Significant changes would be in store for California charter schools if two pieces of legislation set for vote by the State Senate are approved.
Assembly Bill (AB) 1505 seeks to make changes to the charter school authorization, oversight, appeals and renewals processes. AB 1507 intends to change an existing law that allows charter schools to operate outside of the district that authorized them.
Both bills were introduced on February 22. California 70th District Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, a co-author of both bills, told the Business Journal that the senate floor vote for the bills would likely take place in the latter portion of August. September 13 is the last day for any bill to be passed.
The Charter Schools Act was established in 1992 and authorized the creation of charter schools in California. Charter schools operate independently from school districts, but they require authorization, or approval, from a school district governing board to function. Every five years, charter schools must submit a renewal application to a school district, per charter law.
A governing board of a school district can approve or deny a charter school application based on 16 criteria established in the Charter Schools Act. The criteria include a description of the school’s educational program, how the financial and programmatic operations of the school will be conducted, how student progress will be measured and so on.
If a governing board denies a charter school’s application, petitioners may submit an appeal, which allows a county superintendent of schools to review the decision of a governing board. Upon further review, the county can determine if the denial of the charter school application was justified. If denied again, petitioners can go to the California State Board of Education to appeal the county and district decisions.
When a charter school is authorized, the authorizer – whether it be a school district, county board or state board – is responsible on a yearly basis for maintaining oversight, an evaluation of a charter school’s performance. Per California Education Code, charter schools are charged an average oversight fee of 1% from their annual income.
James Suarez, assistant director with the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), confirmed with the Business Journal that the district currently authorizes two charter schools: Intellectual Virtues Academy (IVA) Middle School and Clear Passage Educational Center (CPEC). IVA Middle School was chartered in 2013 and renewed in 2017. CPEC was charted in 2014 and renewed this year.
AB 1505 intends to modify the standards of how a charter school is authorized or renewed. Chelsea Kelly, a consultant with the California State Assembly Committee on Education, said the existing law only allows authorizers to consider the facts of a petition when mulling an application. “Districts are not technically allowed under current law to look at how it will impact their community,” she said. “They are only assessing the validity of the petition on its own merits.”
The bill would allow a charter school authorizer, when reviewing an initial application, to consider how the potential charters would impact the community and neighborhood schools – which includes the ability to deny an application if the district is in “fiscal distress.”
“Our intent with fiscal impacts has always been to allow the districts to consider how the district services will be potentially cut if you approve that charter school,” Kelly said. As an example, she said a potential charter school seeking to offer a music program could hinder any similar programs that the district already offers. “It’s really a two-part process,” she added. “Would the program be duplicative? And then would it substantially undermine existing services?”
According to an AB 1505 fact sheet provided by O’Donnell’s office, the legislation would also eliminate the charter law requirement that academics be the highest priority when evaluating a charter school for renewal. Moreover, a governing board of a school district would be able to consider, during a renewal process, if a charter school is financially stable and whether it is serving all student populations.
Jacquie Bryant, founding principal of IVA Middle School, said AB 1505’s focus on financial and external factors, as opposed to the educational aspects, has her concerned. “We prefer to have our academic track record be the focus of authorization,” she said. “What we’ve been judged on in the past as charter schools is if your academics are preparing students equal to or better than your local district. Those elements seem like the core foundations of how an authorizer might determine if a school is beneficial in its district, rather than what the bill seems to propose.”
Myrna Castrejón is president and chief executive officer of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). CCSA, a charter school advocacy organization, has been at the forefront of conversations regarding the bills with the co-authors throughout the legislative process, said.
Castrejón said she has a “fundamental problem” with AB 1505’s proposal to diminish the priority of education in the petition process. “Eliminating the academic equation cuts the legs off the basic value proposition of what charters are here to offer,” she said. “The simplest way to explain it is that we’ve seen statewide charters excel at serving students that are not being served well, academically speaking, from traditional schools.”
O’Donnell said the purpose in introducing new factors in the authorization process is to verify that charter schools are innovative and distinct from school districts. “We need to ensure that they’re not just opening the same thing next door to an existing school,” he said. “And we’re also keeping into account the logistics of keeping two schools open instead of one, [which] sometimes only harms students, because expenses are not being put into the classroom.”
The appeals process would be modified under AB 1505, as well. Charter schools would have access to a full appeal process to the county board of education. But there would be a limited process when appealing to the State Board of Education, which would only consider appeals in which the potential charter school can prove the district or county mishandled the authorization proposal.
O’Donnell said AB 1505 will likely undergo changes sometime this month, particularly pertaining to the authorization and appeals process, as conversations continue with policymakers and stakeholders.
Meanwhile, AB 1507 would mandate that charter schools operate within the geographical boundaries of the individual district that approved them. The existing law allows charter schools to operate in areas outside their authorizing district. For instance, a school authorized by an entity in San Diego can operate in the district of Long Beach.
Suarez confirmed there are charter schools located in LBUSD that were not authorized by the district. An example would be IVA High School, the sister program of IVA Middle School, that is authorized by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, he said.
Kelly said that if AB 1507 passes, statewide charter schools that are currently operating outside district boundaries would be permitted to continue services until their next renewal cycle. Once the cycle has ended, Kelly said charter schools would either get permission from a local school district to continue operations with the other authorizer, or submit their renewal petition to that local school district.
O’Donnell’s objective with AB 1507 is to close a “loophole” that has allowed authorizers to profit from approving multiple charter school petitions statewide to garner oversight fees.
An unidentified school district in 2014 authorized 21 charter schools in the state, according to an AB 1507 fact sheet provided by the office of California 38th District Assemblymember Christy Smith, the principal author of AB 1507. The fact sheet shows that the county office of education determined the district’s funds were “negative,” or insufficient to meet its needs for the current and subsequent fiscal year. To solve its problem, the school district publicly stated that it was primarily using the profits from oversight fees to address the financial problems the district was facing.
The fact sheet explains that AB 1507 aims to prevent school districts from approving charter school petitions in an attempt to make more money. O’Donnell said small districts that provide oversight to multiple schools also do not have the “logistics necessary to oversee that number of students.” He added: “We need to make sure that charter schools move a student’s academic progress forward and aren’t just about people making money. It’s not about ending them. It’s about fixing the law so that we make sure charter school operations are about academic progress. Schools should be learning centers, not profit centers.”
Christopher Steinhauser, LBUSD superintendent, told the Business Journal he supports AB 1505 and AB 1507. “I strongly believe that if a charter is operating within the boundaries of a district, it needs to be authorized by that district,” he said. “In this district, we hold charters to an extremely high standard when they come to us . . . If I chartered somebody and they failed, it becomes my problem and I’ve got to deal with it.”
Although concerned about the passage of two bills, AB 1505 in particular, Bryant commended the LBUSD’s work in overseeing IVA Middle School. “We’ve had such a good relationship with Long Beach Unified,” she said. “They’ve been a really amazing authorizer.”
Castrejón said there is natural tension when it comes to the existence of charter schools for public school districts. Although she expressed her approval of AB 1507 in its current form, she said that the CCSA intends on continuing dialogue about both bills this month. “We are optimistic that we can continue to have those conversations,” she said. “Our intent is to continue to serve the more than 600,000 students that are currently enrolled in public charter schools.”
If the bills pass by September 13, Gov. Gavin Newson has until October 13 to either sign into law, veto or take no action on the legislation. The latter move would also result in the bills’ implementation.