Charter movement’s U-shape

Charter schools in California tend to be bipolar, with disproportionate numbers of very high and very low performing schools, according to a newly released analysis by the California Charter Schools Association.

In duplicating a pattern that it found last year, in its first “Portrait of a Movement” annual report, the Charter Schools Association renewed its call for local authorizers to focus attention on academic achievement and to not renew the poorest performers on the state’s Academic Performance Index. CCSA has identified 29 schools – about 5 percent of the state’s eligible charters – that fail to meet the minimum academic criteria of three measures; CCSA is recommending closure of the 10 that are up for charter renewal by the end of this school year. (Small schools and schools classified as serving highly mobile and at-risk students, known as ASAM schools, were excluded from the list.)

One of CCSA’s metrics, which is highlighted in the Portrait, is the Similar Students Measure, or SSM. It predicts a school’s API after factoring in student demographics – including family income, parent education level, mobility, ethnicity, and percent English Language Learner and Special Education students – and then plots whether schools exceed or fall short of the prediction. It’s the SSM, a schoolwide counterpart to the value-added metric that projects a teacher’s impact based on students, that shows concentrations of charter schools at the upper and lower ends in comparison  with non-charter schools. By taking into account the student body served, particularly in schools with large proportions of disadvantaged students, the SSM gives a richer picture than the raw API score alone, according to the Association.

Charter schools form a 'U' based on their predicted API scores, with large clusters of low- and high-performing schools, compared with district schools, when defined in 5 percentile groups.  Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 4.)
Charter schools form a 'U' based on their predicted API scores, with large clusters of low- and high-performing schools, compared with district schools, when defined in 5 percentile groups. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 4.)

Based on three years of student testing of 789 charter schools, the SSM showed that one out of eight charter schools (12.7 percent, or 100 schools) fell in the bottom 5th percentile of their predicted API, compared with only 4.2 percent, or 312 schools, of non-charter schools (see graph and chart). If they had performed purely as predicted, only 39 charters would have been in the bottom 5th percentile.

Nearly one out of five (19 percent, or 150 schools) fell in the bottom 10th percentile of predicted API scores, compared with 9.1 percent, or 673 schools, of non-charters.

At the other end, one out of seven charters (14.7 percent, or 116 schools), fell in the top 5th percentile band and more than one out of five (21.8 percent, or 172 schools) were in the top 10th percentile. Had they performed as predicted, again only 39 charter schools would have been in the top 5th percentile. By comparison, 4 percent of non-charters (295 schools) are in the top 5th percentile and 9.1 percent (673 schools) are in the top 10th percentile.

It’s the “U” pattern of top and bottom schools, so visible on a graph, that CCSA wants to turn into a “J.”

The percentage of charter school students in the highest performing charter schools (13.4 percent of those tested in 2011) far exceeded the percentage attending the lowest performing charters (7.5 percent). Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 6. Click to enlarge.
The percentage of charter school students in the highest performing charter schools (13.4 percent of those tested in 2011) far exceeded the percentage attending the lowest performing charters (7.6 percent). Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 6.)

By another measure, it’s already happening. Nearly twice as many charter students attend the top 5th percentile of schools, based on their predicted API scores, than attend the bottom 5th percentile of charter schools: 30,350 students or 13.4 percent of charter students attending the highest-performing schools, versus 17,115 or 7.6 percent of charter students attending the lowest-performing schools.

The 'U' becomes more of a 'J' when the measure is the percentage of students in high versus low performing charters, based on their predicted API scores. That's because fewer students are enrolled in the least performing schools. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 5.)
The 'U' becomes more of a 'J' when the measure is the percentage of students in high- versus low-performing charters, based on their predicted API scores. That's because fewer students are enrolled in the lowest-performing schools. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 5.)

That’s because the lowest-performing schools are smaller, an indication they may be having a harder time with finances and enrollments (see chart and graph).

Success with low-income students

The Portrait offers a further look at Calfornia’s 987 charter schools:

  • Charters operated by a nonprofit Charter Management Organization – like KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Rocketship Education, and Alliance for College Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles – were concentrated at the top, with 40 percent of charters operated by a CMO in the top 10th percentile of Predicted API measure. Independent, solo operations tended to be clustered in the lower 10th percentile.
  • While there are high-achieving independent study and virtual or online charter schools, a disproportionate number are clustered at the bottom. Of the 25 schools identified as online charters, eight (32 percent) fell in the bottom 10th percentile, with three or one-eighth in the top 10th percentile. It’s still a small sample, the report notes, so more research is needed.
  • Charters serving primarily low-income children are doing well academically. Nearly a quarter of the 108,000 students tested in schools where at least half of the families qualified for free or reduced lunches attend schools in the top 5th percentile of schools. Thirty-five percent of students attend schools in the top 10 percentile  compared with 11 percent in the bottom 10th percentile of schools.
Data comparing Oakland's charter schools to Oakland Unified schools show that nearly half of charter school students attend schools in the top 10 percentile, far exceeding their predicted API score. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of A Movement, page 36.)
Data comparing Oakland's charter schools to Oakland Unified schools show that nearly half of charter school students attend schools in the top 10th percentile, far exceeding their predicted API score. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of A Movement, page 36.)

