State Board, CDE at odds on charter

Unanimously voting to disregard the recommendation of Department of Education staff, the State Board of Education last week granted Rocketship Education a charter in San Francisco, Rocketship’s first school outside of Santa Clara County. The Board’s approval for its 33rd charter reflected a sharp disagreement not only over the Department’s conclusions on Rocketship but also how it went about  reaching them.

Rocketship appealed to the State Board after San Francisco Unified trustees voted 6-0 to deny charter approval for a K-5 school it would locate near low-performing elementary schools in the minority neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point. In a 31-page decision, the trustees ruled that Rocketship was offering “an unsound educational program” and that it would be unlikely to successfully implement what it was proposing (see Item 1 of the State Board’s Jan. 11 agenda for the San Francisco decision, the Rocketship application and the Department’s recommendations).

Department staff actually found no basis to justify San Francisco’s denial on academic grounds. Rocketship is a fast-expanding, innovative charter organization that operates five charter schools in San Jose with approval to open 25 more by 2017-18 in Santa Clara County. The three schools that have been open long enough to be tested had an average API score of 868, nearly 200 points above the average of the neighborhood schools it was targeting in San Francisco, according to its application.

Among their reasons, the trustees criticized Rocketship’s English immersion approach and said its hybrid model, which integrates the use of computers in a Learning Lab  to supplement the work of classroom teachers, sounded like a “drill and kill” approach. (No trustees actually visited the school or heard a presentation by Rocketship.) Department staff pointed to Rocketship’s track record and said that,  as a charter school, it can choose different approaches to learning and curricula from the district. (Isn’t that a reason for a charter school?)

Instead, the Department staff pointed to four flaws in Rocketship’s financial plan, a combination of lack of clarity or missing information, that led it to doubt the proposal’s viability. In a clear departure from past practice, CDE staff and a consultant hired to do the review took the position that they were legally restricted from asking Rocketship any follow-up questions for answers could have met their concerns.

That approach confused members of the State Board as well as the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, which recommended that the State Board grant the charter after listening to the Department’s reasons and hearing directly from Rocketship’s chief financial officer and CEO (watch the hearing).

“I sense frustration among commissioners because of the conservative interpretation of the process,” Commission Chairman Brian Bauer, principal of the Granada Hills Charter High School, said during a hearing in November.

Having been chastened when a new charter school in West Sacramento went bankrupt last fall, losing at least several million dollars in state grants, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Deb Sigman acknowledged that the Department has resolved to look at all charters’ financials in more detail. “We have directed staff to be very deliberate and thoughtful and look at denials by district and county, but there might be a more deliberate look at fiscal issues,” she told the Commission.

How much discretion on an appeal?

Advisory commissioners and State Board members didn’t dispute the need for more scrutiny. They’ve been burned by charters led by teachers and parents without much of a clue about California’s complex and precarious funding system. But they were puzzled by the Department’s efforts to make an example of Rocketship, a sophisticated operation with a level of reserve that far exceeds the average school district’s.

“I appreciate the oversight and attention to detail. It’s critical,” said Commissioner Vicky Barber, superintendent of El Dorado County. “In the past, the Commission has had fiscal matters discussion (with those) without basic understanding of school finance. But I don’t see the lack of understanding” with Rocketship.

Among the items the Department raised:

  • Each Rocketship school and Rocketship Education are separate nonprofits. Staff was concerned that the San Francisco school would be stuck with debts if it closed. But Bauer and Barber pointed to a passage in the 300-plus page charter petition that made clear the parent nonprofit would bear all debts of its schools and not require any fundraising.
  • The proposal didn’t spell out how the 15 percent management fee covering personnel for Rocketship Education would be spent. Rocketship acknowledged that it could have given more details in a footnote.
  • Repayment schedule of two loans of three on the school’s books was not given. Rocketship said that was because they did not expect they would be drawn down.

All sides agree that the Department, on reviewing an appeal, cannot consider or seek substantive changes to a charter proposal. But Commissioners and all Board members except for Patricia Rucker agreed that staff could seek clarifying information, as it has done in the past, and that the objections raised about Rocketship were minor.

The alternative would have been to reject the petition and force Rocketship to start all over with San Francisco Unified on the basis of issues that the school district had not raised.

“Rocketship,” said Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento and author of the financial disclosure regulations for charters, “risked being caught in the charter arms race where authorities keep upping the ante so that it broadens the target they can shoot at. Do you need to go into the financial minutiae of school closure?”

Rucker joined the other Board members in voting for the charter with the condition that parent Rocketship clearly state its responsibility  for any debts the new school may incur.

