Will New Law Gut Charter Schools?
By Suki Wessling
The updated charter school law signed by Governor Newsom last fall, AB 1505, was hailed as a compromise between districts that wanted more control and charter school advocates who wanted to maintain independence.
“For the most part, whatever side you’re on, people see this as an improvement, as a reform that’s going to make the chartering process more effective,” says Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Faris Sabbah.
The mood at some of our fifteen local charter schools, however, could be described as wary. It’s not clear yet what the charter school landscape will look like in the future.
What exactly are charter schools?
The original charter school law of 1992 opened public education to a new breed of public school, independent from district administration and free from the restrictions placed on neighborhood schools.
Julie Wiley, Administrative Director of Linscott Charter School in Watsonville, describes it this way. “[Charters] provide an alternative setting that could approach educating children without having to follow every single letter of the Education Code, so that parents would have different options to choose from if they wanted a different kind of setting or a different kind of focus.”
“The goal of charter schools is to build a robust self-improving system of public educational opportunity for all students,” Pacific Collegiate School Head of School Maria C. Reitano wrote by email. “Schools like PCS are designed to provide unique learning environments that challenge the status quo and encourage innovation in public schools.”
The intent of the original charter movement was that charters would open public education up as a competitive marketplace, forcing innovation when families took their tax dollars to charters and out of their neighborhood school.
Today, there are two types of charter schools: those created by districts and independent schools created without district approval.
What changed on January 1?
These things change under the new law:
- Charters will have to adhere more closely to the Education Code in areas like curriculum and hiring.
From the perspective of administration, this is seen as a welcome change. Currently, district-sponsored charters already follow this model, and this change will bring independent charters into line.
“[District-supported charters] are treated very much like other traditional public schools, with a little more flexibility,” Sabbah explains. “The teachers are part of the union. [In the] the curriculum and the content, there’s usually a continuity between those schools and other public schools.”
Some charter leaders see these changes as potentially devastating. For example, Wiley responds to the requirement that charters hire only credentialed teachers by pointing out California’s desperate teacher shortage.
“If [currently uncredentialled teachers] decide not to go get credentialed, those positions will be open and charters will be looking to fill them.”
Furthermore, charters like Linscott depend on part-time uncredentialed teachers and parents for non-core subjects such as music and PE. Eventually, anyone teaching students will be required to have a credential.
The curriculum requirements will also have a dampening effect on charter schools, effectively outlawing widely used alternative curricula like Singapore Math or Beast Academy if it is not state-approved.
- Districts are allowed to reject new charters or material revisions to existing charters on several new grounds, including whether they will have a negative impact on a district’s finances or whether they reflect the demographics of the host district.
Previously, when a district rejected a petition for a charter, the petitioners could go to the State for approval. The result was a “hostile” charter, operating within a district but completely free from district oversight. Santa Cruz County has five such charter schools. The one that has gotten the most press is Pacific Collegiate. PCS squeaked under the line by getting its charter renewed before the law took effect Jan. 1. That gives the school a five-year window in which to address two issues under the new law, both of which are fundamental to many charters created under the 1992 law.
The first issue is the law allows districts to reject changes to existing charters or reject new charters that would take students from traditional public schools.
“If we’re creating a new charter school and [it] is going to take 250 students in its first year, then those students would be coming from a traditional public school for the most part,” Sabbah concedes. “I don’t think we could argue that it wouldn’t have a fiscal impact.”
In other words, any district that doesn’t want a new charter, for any reason, will be able to deny the charter simply under the fiscal impact provision. And existing charters will have to cap their student enrollment at current levels.
“Contrary to common belief, charter schools do not take students away from traditional public schools,” argues Reitano. “Rather, parents and families choose PCS because they see a model of high-quality, rigorous academic and arts instruction.”
“It would be easy for an authorizer to say, ‘You’re going to take kids from regular public schools so of course you’re going to impact us financially,” Wiley points out. “It certainly could gut the whole system.”
The second is a problem that PCS has been working to address: its intense, college-prep atmosphere has not attracted a diverse student body that reflects the overall demographics of Santa Cruz. Under the new law, the school could face trouble when it is up for renewal in five years.
