Board stands by statewide chartersResponds to objections raised in court ruling
In the face of a court challenge, the State Board of Education reaffirmed its authority Wednesday to allow a half-dozen Aspire Public Schools charter schools serving low-income minority students to continue operating. The vote lowers the odds that a District Court will order Aspire to shut down the schools and seek new charters through local school districts – an expensive and uncertain process that had worried parents of students in the schools.
Last summer, a state appeals court ruled that the State Board had abused its authority to give Aspire the right to bypass local districts and open multiple sites throughout the state. The Board could do this, the court ruled, only if the charter schools provided instructional services with a statewide benefit, and only if that benefit could not be obtained through a series of locally approved charters. The State Board had failed to make a finding on the second point, the court ruled; it also indicated that statewide benefit charters should be the exception.
An ability to open charters statewide has clear advantages for a network like Aspire. It can standardize operations and avoid the sometimes expensive and antagonistic approval and oversight process with local districts.
A pro-charter State Board led by former Board President Ted Mitchell, with members appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, bestowed a statewide benefit status to two other charter networks – High Tech High, based in San Diego, and Magnolia Public Schools, based in Los Angeles – besides Oakland-based Aspire. Seeing this as an end-run around local districts, the Education Coalition – the California School Boards Association, the California Teachers Association, and the Association of California School Administrators – filed suit in 2007 to stop the State Board from granting charters to Aspire.
A new State Board, under President Michael Kirst, with most members appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, has begun the process of writing new – and probably more restrictive – regulations for statewide benefit charters. But left up in the air was what to do about the six Aspire charters approved under the old regs, including two that opened last September.
The staff of the Department of Education recommended that the Board take no action, pending the new regulations. But Aspire CEO James Willcox pleaded with the Board to make a finding of statewide benefit; otherwise, the court would strip the statewide charter status from Aspire.
The quality of Aspire’s schools wasn’t in dispute. Board members and even opponents of the statewide charter agreed that it’s an effective organization with high API scores and impressive four-year college acceptance rates, notwithstanding serving large numbers of English learners and poor children. At issue was what constitutes statewide benefits under the charter statute and whether they could only be achieved under the State Board’s auspices.
Among the latter that Aspire cited were the use of centralized data systems that wouldn’t work if each district imposed its own data requirements, and the State Board’s ability to pinpoint priority areas where Aspire should open schools for underserved children.
The Board didn’t buy those arguments, but it did agree with two other benefits from economies of scale that Aspire cited:
- An ability to expand its teacher training program. Aspire was the first charter management organization to have a teacher credentialing program approved. Savings from avoided costs, including litigation, of seeking charters from individual districts, would steer money to expanding the teacher residency program.
- An ability to fund school construction at lower costs. The biggest liability to charters is the uncertainty of charter renewal. Aspire has been able to obtain lower-cost bonds through the statewide benefit charters, Willcox said.
Board member Trish Williams, the retiring executive director of the research organization EdSource, worded the findings that the Board passed. Board member James Aschwanden, who opposed granting statewide benefit status to Aspire when first approved in 2007, and new member Carl Cohn opposed the motions.
The findings will enable Aspire to argue in court that the State Board has satisfied the appeals court’s demands.
Aspire is the largest charter network in California, with 30 schools. The six statewide benefit charters are in Stockton, Huntington Park, and Sacramento, and serve 1,700 students.