Statewide impact charters

Also last week, the Board approved  five-year extensions of the statewide benefit charters enabling  High Tech High and Aspire Public Schools to open charter schools throughout the state. The Board has granted only three of these (Magnolia Public Schools also has permission to open a limited number).  To receive a statewide benefit charter, a charter organization must have a track record of success and establish that it will provide a benefit that can’t be achieved through charters from individual school districts.

With 11 schools serving 4,600 students in K-12, much acclaimed High Tech High offers project-based learning targeted to areas with low-performing schools. It made the case that it needs a statewide charter to locate and better finance the construction of schools designed for of its approach. It also argued its High Tech High Graduate School of Education, offering Master’s in Education and a teacher credentialing program, helps the state meet its need for STEM teachers.

Aspire Public Schools has used the statewide benefit charter to open a half-dozen of its 34 schools. The benefit it provides, Aspire said, is increasing the number of minority, low-income students ready for college (all of its graduates last year were accepted to a four-year college); like High Tech High, it uses the statewide charter to reduce the cost of financing for school facilities and to  run a teacher residency program serving its schools. The California Schools Boards Assn., the California Teachers Assn. and the Assn. of California School Administrators sued the School Board over the statewide benefit charter for Aspire and won a victory in State Appeals Court in 2010. That decision forced the State Board to review its criteria for a statewide charter.

CTA lobbyist Ken Burt said last week the Board’s rationale “doesn’t meet the laugh test” and called on it to wait for a further ruling on the case, which is expected this spring. But Board members said that whatever decision is reached won’t end the litigation; postponing a renewal of the benefit charter would create uncertainly for Aspire parents who are now enrolling their children for next year.

15 thoughts on “State Board, CDE at odds on charter

  1. CarolineSF

    Naturally I challenge the entire notion that county boards of ed and the State Board of Ed should have the right to force charters into unwilling school districts over the objections of elected district school boards.
    What that says is that a charter with enough PR and legal firepower (often funded by the billionaire-backed foundations that are behind most of the currently faddish corporate education “reforms” in this country) can simply evade the democratic process. So Bill Gates gets to overrule the school board members I elected and tell us what schools must open in our community.
    Why doesn’t this concept apply elsewhere? What if a city council were voting on a proposal for a major new development project? Should Bill Gates et. al be able to persuade higher authorities to overrule that proposal too, and force city governments to build that highrise complex or shopping mall or parking garage against their will?
    And as a longtime newspaper journalist, I’m continually outraged at newspaper editorial boards that push for this, even when they’ve been demonstrably, flamingly wrong in similar cases in the past. They should be shamed, humbled, chastened and apologetic, not arrogantly continuing to do the same thing over and over.
    Also, @John, I call BS here: “Advisory commissioners and State Board members didn’t dispute the need for more scrutiny. They’ve been burned by charters led by teachers and parents without much of a clue about California’s complex and precarious funding system. ”
    So you’re trying to represent that the only charters that have burned their authorizers were started by teachers and parents?  I will just take a deep breath and say primly, “Why, no, @John, that’s not accurate.”
    I also want to call out a claim that has been promoted by charter advocates and editorial writers since the days of Edison Schools (11+ years now). It makes so little sense that it should never have made it out of the soundbite shop at the Hoover Institution. This line has it that school board members reject charter school applications, or sometimes move to oversee charters (overseeing charters used to be considered unacceptable by those same forces), because they’re jealous of charters’ success.
    That makes no sense. Let’s parse that notion.
    1) Pretend I’m a school board member who cares deeply about the best interest of children. A charter applicant comes to me with a promising proposal that I believe will give children a new opportunity at a better education; or a charter school is operating in my district that is giving children an excellent education.  Also, if I vote to reject or otherwise cause any unhappiness or discomfort to the charter, I’ll get beat bloody by the media and incur lawsuits. How would any sane person in this role vote?
    2) Pretend I’m a school board member who couldn’t care less about the interests of children, and whose only concern is my own self-aggrandizement and political image. A charter operator comes to me with a promising proposal that I believe will be successful; or a charter school is operating in my district that’s giving children an excellent education. I can take full credit for my wisdom and brilliance in bringing this successful charter to the district if I support the charter. I’ll get beat bloody by the media and incur lawsuits if I challenge it, which obviously will harm my efforts at political gain and self-aggrandizement. How would any sane person in this role vote?
    Those of you who have promoted this line of thinking, can you explain how it makes any sense at all?
    School board members challenge or vote against charters because they believe that those charters will do harm to the greater interests of their districts — even though they know they will get beat bloody by the media for it. It’s just wrong for county BOEs and the SBOE — people outside the district, not part of the community — to be able to overrule them.
    Might as well throw in an update here on San Francisco’s Edison Charter Academy. 11 years ago, editorial boards across the land* were joining political leaders and other powerful voices in savagely attacking SFUSD’s Board of Ed for trying to hold this charter’s former operator, flamboyant for-profit Edison Schools Inc., accountable for its promises. (Oops — all those journalists “forgot” to ask if Edison’s other clients had the same issues with Edison — which, surprise, many did. SFUSD was singled out because it’s easy to bash us for our “land of fruits and nuts” image.) In a compromise, the SBOE took over the charter for Edison Charter Academy. What goes on there is absolutely off the radar now — we in the unwashed public have no idea if the SBOE has ever lifted a finger to oversee it. But we do know that 2-3 years ago, the remaining twitching shreds  of Edison Inc. quietly turned over the management of the school to a independent board from within the school community — which characterizes the situation as throwing off the yoke of the corporate oppressor. It’s just an interesting part of the story.
    Anyway, my point is that with the SBOE managing the school, we have no idea if it’s being overseen at all. It’s right in the middle of our community, but that’s a deep, dark mystery. I digressed into the rest of the story to provide the current update for anyone interested.

