The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Submit your question here or write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org. I just might tackle it in next week’s edition.

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Charters versus traditional public schools: it’s a well-worn debate, but it’s not going away anytime soon.

For those who oppose charters, the main beef can be boiled down like this: Charter schools take resources and students away from traditional district schools and weaken the public school structure. Because many charter school teachers aren’t unionized, their growing ranks pose a threat to the political power of teachers unions.

Teachers unions in California are having an important moment. Last summer, a Los Angeles judge handed victory to plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, who argued state laws protected ineffective teachers, who disproportionately wound up in low-income neighborhoods.

No changes have been made while that decision is appealed, but, win or lose, the case seemed to galvanize public skepticism that teacher protections do more to benefit children than adults.

Still, unions have held the line. Last month Assemblywoman Shirley Weber – a progressive Democrat with years of experience in education – gave an impassioned speech in support of her bill, which would revamp the ways teachers are evaluated and offer more supports to those who are struggling. Fellow Democrats applauded her boldness – then promptly shot down her proposal.

But instead of capitalizing on their moment in the spotlight and educating the public about all the good teachers unions accomplish, supporters have put another group in their crosshairs: charter schools.

In March, California teachers unions successfully lobbied Democratic lawmakers to introduce a series of bills that could change the way charter schools operated. Lawmakers who sponsored the bills said the legislation would ensure due process for students who are expelled from charter schools, improve accountability and increase transparency.

On the one hand, this makes sense. It seems only fair that all schools follow the same rules, guided by what’s best for kids. And, let’s face it, charter schools exist in a weird, nebulous space. They’re part of school districts and get public money. But they’re also largely autonomous, and can create their own curricula and policies (as long as they don’t violate state ed code).

Most interesting is that the thing that people praise about charters – the flexibility that allows them to innovate, experiment and tailor instruction – is the piece that others don’t trust.

Of course, not all charter schools are created equal. Some are great, some struggle. But San Diego Unified wants to emulate the things the good ones having been doing. Last month, Superintendent Cindy Marten and the school board sat down to workshop a plan for how the district can better compete with charters and keep more kids in neighborhood schools.

The meeting wasn’t an attack on charter schools. Marten and board members pointed out how good charters should get props for what they accomplish. In fact, Marten sent her son to High Tech High – so she clearly sees value in them.

And for all the hand-wringing about charter schools siphoning kids and resources away from traditional district schools, the bottom line is that charter schools are creating competition and raising expectations on what public schools deliver – the very thing they were created to do.

Here’s a related question from a reader.

Question: If school districts are the “authorizers” of charter schools, why do they have so little authority when charters do things like push students with special needs out or when they have administrators and teachers who aren’t properly credentialed or when they divert needed student funding to pay the salaries of their CEOs and advertising? What can be done to hold charter schools accountable to the public? – Ruth Montgomery, concerned reader

There’s a lot wrapped up in this question – namely, the assumption that these things are happening. I don’t claim they never happen, but it’s tough to respond without specifics.

That said, I get versions of this question often, so I think it would be helpful if I focus on charter school oversight.

In California, local school boards are the main entities that authorize charters, or approve their request to establish a school. Before that happens, school districts vet charter applications and make sure they have solid educational programs and sound financial plans.

There are a few exceptions to this. If, for example, a local school board shoots down a charter school application, that school can appeal to the County or State Board of Education. Whichever board approves the charter is then responsible for oversight.

It’s important to know the California Charter Schools Association sees this as an inherent conflict of interest. If local school boards think charter schools are a threat, they’re less likely to approve their applications in the first place. In other states, independent boards are responsible for approving and monitoring charter schools. CCSA wants to see that happen here, but for now, them’s the rules.

It’s not like school board members physically go out to the schools and do inspections. They usually delegate this task to staff members. San Diego Unified has a charter school office, for example, whose members visit charters schools at least annually to audit books and talk with staff or parents. That’s usually an all-day affair.

Charters submit regular financial and academic reports to the charter school office, basically to prove they’re doing the things they said they’d do when they first applied to become a school. Overseers can also pop in for unannounced visits, or request information at any time.

This all gets back to the original question. If there are any shenanigans at charter schools, it’s the authorizer’s job to investigate. If a problem is found, it can formally demand the school fix it. If it doesn’t, the charter might not be renewed, or it could be revoked and the school shut down.

According to data from CCSA, 34 California charter schools closed during the 2013-2014 school year. Two of those were in San Diego Unified.

