Charters, ed groups at odds

The Education Coalition, the organization that represents mainstream education groups, announced its opposition Thursday to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to require a school district to offer charter schools any building that it decides it no longer needs.

The proposal is one of several that the governor included in his May budget revision to benefit charters, which, the budget notes, receive lower state reimbursements than district schools and generally face higher facilities costs. But the Coalition noted that selling surplus property and using the proceeds for general fund purposes is “one of the few ways districts have mitigated cuts.”

“This proposal comes at a time when school districts have taken over $20 billion in cuts over the past several years,” the Coalition statement said. “This proposal would eliminate this flexibility and remove a valuable tool districts have to sell surplus property and use the proceeds to minimize cuts in programs and services for students.”

The Coalition’s members include teachers unions, the state PTA, the California School Boards Association, the Association of California School Administrators, and the California Association of School Business Officials.

The charter school community views the issue differently. By law, districts are required to offer charter schools comparable facilities. Instead, they are offering inadequate facilities to charters while at the same time consolidating buildings and putting them on the market for lease or sale, said Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento.

Added Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, “Surplus property is very important to charters. What we don’t want is a mechanism by which districts can resist offering facilities,  then offload them by another mechanism.”

Brown had raised this idea in the January budget. In the May revision this week, he clarified that the provision would apply only to buildings that were funded with state money. It wasn’t clear from the budget message whether the provision would apply to school construction and renovation for any amount. Dennis Myers, assistant executive director of the California School Boards Association, said it also wasn’t clear if the provision would apply only to charters approved by the host district or any charter school that wants a building.

The Ed Coalition is proposing that charters, like other local entities, be required to submit an offer to buy a surplus building.

A report this year by the Legislative Analyst’s Office found that charters on average receive $395 per student (7 percent) less in state funding  than district schools, primarily because of differences in categorical grants that they receive and the additional costs that many charter schools face with buildings. Those charters in California serving low-income, minority students are expected to fare better under Brown’s weighted student formula, although Brown is also proposing that a charter school receive no more per student than the amount going to the district in which it’s located.

Turning surplus property over to charter schools could encourage parent groups facing the closing of their neighborhood school to start a charter school. That’s what happened in Los Altos, where parents started Bullis Charter School; the parents and the district fought in court over district facilities for years, until earlier this month, when they finally reached an agreement to provide Bullis its own campus. But the new requirement also could result in a more straightforward process, and more of a fair shake for existing charters that have been leasing buildings outside of the district.

Brown is also proposing two other provisions for charters:

  • County treasurers will have the authority to lend to charters as they have for school districts. Because the state has delayed payment of billions of dollars owed to schools, charters have had to borrow money in the private market at double-digit interest rates. Some districts have turned to county treasurers, which can pool borrowing at low interest. Some treasurers had questioned whether they legally could include charters.
  • Non-classroom-based charters, whether online schools or blended learning schools with both on-site and online instruction, will no longer have to go before the State Board of Education to receive full funding. Doing so has been a time-consuming, bureaucratic process for the charters and the State Board, which is striving to devote more time to policies and less to charter school oversight. Non-classroom-based charters, which number about 160 in the state, will still have to comply with a lot of regulations to get full funding, including instruction by California certificated teachers and a student-teacher ratio not exceeding 24:1, according to Premack.

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" (www.TOPed.org), 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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