“Our charter renewal petition for 2020-2025 term includes a Diversity Plan,” Reitano says. “So we anticipate the impact of AB 1505 to be minimal.”
PCS’s plan was set back in December when the District denied its petition to add a sixth grade. PCS is appealing that decision.
- There is a two-year moratorium on all new non-classroom based and online charter schools.
This provision of AB 1505 directly addresses a problem identified by Dr. Sabbah.
“Programs would establish themselves and provide IS (independent study) services for students all over the state without any connection with the community or any benefit to the community,” Dr. Sabbah says.
One such program is Ocean Grove Charter School (OGCS), which was chartered in San Lorenzo Valley Unified but serves students in five counties. OGCS is extremely popular with homeschoolers, who use it as an umbrella organization rather than setting up their own private school. It provides credentialed teachers who guide students in their independent studies, plus funds paid directly to approved outside vendors for materials and instruction.
Given that OGCS is already in operation, it is grandfathered in under the new law, but any planned expansion is on hold for at least two years.
“It’s important to note that these bills came amid a flurry of negative news articles alleging shady business operations of homeschool/virtual charter school operators, specifically Valiant (A3) and Inspire,” Cynthia Rachel, Director of Communications for IEM Schools, OGCS’s parent organization, wrote in a note to staff. “The inappropriate actions of some have ramifications that will impact us all.”
Because the new provisions in this law have not yet been tested on charter renewals, only time will tell whether independent charters will be able to survive combative relationships with their host districts.
Do charter schools work?
Charter school proponents point out that, in fact, the competitive marketplace has worked. Dr. Sabbah points out with pride that the County Board of Education created its own independent study program like OGCS with their OASIS program.
Would the district have been moved to support independent study without outside pressure? Charter advocates believe they wouldn’t.
Charter school advocates also point out that the success of charters is based on exactly what the new law is going to do away with: First, taking students from traditional public schools whose needs weren’t being served, and second, offering a fundamentally different approach that is not based on California’s Education Code.
“Now that charter schools are being successful and kids are gaining in academic achievement, it feels like the legislators or powers that be are saying, ‘Well, that’s not fair because you weren’t playing by the same rules everybody else was’,” Julie Wiley points out.
An OGCS teacher who doesn’t want to be identified says the accusation that charter schools aren’t held accountable angers her. “If any of my students are in the red on the California Dashboard, we have to do a tremendous amount of planning. We have to call a student study team (SST) where we write specific goals, go over curriculum, and plan everything out. There’s a huge push to increase student success. I feel like it’s intrusive on the family and focuses on testing and standards, which is why families are leaving the traditional schools.”
But Dr. Sabbah says that he is very supportive of charters—as long as they are answerable to the district. He says he is particularly proud of the District-created Career Advancement Charter, which serves young adults who are seeking a diploma.
The future for charters: bright or murky?
“When I first came to Linscott, I came home and said, ‘This is nirvana, I’ve died and gone to heaven’,” Cynthia Wiley remembers. “But the changes that have happened in the last few years feel anti-charter, though it may not be intended that way.”
“How are we going to get these kids educated if we aren’t given the freedom to do what we promise we will do for them?” asks the OGCS teacher. “If we were doctors and they were doing this, we would be protesting. But we’re all just sitting back and letting it happen.”
Wiley says that the success of her charter school is pretty simple.
“The teachers here are just incredible. They don’t give up on kids, they keep working until kids make progress.”
Despite the tension between charters and districts, Superintendent Sabbah points out that Santa Cruz is a generally welcoming place for charter schools, especially under his leadership.
“As an administrator, educator, and parent, I believe in choice,” says Dr. Sabbah. “I believe in finding the programs that best have that connection to students. In some cases an ISP may be the best model. In some cases, a more traditional six-period schedule is the best thing for a student. We need to offer choice to families.”
Suki Wessling is a local writer and the mother of two children who attended public, charter, and private schools in Santa Cruz County (including Linscott). She teaches at Athena’s Advanced Academy and writes about parenting, education, and gifted children. Read more at www.SukiWessling.com.