Of course, it gets messy if a charter closes in the middle of a school year. That happened with Iftin University Prep last year when it closed its doors voluntarily due to declining enrollment. In that case, the district had to scramble to find new schools for the kids. A year prior, Nubia Charter School went broke and decided to close.

What’s interesting about Nubia is that before it closed, the CCSA – which takes efforts to police its own – actually called for the school’s closure. San Diego Unified board members ignored that advice, and renewed its charter anyway.

Ideally, both charter school leaders – and those who oversee them – could spot problems before they got to the point of no return.

So, after talking with local charter school leaders and staff members in San Diego Unified’s charter school office, it doesn’t sound like an authorizer’s authority is too limited at all.

On next week’s Learning Curve, I’ll tackle the second part to this question: charter schools and special education.

Ed Reads of the Week

• These schools graduate English learners at a rate nearly 75 percent higher than other schools. What are they doing right? (The Hechinger Report)

The single biggest challenge of teaching English-learners can be distilled like this: It’s incredibly tough to help students acquire a new language while also pushing them in content areas, like math or science.

If teachers focus primarily on teaching language skills, English-learners will fall further behind in content. On the other hand, if teachers thrust students into content-area classes without providing enough language supports, those kids get lost in the mix.

Good teaching in this respect requires a thoughtful balance – one that San Diego Unified as a whole has not figured out yet. Confronting this universal challenge, one international school in New York City is doing exceedingly well. English-learners there graduate at a rate nearly 75 percent higher than other city high schools.

In this Q-and-A, Hechinger Report’s Meredith Kolodner sits down with the school’s executive director to find out how she’s finding success.

Speaking of English-learners, check out Conor Williams’ take on the cultural and economic benefits of integrating immigrants, as opposed to pushing them to assimilate. There’s an important difference, Williams writes: When we push assimilation, and urge students to forget their native language and cultures, we miss a chance to learn from immigrants. “An America that assimilates, rather than integrates, its immigrants isn’t just weaker or smaller — it’s also bland and boring,” Williams writes.

• Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing (The Onion)

“Pro: Every student measured against same narrow, irrelevant set of standards. … Con: Standardized test–scoring machines kill and maim more than 200 workers annually.”

The Onion is just for lolz. But the thing about jokes is there’s usually some truth to them. In case you missed it, two weeks ago John Oliver looked at America’s reliance on standardized tests, education tech-giant Pearson’s role in it and life after No Child Left Behind. Also, there was a dancing monkey.

Our Schools All Have a Tragic Flaw; Silicon Valley Thinks it Has the Answer (Pacific Standard)

We might be seeing the future of schools in the Bay Area. And it looks a lot like the educational equivalent of Google.

Parents in San Francisco face an interesting dilemma. In most cities, if parents want to send their kids to a good school, they pack up their belongings and move to a more affluent ZIP code. But in San Francisco, public school enrollment is determined by a complicated lottery system, and there’s no guarantee parents can send their kids to schools in their neighborhoods.

Max Ventilla, the founder of AltSchool, went about trying to solve the problem this way:

“While Ventilla was working at Google, he was also busy raising a young family … They wanted to stay in the city but, despite their prosperity, couldn’t guarantee their kids a good education in its public schools. So Ventilla did something that’s actually kind of normal in Silicon Valley’s bubble of money, hubris, and desire to change the world: He went looking for venture funding. If he couldn’t find a school to give his kids the personally tailored education they needed for the 21st century, he would create one himself.”

This in-depth profile, masterfully written by Kevin Carey, takes us into classrooms of Ventilla’s AltSchool.

The tragic flaw that all schools have, Carey writes, is that it’s physically and financially impossible for teachers to tailor instruction to every child’s specific learning needs. At AltSchool, lessons, student interactions – basically everything – is recorded and archived for teachers and school leaders to later review. It’s all in an effort to maximize efficiency and tailor instruction down to the minute detail.

And AltSchool has big expansion plans. Of course, there’s also a lot of overhead, heaviest on the IT side. A $29,000 a year tuition helps, but the question is whether the model can expand fast enough, while also maintaining high standards, to keep the school afloat.

Clearly, not every school is going to look like AltSchool in the future. But some of its techniques might be worth considering for teachers and administrators trying to solve a universal problem. Technophobes, you’ve been warned.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that Superintendent Cindy Marten’s son attended school in San Diego Unified before attending High Tech High. He attended school in Poway, where the family lived at the time.

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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