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  2. CarolineSF

    *Forgot to follow up on my own asterisk. I first became involved what grew into a full-fledged research and information project on Edison School, as a parent volunteer, after the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial (voice of the newspaper, not an op-ed) blasting SFUSD for moving to oversee Edison Charter Academy. It bashed, by name, a friend of mine who was and is a school board member in SFUSD, which piqued my attention. And it gave false test score figures for the school. I wrote to the WSJ, sending the real figures and sources, but they never corrected.

    The Economist (based in London, making this an international media topic) also printed the fake test scores, but did correct when contacted.

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  3. John Fensterwald - Educated Guess Post author

    Caroline: Appeals are needed because the state law defines what constitutes approval for a charter. School boards sometimes don’t follow the law or interpret it in ways that bear scrutiny. Charter operators have  rights under the law, as do parents who want their children to attend. Simple as that.
    I sense you want everything to fit into your Unified Theory of Bill Gates Conspiracy. I don’t see the relationship here.


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  4. CarolineSF

    If I thought the forces that created the laws that promote charters had good intentions, I would characterize *forcing charters into districts against the will of the elected school board (and guaranteeing that those charters will get oversight only if the charter authorizer sees fit)* as an unintended consequence.
    It’s hard to imagine that anyone of goodwill and common sense would see that as a good idea.
    Mocking me as a wacko conspiracy theorist is not a sound or respectable way to debate, @John. It discredits you.

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  5. Mary Thompson

    Right on, Caroline.  The decision of the State Board of Education to over rule SF School’s elected board members is another blatant disregard for local elected authority.   Charter schools have always been about undermining the CONCEPT  of local elected representation, which by extension also undermines the CONCEPT  of taxation with representation.   The merits or lack thereof  of specific charter school models is not what is at stake. 

    Charter schools are serving as a bridge to removing any local jurisdiction to what is planned once the charter school movement has served its purpose.   What is to follow is Distance Learning, which will be the final nationalization/internationalization of schools without accountability to any local context.    That’s when the oligarchs, foundations, et al can exercise their role unhindered by elected representatives for global workforce training funded with  local, state and federal taxes.    

    Teachers , “your jobs are about to be ‘offshored’  just as manufacturing, engineering, and other professions have been.  Your unions won’t be  able to counteract it any more than industry unions were able to do for the unemployed of empty factories and lost professional positions.”
    (Deliberate Dumbing Down of America, Revised and Abridged Edition by Charlotte Iserbyt,

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  6. Molly Black

    I have to give kudos to Caroline who eloquently described what is occurring right now in Los Altos, CA.    Background information on the situation can be found at
    Basically, we have a charter school that was created amidst high achieving public schools. The local school board denied the charter request twice so the charter went above them to the Santa Clara County Board of Education and got an approval from them.
    With no oversight or governance, the charter is basically able to do as they wish and report to no one.  And that is just not public education.
    This situation is basically tearing our community apart so I appreciate any and all that are calling enough to the Charter Laws as they are currently written!

