properly:
The problem is that few California school districts have the capacity to grant charters and monitor the performance of charter schools. First, they are in a conflicted position — a point noted in your article. This conflict is fundamental and underscores the irony of school districts’ advocating for more conflict-related restrictions. Second, these inherent conflicts make the work of charter oversight one of the worst jobs in any school district. As one former district staffer put it to me, “my job is to make everyone, including my district colleagues and the charter schools, hate me to the same degree.” As a result, turnover in these positions is rapid and few gain the experience needed to do the job properly. We do a lot of work out of our shop to train district staff and the turnover rate is staggering in many districts.
California does have a major charter oversight challenge — relying on school districts to shoulder the vital oversight role was a major policy mistake and begs for change. School district advocates such as the one quoted in your story don’t like to admit to this problem. They want to retain their grip. They’re loath to allow California to do what many other states have done: Create special purpose agencies that can do the job. Instead, they pounce on every alleged abuse by charter schools as an opportunity to pile-on additional restrictions.
California should enact legislation to “charter charter-ers.”
That means that a state agency would decide which school districts or other groups, such as universities, could approve and oversee charters, Premack said. Organizations that effectively grant and oversee charters could be dubbed “high-capacity” entities by the state.
On a related note, I’ve gotten a number of positive responses to the Hazelton articles from directors of charter schools. One of my favorites was from Cameron Curry, chief business officer for the Classical Academies north of San Diego, who wrote, “Keep up the great reporting!” on behalf of “those of us charter operators that get up each morning to ‘do it right.’”