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The San Diego Unified School board recently shot down a proposed charter school, opening the door to questions about how many charter schools are too many, and whether the district is on the road to creating a parallel school system.

At the Jan. 7 school board meeting, trustees raised concerns that neighborhoods like City Heights have become charter school saturated, and used a recent rash of failed schools to argue that it’s time the district raise the standards on charters.

In the past, the school board has been quick to approve petitions that met criteria laid out by the Charter Schools Act of 1992. That’s part of the reason trustee John Lee Evans called San Diego Unified “one of the most charter-friendly districts in the nation.”

The claim holds up in other ways, too. In 2012, San Diego passed Proposition Z, a $2.8 billion construction bond measure that will allocate $350 million for charter schools.

And according to researchers and policy advocates at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the number of students who attended San Diego Unified charters jumped by about 40 percent between 2005 and 2012.

But it’s this backdrop that makes the board’s recent decision to deny the charter petition even more interesting.

Trustee Richard Barrera said the board’s leniency has backfired in the past, specifically in the cases of Iftin and Nubia, two charters that failed and left the district to tend to the mess.

“I erred in both those cases on the side of wanting those school communities to succeed but they didn’t,” Barrera said. “I think the standards do need to get higher.”

Yet Miles Durfee, a regional director of the California Charter Schools Association, said it’s not the board’s role to act as a rigid gatekeeper. It’s the board’s job to follow state law, which encourages growth of charters, he said.

As for accountability, Durfee said the CCSA already polices its own through the “accountability framework” it developed. The association regularly monitors schools’ academic performance and advocates for the charter’s closure or non-renewal if it’s failing.

But closing a charter school is an arduous task, and the district only has a handful of people in its charter office. If schools close in the middle of the school year, due to financial insolvency or misconduct, student academics are disrupted.

Scott Himelstein, director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Education Policy and Law, said that the San Diego Unified school board has been “extraordinarily welcoming” to new charters over the years.

Trustee Scott Barnett urged the board to consider the “precedent” it was setting before voting down Thrive. But Himelstein said it’s too soon to predict whether this is a paradigm shift that will ultimately make it tougher for new charters to form.

“So far, we’re only talking about one charter school. But what’s clear to me is that we’re going to start looking at petitions more carefully than we have in past years,” he said.

Tipping Point

Mary Bixby, founder and CEO of one of the first authorized charter schools in San Diego, said it’s not just San Diego Unified that’s raising the standards on charters ­— states across the country are doing the same.

That’s a good thing, she said: “We don’t want charters to be an experiment and then fail. That isn’t good for the kids, their families or the charter school movement.”

In recent years the number of San Diego Unified students who attend charters has steadily grown, to about 14 percent in 2012-2013, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

While that’s a significant increase, it doesn’t stack up against districts like New Orleans, where about 80 percent of district students attend charters. Detroit and Washington D.C. also top the list, which have 51 and 43 percent of students in charters, respectively.

Bixby said 50 percent isn’t a magic number, but when about half of all students attend charters the district is reaching a tipping point and forming a parallel school system — something charters were never meant to create.

Himelstein said that “oversaturated” is a bit of a misnomer and that charter schools don’t happen unless there’s a significant number of interested parents.

Durfee agreed. “To try to place a limit on charter schools, (the school board is) saying that all parents in the district have all the choices they want. And if you look at the data, I think you’ll see that isn’t the case,” he said, pointing to the 1,000-plus kids on charter school waiting lists across the district.

“For us is this isn’t about whether there are enough or there too many charters. It’s about flexibility, best practices and choice,” Durfee said.

Elephant in the Room

In Thrive’s case, the elephant in the room is that all three school board members who voted against the charter ­— Marne Foster, Evans and Labor Council leader Barrera ­­— are backed by the teacher’s union.

To Tom Goodman, who served as San Diego Unified’s superintendent from 1971 to 1982 and later worked with charter schools in Los Angeles, the decision is suspicious.

“Over the years I’ve seen that teachers unions, like school boards, view charters as a threat. More students going to charters means less revenue for them,” he said. “I think we need to consider board members’ political ties when we look at their votes.”

That argument isn’t new to Evans, who said all of his actions are interpreted through the fact that he was endorsed by the teachers union when he first ran for school board.

Despite the popular “conspiracy theories,” he said he makes his decisions based on the merits of the petition.

“To my knowledge, the teachers’ union did not even weigh in on this case,” he said. “I would listen to them if they did, but that would not determine my vote.”

To further discredit the argument, Evans pointed to union-backed board president Kevin Beiser, who voted to approve the charter.

Durfee said the case underscores a broader concern with the charter approval process. Unlike other states, it’s primarily school boards that authorize charters in California. This can create a conflict of interest and provide a financial incentive for turning away charters, he said.

“The tragedy is this should be about quality education for students. But the law doesn’t always come out that way,” he said.

Correction: Due to a miscalculation by the National Alliance for Public Charters Schools, an earlier version of this story stated that San Diego Unified was second in the nation for largest growth in charter school students in 2012-2013. San Diego Unified actually ranked 18th that year. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has amended its report.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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