Anti-charter bill runs into troubleFinancial impact would become factor
A bill sponsored by the California Teachers Association to radically change the state’s charter school law and give districts unappealable power to reject charter petitions failed to win majority support of the Assembly Education Committee on Wednesday.
That doesn’t mean the end of AB 1172, but its author, Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, a Democrat representing Whittier and Norwalk, will have to make changes he so far hasn’t agreed to if it’s to stand a chance. Only two Democrats on the 11-member committee voted to support the bill.
The bill, which raised the charter community’s threat alert from orange to red, would make three major changes. It would:
- Enable a district for the first time to reject charters based on the district’s financial condition;
- Prohibit county offices of education and the State Board of Education from approving charters on appeal, based on the merits of the application;
- Remove the counties’ and the State Board’s ability to approve charters of countywide and statewide interest.
Pieces of the bill have been introduced before, but AB 1172 is different in its full-scale assault on the charter law. In 2006, the Legislature passed a bill that would have given districts the right to deny charters based on negative financial impacts. In his veto message, Gov. Schwarzenegger wrote, “While I understand the plight of school districts faced with fiscal challenges of declining enrollment and other management issues, I cannot condone allowing them to deny parents and students their rights to petition for the establishment of a charter school.”
Mendoza was an elementary school teacher for a decade and a CTA and National Education Assn. representative before turning to politics. In a statement and a press release, he said that giving local districts more oversight would help achieve the original intent of the law, to encourage charters to become laboratories of innovation and share best practices. He said charters have strayed from this mission, although successful charter groups like Aspire, KIPP, and High Tech High would assert they are both innovative and different from district schools. There’s no question that there are tensions with charters in many districts; it’s not clear how AB 1172 would improve relations, other than to guarantee there would be far fewer charters in the future.
Appeals process gives charters a fair shake
The charter law created an appeals process because legislators recognized an inherent conflict in having school trustees decide charter proposals they viewed not as an exercise in parent choice but as theft of their students. Some districts are outwardly antagonistic to charters and make up reasons to deny petitions, as San Jose Unified did several years ago in rejecting Rocketship Education’s first school. Were it not for Santa Clara County trustees, who gave the proposal a second read, one of the state’s most innovative charter organizations might not have gotten off the ground.
Some county offices of ed are also anti-charter, which is why the State Board of Education is the final arbiter. It has not abused its power, approving 20 charter petitions and three charters of statewide interest.
The bill would remove the power of substantive review by a county office and State Board and permit overriding a local district’s charter denial only on the grounds of a procedural violation. And then the charter would be sent back to the local district to fix the violation.
Charter law also permits county offices and the State Board to grant charters of countywide and statewide interest, respectively, if the charters would serve students or provide a distinct program beyond a single district or county. The CTA challenged the authority of the State Board to issue statewide interest charters; an appeals court sided with the CTA and has ordered the State Board to define statewide interest in regulations. AB 1172 would abolish the authority.
In its bill analysis, the Education Committee staff recommended an amendment to restore the current appeals process and the provisions authorizing charters of countywide and statewide interest. Mendoza rejected the amendment.
Bright line excluding financial impact
The charter law excluded the potential financial impact of a charter on a district as grounds for denying a petition, although some districts have rejected charters on that basis, without saying so explicitly, for years.
Charter advocates argue that parental choice should be the first priority and that districts must learn to adapt when dollars follow the child. And some dollars remain in the district anyway; charter schools aren’t entitled to parcel taxes and some categorical program money.
But, particularly in districts with declining enrollments, with successive years of state cuts in education, the loss of tuition of hundreds of students can have a substantial effect, contributing to districtwide layoffs and loss of programs. Although it’s hard to quantify the impact, charters overall have admitted fewer special needs students, who cost more to educate.
Franklin-McKinley in San Jose is a 10,000 student elementary district that has welcomed high-performing charters like Rocketship. Superintendent John Porter says the district can accommodate four or five charters, but only if they are phased in, to avoid putting the district at financial risk.
Mendoza’s bill lacks subtle distinctions. Most, though probably not all, districts would be able to cite a negative financial impact as reason to reject a charter out of hand.
Any district with a negative or qualified financial certification could reject a charter; currently about 10 percent of districts, including Los Angles Unified, have that status, and that number will grow with further state cuts to schools. Some of these districts have been mismanaged or, as Schwarzenegger said in his veto message, failed to make “tough decisions” – and shouldn’t be rewarded at parents’ and students’ expense.
Any district that could prove financial distress to the county office of education could cite a negative financial impact, as could any district with declining enrollment that plans to close a school that a charter has identified as a site.
Determining the financial impact of a charter school is complex and disputable, which may be a reason the drafters of the charter law created a bright line excluding any consideration of it. Mendoza’s bill, at the CTA’s urging, would wipe out the bright line. That gave most members of the committee pause.