May 27, 2019; The 74
Since 1992, when its Charter Schools Act became law, California has been at the forefront of converting its public education system to prioritize parental choice and the use of market forces to drive educational improvement. The aggressive path the state has been on for almost three decades led to California having more charters than any other state and 11 percent of its students using these publicly funded but privately managed schools. Such growth has not been without cause for concern, though, and the state, under pressure from its teachers’ unions, is now having second thoughts about the almost-unfettered charter growth it encouraged. Supporters of charters and those who see them as a threat to quality education are in a heated battle over the need for new regulations.
California’s approach has minimized the power of local school boards to control the entry of charters into their district. This has, according to public education advocates, been financially harmful to traditional public schools and made comprehensive planning for space and resource needs difficult, as NPQ noted in an earlier look at California charter school policies:
Every unwisely sited public charter school bleeds funds from the underlying public school system. With fixed costs estimated at between 35 and 55 percent, shifting students from existing schools to newly created but unneeded public charters forces cuts in educational programs for the students remaining in the traditional system.
Earlier this week, the California State Assembly advanced a bill that would restore control to local school boards, allowing them to manage this economic problem. According to The 74, the bill will give local school districts “sole authority to approve new charter schools and to consider how new schools would impact the district’s budget in the approval process. Since new charter schools typically attract students—and funding—away from traditional public schools, many expect that this measure would make it much more difficult for new charter schools to be approved.”
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Three other proposed changes are also moving forward. One would cap the total number of charters allowed in the state. Another would take away the current ability of a local district to charter a school in another part of the state, a practice that, as NPQ has reported, can be quite problematic. A third would place a two-year moratorium on the issuance of new charters, giving time for a comprehensive review of their effectiveness.
Earlier this year, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that brought to charter schools a new level of public oversight, requiring them “to follow the same transparency rules that apply to public schools, including holding open meetings and adherence to the California Public Records Act.”
The pressure to rein in charter growth has been fueled by strong opposition from teachers. Not only has their voice been resonant on a state level, but they have been able to push local boards to become partners in their effort to change state policy. Earlier this year, under pressure from its teacher’s union, the Los Angeles Board of Education, according to the Washington Post, called for a “moratorium on new charter schools [and a] state study on how charter schools affect traditional schools.” Similarly, the agreement that ended Oakland teachers’ recent work stoppage included a commitment from school board chair Aimee Eng to “introduce a resolution to halt school closures and consolidations for five months and call for a moratorium on new charter schools.”
The move to better connect charters to school districts will allow more effective comprehensive planning and better consideration of the needs of the overall student population, although evidently it will put a halt to new charters in the state in the short run. With incomplete understanding of the forces at play, slowing down to allow data to catch up to emotion looks like wise public policy.—Martin Levine