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  7. Camille

    I agree with the previous two correspondents regarding the undermining of the elected representatives of various community arenas, San Francisco and its wacky lifestyle notwithstanding.  Charter schools are mere temporary diversions and may well soon look and sound exactly like the larger public schools.
    The state legislature has over 24 bills awaiting action on Charter schools.  Every bill places some limitation on the operation and agenda of charter schools sucking them back into the school as social role model and distributor of morals.
    Tom Ammiano wants to control the bathrooms, AB 266, Luis Alejo wants to control the nutrition program, Michael Rubio wants to dictate the placement of personnel and counseling in the charters for special ed and low-income students, others want mental health programs, vaccination programs, immersion vs non-immersion in a particular language and the charters, themselves, want corporations to step in and develop specific training programs so that students can smoothly transfer into the workforce upon graduation.
    What, pray tell, is new about that?

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  8. Tamara Logan

    When the Santa Clara County Board of Education made a decision about Rocketship last month, representatives of almost every district in the county asked for the county to return the charter petitions to the home districts. Reasons generally given by charter proponents are:
    - administrators and board members of all those districts are in the hip pocket of the CTA
    - administrators and board members really want to hold kids back
    - administrators and board members hate competition
    What is really the case is the the great majority of school administrators and board members really care deeply about the education of our children and understand how having a charter school forced into the neighborhood with no local control impacts the children and community.
    Have you taken the time to listen openly to the experiences of people who educate the great majority of our children?

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  9. Sue Moore

    I am really interested in the notion of local control in this discussion. Isn’t local control (however it is defined in sprawling LA and San Diego) having parents, teachers and community members as trustees of the charter school? Local control in San Diego meant that a board member who lived over 30 miles away, and may rarely, if ever, have spent time in dozens of schools, was “in control” as much as the local member. When I did research on this very issue, what was interesting was that most boards do not even have a process for eliciting communication from their constituents, do not have clear communication processes in place for their constituents, and seem remarkably disconnected from the nitty gritty of understanding schooling.
    My recollection is that many charters emerged precisely because parents and teachers were getting ignored.
    I am not saying that there are not myriad problems with charter schools, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Identify the problems at specific sites to then work on the thematic issues and on individual issues. My main problem with many charter schools is that they are still employing the prior employees, and they are not consistent with innovative program development. Many children in charter schools are there precisely because the larger system failed them – and not necessarily in terms of academic learning. That’s why some parents home-school (I have done this)   – because their children were profoundly let down by the existing education system.

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  10. Gary Ravani

    What is particularly disturbing about these events is the SBE’s “process.” It is the antithesis to the code of the “old west” where a man was guaranteed a “fair trial” before he is hung. In this case the SBE has a guaranteed sham “process” where the CDE and the public make comments and then the SBE moves ahead with its predetermined outcome. How predetermined? Predetermined enough that one SBE member has a ready made “motion,” obviously drafted by attorneys, to flash on the screen in the board room like a power point presentation the very second “public hearing” is over. This is as bad as the last SBE, just puppets bouncing to strings pulled by the  Wall Street owned charter industry.
    It is a travesty of the democratic process.
    (There is something about the Rocketship folks that make me feel compelled to rush out and buy a used car every time they show up at the SBE)
    The CDE’s cautionary “note” that neither the SBE not the CDE has the mechanisms or personnel to monitor the SBE authorized charters costing the state “tens of millions” is lost in the neo-liberal frenzy to get behind charter schools.
    Of course Finland and Singapore, whose school results we are all bound to emulate, depend on charter and private schools for their world class performance. Oh, no. They don’t in reality. Forgot.

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  12. Maureen Cullnan

    In Chicago, the mayor’s  push for a 7.5 hour day across all 600+ schools — the longest in the nation by far — is to implement Rocketship and fire masses of teachers, I fear.  In Chicago, the mayor runs the schools. His hand-picked school board will vote on this at the next Feb 22 meeting.
    Parents have been left in the dark regarding any planning for this massive c initiative, which started with the coming of Stand for Children to Illinois to push through the union busting bill SB7. That bill also gave the mayor the right to lengthen the day as he sees fit.

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  13. Bea

    @Gary, given what happened with the Western Sierra Collegiate Academy charter application (still in legal limbo), you appear to be correct-ish. This was a case of a charter school denied by the district and the County (pretty amazing for conservative Rocklin). At the SBE hearing, the charter again failed to garner enough votes for approval. Those opposed headed home. But lo, the SBE breaks for lunch, comes back and announces that they will take another vote (with supporters miraculously still present). It passed.
    It would seem something went awry with the predetermined outcome, so a do-over was granted. And the world was granted another PCS-Bullis charter school cum private school for affluent high achieving kids.

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