Bill to impose cap on charters

Charter school supporters didn’t have to worry much about severe restrictions on their operations becoming law over the past seven years – not with Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. But they’re less certain now, with Jerry Brown in the corner office. Even though Brown founded two charter schools in Oakland, to get his budget passed, Brown is leaning heavily on teachers and classified employees unions that are pushing some of the bills that the charter community fears the most.

Near the top of the list is AB 401, which would put a lid on charter growth and immediately impose a moratorium in Los Angeles and other urban districts that have been the most welcoming to charter schools. Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco is the bill’s author; the California Federation of Teachers is the sponsor.

Last year, Ammiano’s  bill was passed by the Assembly only to get bottled up in the Senate. Back again this year, AB 401 is scheduled for a hearing before the Assembly Education Committee on Wednesday.

The bill would cap the number of authorized charters at 1,450, and limit that number until 2023. (A bill digest says the moratorium would end in 2017; I assume the bill’s language is the official version.)

There are currently 912 charters in operation. But although the cap is 538 schools away, charters have been expanding at a rate of more than 100 per year and show no sign, even in hard times, of slowing down. Charters affiliated with high-performing charter management organizations, like Aspire Public Schools and Rocketship Education, are among those with expansion plans.

But the bill also would limit the number of charters to no more than 10 percent  of the number of schools in a district; those districts that reach that threshold would no longer be able to authorize any more charters, as of July 2012. Jed Wallace, president of California Charter Schools Association, said that the limit already has been reached in San Diego, Oakland, and Los Angeles Unified districts. With 180 charter schools out of about 700 public schools, Los Angeles has the most charter schools of any district in the nation. Not only are charter schools obviously popular with parents, but recently teachers in several Los Angeles Unified schools, El Camino Real High in Woodland Hills the latest, have voted to convert to a charter school. Earlier this month school trustees, in the latest round of their school choice program, selected eight of the 11 applications submitted by charter school associations to run all or part of 13 new or existing low-performing schools. The bill would preempt that process and district policy.

School districts, by law, aren’t allowed to consider financial impact among the criteria in considering an application for charter. However, with school districts and charter schools possibly facing further budget cuts, school districts – and certainly unions – are worried about the loss of student tuitions to new charter schools. But Wallace argues that “the state should be encouraging great schools that are efficiently operated, so there should be a greater emphasis on charters.”

Ammiano’s bill also would ban nepotism in hiring in a charter, prohibiting the hiring of a relative by anyone in a decision-making authority.

Among the more credible bills dealing with charter schools are two that take different approaches to weeding out poor-performing charter schools – which many in the charter community acknowledge is needed.

Disagreements over accountability

Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley has again introduced AB 440. Among its extensive provisions (many dealing with new auditing requirements), the bill would limit charter renewals to three years – instead of the customary five – for those charter schools that find themselves in School Improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools that are in the fifth year of School Improvement would be denied a charter renewal.

SB 645, introduced by Sen. Joe Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, would take an approach favored by the California Charter Schools Association. Charter schools up for renewal that fail to meet one of three criteria would have to go before the State Board of Education to justify their charter renewals with additional data. Those criteria are:

  • An API score of at least 700 in the most recent year;
  • A growth of at least 30 points in the API score in the past three years;
  • An API rank in at least the top 60 percent of schools with similar demographics.

The criteria would not apply to new charter schools and to those designated by the state as serving students with a high risk of dropping out. Excluding these schools, the Charter Schools Association says that 43 schools – 8½ percent of charters in operation – would fail the threshold (although only a small number of those would be up for renewal in a given year).

One opponent of both bills is Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento. School Improvement status is a poor measure of school quality, he says, since most schools in California will end soon end up in School Improvement unless the law is revoked or changed. And he said that the minimum 700 API score and even the 30 point gain over three years will have the effect of encouraging charter schools, especially small schools with fluctuating API scores, to force out troubled and struggling students that many currently serve. There are more effective ways to hold charter schools accountable, according to Premack, who has been hired by school districts to do independent appraisals of charters up for renewal.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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