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.