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“Charter schools cheat the hangman.”
That was how Dan Walters put it in a column for CalMatters after state lawmakers brokered a compromise on sweeping new charter regulations in August.
Many lawmakers and teacher’s union backers had long sought new rules around transparency and accountability for charter schools, but for several years then-Gov. Jerry Brown managed to hold off significant reforms. 2019 – with an incoming new governor – was always going to be different.
Charter schools emerged from 2019 plenty scuffed up – but, indeed, the new regulations that will govern them are far less restrictive than those proposed at the beginning of the year.
In exchange for multiple concessions, charter advocates agreed not to oppose several key reforms: School districts will now be able to shut down poor-performing charter schools more easily. They’ll also be able to deny a new charter school’s application, if the proposed school replicates current educational programs or might damage the school district’s financial bottom line.
It’s almost certain that fewer new charters will be allowed to open under the new law. And it’s also reasonable to suspect that fewer charters – which must be re-authorized every five years in order to keep operating – will be renewed. But charter school advocates and detractors agree that the new law has created just as many questions as answers. It’s unclear how broadly school districts will interpret the new guidelines, and courts will likely have to weigh in on when the closure of a charter school is justified.
California has often been lumped in with several other states – including Ohio, Michigan and Arizona – as the “wild, wild west” of charter schools. It has more charter schools (roughly 1,300) than any other state, and anti-charter activists have long said its laws are too lax.
Many school districts – which must authorize charters to operate within their boundaries – have complained for years that the law did not grant them enough discretion in approving new charters. Essentially, the law forced them to authorize any new school that met even the most basic requirements, many school board members have said.
Schools are funded based on enrollment numbers. So as more students opted into charters, school districts were forced to watch as money walked out the door.
The proposals submitted by lawmakers at the beginning of the year would have completely halted the growth of charters and given districts significantly more power in whether to allow them to remain open. One would have put a moratorium on new charters and another would have gutted their right to appeal in the event that a school district wanted to close them down.
“We were marked for death,” said Myrna Castrejón, president of the California Charter Schools Association. “But when it comes down to it, we survived.”
(A separate piece of legislation passed earlier in the year will ensure that charters now have to comply with the same transparency standards as traditional school districts.)
Of the new accountability law, Castrejón said: “It’s premature to call it good or bad, but it’s definitely going to be different.”
Richard Barrera, a San Diego Unified School District board member who has been a vocal critic of the laws governing charter schools, agrees the new law will create a lot of “gray area” moving forward.
He believes it’s still unclear exactly how much leeway districts will have in their ability to shut down poor-performing charters. The new law is very clear that if charters score among the two lowest performance ratings in all categories measured by the state for two years in a row then districts should shut them down.
(The state measures school performance on state tests, absenteeism, suspension data and other metrics with the California School Dashboard.)
But beyond this clear guidance, the new law is murky. It gives authorizing school districts the ability to close down charter schools that perform below state average in all categories. And it gives school districts the discretion to consider academic performance measures more than non-academic measures.
“If there are schools that are clearly not doing right by kids, this may give us a broader set of criteria for considering renewal,” Barrera said.
Last winter, Barrera and his colleagues moved to shut down a well-loved local charter chain they believed wasn’t doing right by kids. Thrive Public Schools had developed a positive reputation in the community, but it was performing near the bottom in most measurements of school success.
Thrive parents protested the decision for months and brought an appeal to the state Board of Education. Ultimately, the state board upheld San Diego Unified’s decision to shutter the schools.
Barrera believes charters will sue when districts decide not to renew a charter under the new law. Courts will then decide exactly how broadly school districts can interpret the law when deciding not to renew a charter.
In recent years, San Diego Unified board members have voted to re-authorize the vast amount of charter renewals that came before them. (As of last November, the board had voted to renew 44 out of 47 renewal petitions, the Union-Tribune reported.) That’s because districts were extremely limited in their ability to shut down poor-performing charters, Barrera said.
But five San Diego charter schools were listed on the state’s list of worst-performing schools, last year. Several others perform below average on state tests when compared against schools with similar demographics. Those schools could ultimately be targeted for non-renewal going forward.
Some schools experience such upheaval and poor performance, they decide to shut down voluntarily. Earlier this year, the San Diego Cooperative Charter School shut down one of its locations when test scores failed to rise and infighting among parents flared to uncontrollable levels.
San Diego Unified is home to roughly 50 charter schools, Barrera said. Barrera and other board members have previously said they believe the district is oversaturated with charters. But Barrera said it’s not a renewal factor they’ll be able to consider under the new guidelines.
While making it easier to close to down poor-performing charter schools, the new law will also make the renewal process easier for schools performing very well. Castrejón, of the charter schools association, called this a victory.
The provision in the law that deals with opening new charters will likely not have a significant impact on San Diego, at least not right away. Charter growth has slowed over the last few years, due to the high number of charters already operating in San Diego.
But if new petitions are brought forward, they will almost certainly face a more difficult approval process.
First, any new charter would have to prove that it is bringing a unique educational program into the neighborhood. If school board members believe another charter or another traditional district school in the same neighborhood already offers a similar educational program, they can deny the petition.
School districts can also now consider money. If a new school would substantially undermine their finances, they can deny it. School districts whose budgets are in the red could also deny any new charter proposal that comes before them. That’s because of a provision that allows districts to deny new charters that might push them into a deficit.
The presumption is that districts already facing a deficit would not need to approve any new petitions, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office previously confirmed, according to EdSource.
That means San Diego County’s two biggest school districts could currently deny any new petition that comes before them. San Diego Unified and Sweetwater Union High School District are already dealing with budget deficits this year.
When new charter schools get denied and when existing charter schools are not renewed, they will still be able to appeal to county offices of education. This right of appeal was stripped in the initial proposals before the Legislature. Castrejón believes it’s essential that charter school advocates were able to preserve this right of appeal.
A lesser provision in the new law also ensures that all charter school teachers will have to hold a teaching credential in their relevant subject matter by 2025.
On the whole, Castrejón is hopeful about the new accountability law.
“There are greater constrictions on growth and narrower definitions of quality. I take it as a challenge for us to be more clear about what we think is possible,” she said. “The guiding force for us has always been academic need. And for the first time the question of academic need is the balancing test which will provide guide posts for the districts.”