The Portrait highlights the success of charters in Oakland, where they comprise 23 percent (29 schools) of Oakland’s 126 schools and 19 percent of its 31,700 students. The report credits Oakland Unified’s “active oversight” and its “rigorous charter review process containing clear and transparent standards for approval and renewal.” A surprising 48 percent of charter students in Oakland attend a charter whose Predicted API score fell in the top 10th percentile, compared with 6 percent of students in district schools; only 4 percent of Oakland charter students attend a school in the bottom 10th percentile.

Weeding out lowest performers

The Similar Students Model is one of three metrics that CCSA uses to determine which schools to recommend for charter non-renewal. The other two are the absolute API score (must be over 700) and growth in API (minimum of 50 points over three years). CCSA says it invites charters to make the case why they shouldn’t be on the list by presenting  other data on student achievement. A few have taken them up on the offer, says Jed Wallace, CEO of CCSA. And CCSA says that it visited most, though not all, low-performing charters last year.

There’s been little change over the past decade in the concentration of low-performing charters. If its recommendations were followed, as charters come up for renewal, the number of charters clogging the bottom 10th percentile could be significantly reduced over the next seven years, the organization asserts.

But CCSA’s methodology and its criteria have met resistance, within the ranks of the community and outside of it. Eric Premack, executive director of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center, criticized the use of self-reported demographic data on income and family education and the focus on API and California Standardized Tests, which he calls a crude measure of a school’s performance.

Premack’s criticism may have resonated where it counts. CCSA spent months negotiating with Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley to have the minimum API score of 700 and its three-year growth target incorporated into AB 440, on charter revocations.

But after a two-hour meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown, Brownley pulled it and another bill on charter accountability last September, shortly before they were to go to Brown for his signature. No one has said why, but Brown, who started two charter schools in Oakland, made it clear in a veto of a bill sponsored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg last year that he wants to de-emphasize API and test scores as a measure of a school’s performance and look at qualitative measures, including school inspections.

Charter wins Prop 39 ruling (updated)

Long-running hostility between a high-performing charter school and a wealthy, high-achieving district in the Bay Area has led to a state Court of Appeal ruling that further clarifies the right of charters to comparable district facilities.

In a unanimous, unambiguous decision overturning a District Court ruling, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Appellate District ruled that the Los Altos School District failed to offer Bullis Charter School adequate space because it did a faulty comparison with what was available in its other schools. ** Update: The Los Alto School District trustees voted 4-0 on Monday to appeal the decision to the State Supreme Court, according to the Los Altos Patch (see below).

The Bullis case was the latest of about a half-dozen Court of Appeal interpretations of Proposition 39, mostly favoring charter schools. Prop 39 is the complex law voters approved in 2000 that requires a school district to “make available, to each charter school … facilities sufficient for the charter school to accommodate all of the charter school‘s in-district students in conditions reasonably equivalent to those in which the students would be accommodated if they were attending other public schools of the district.”

The case centered on the basis for determining what constitutes “reasonably equivalent.” Prop 39 doesn’t require that each and every space offered to charters be identical to other district schools, the court said. But it does require that districts  acknowledge these differences in making a full and  accurate comparison considering the range of a school’s space needs. As Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, observed, “Size matters but it isn’t everything,” particularly if a charter is offered qualitatively better facilities.

However, districts must make a good faith effort with no playing cute to deny the charter its due.

Miscalculations and mistakes

Los Altos District didn’t do that. It made “mistakes” in reporting the outdoor lot sizes of five comparison schools by more than 50 percent on average. It undercalculated  the needs of Bullis’ library; it failed to pro-rate the outdoor space Bullis shared with Eagan Junior High, since Bullis was restricted to using a soccer field 40 percent of the time. It counted as district space provided to Bullis a multipurpose room that Bullis raised the money to build. It chose the smallest room size in the district, instead of an average room size, in the comparison.

In a footnote to the decision, the judges said “there is certainly evidence in the record” from which a finding could be made that the district acted in bad faith, though the court “declined to do so here.” (Prop 39 does not mete out penalties for bad faith, though courts could award lawyers’ fees at some point, and in the case of Los Altos, they would be huge.)

The court outlined general criteria that districts must follow in responding to a facilities request under Prop 39. Few districts have the quality facilities found in Los Altos, so it’s all relative. Still, districts must must:

  • Select appropriate district-run schools to use as a comparison group with the charter school,
  • Factor in three categories of space (teaching, specialized teaching, and non-teaching space such as libraries and day care facilities provided at other schools) in the comparison schools; and
  • Consider the site size of the comparison schools.

Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Assn., says he is hopeful that the Bullis decision would lead to a common-sense application of Prop 39. “There is an emerging consensus (among courts) that districts have not been doing what they should have in terms of standards of reasonable equivalency.”

Still fewer than half of the state’s 900-plus charter schools have sought free facilities under Prop 39. The Association is suing Los Angeles Unified, which has cited a shortage of space in not responding to some charters’ requests. And there remain inventive ways that districts can circumvent Prop 39,  so the Bullis ruling is not likely to end lawsuits, maybe not even at Bullis.

Founded seven years ago by Los Altos Hills parents when the district closed Bullis Elementary School, Bullis got its charter, on appeal, from the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which renewed it last month. It’s now a K-8 charter serving about 10 percent of students in Los Altos, and has a wait list.

Ken Moore, chairman of the Bullis board, said that the school is cramped and lacks a functioning library and eighth grade science lab. Students have been kicked out of using the Egan gym.

Moore is optimistic that, with the oversight of Santa Clara County District Court, where the case will return, Los Altos will provide adequate facilities next year. By redrawing school boundaries, the district could  open up more space at Egan and solve the problem, he said.

But while there may be a space shortage at Bullis, there hasn’t been a shortage of money for lawyers in Los Altos. No one’s betting this lawsuit will be the last.

** “The decision not only impairs school districts from exercising their judgment, balance interests, and make decisions in the best interests of all students, it provides a windfall to charter schools, affording them greater space than afforded students attending district schools,” according to the district announcement. Board President Bill Cooper added in the statement,  “As much as this court might wish to cast this process as strictly formulaic, in practice, the allocation of resources under the standard of “reasonably equivalent” does not neatly fit into a by-the-numbers approach.”

Dead last in digital ed

California is a backwater for K-12 online learning, according to a new analysis of states’ policies toward virtual education. Other states are clearing away obstacles and adopting innovative strategies, such as allowing middle school students to take high school courses online and letting students start online courses anytime and complete them whenever they show competency. California is stuck in the past, imposing the standard calendar and student-teacher ratios on a virtual world.

At least that’s the implication of Digital Learning Now! – a project of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, headed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit headed by former Democratic Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia. California scored at the bottom of the 72-point rubric, which was released at the Foundation’s conference in San Francisco last week.

With recent reports out of Colorado and Minnesota showing students in virtual schools significantly underperforming their peers, California can certainly wonder whether it’s smart to rush headlong into this brave new world, as Utah has done. Caution may be the watchword.

And some of the many measurements that Digital Learning Now chose are suspect, according to Eric Premack, executive director and founder of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento. But Premack, who has counseled online schools through state regs, has long advocated loosening some of the restrictions limiting expansion and experimentation in online education. These include restrictive student-teacher ratios for online independent study schools and, for blended learning schools that combine online studying and classroom instruction, the imposition of a minimum number of minutes of daily instruction by certificated teachers. The latter rule limits the ability of successful schools, like Rocketship Education, to expand their learning labs beyond a quarter of the day.

Premack adds another inhibitor not covered by Digital Learning Now!, the reluctance of the University of California to qualify high school online courses as satisfying A-G requirements for admission to a UC or CSU campus.

California was redundantly dinged in the scoring for its requirement that an online operator can only open a school in a county and adjacent counties. While the national for-profit online operator, K12, Inc., has opened enough online charter schools to cover the large population areas in California, not every student in the state has access to online offerings, one of the criteria. The alternative, as in Florida, is for the state to open a statewide online school. Premack argues that California’s geographical requirement encourages innovation.

Last year, Bush and Wise came up with 10 elements of high-quality digital learning. They are:

  • Student Access: All students are digital learners.
  • Barriers to Access: All students have access to high-quality digital learning.
  • Personalized Learning: All students can use digital learning to customize their education.
  • Advancement: All students progress based on demonstrated competency.
  • Quality Content: Digital content and courses are high quality.
  • Quality Instruction: Digital instruction is high quality.
  • Quality Choices: All students have access to multiple high-quality digital providers.
  • Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the quality of content and instruction.
  • Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options, and innovation.
  • Infrastructure: Infrastructure supports digital learning.

Over the past year, they developed 72 measures of the elements. Go here for California’s scorecard. Some, like a law requiring that all students be equipped with an Internet access device, are aspirational. A few, reflecting Bush’s conservative politics, are ideological: e.g., extending publicly funded digital learning to private school students. And some are innovative, worth experimenting with, such as tying funding for online schools to student performance, the passage of an end-of-year exam.

There is nothing in state law to prevent school districts from charging ahead with blended learning, as done by Rocketship and the new Silicon Valley Flex Academy. Bureaucracy and anxiety over the unknown are the chief obstacles. The state also has freed up textbook money to permit districts to purchases digital materials.

If anything, the new scorecard should prompt state officials to look around at what other states are beginning to do – and to start to experiment with the good ideas.

Note: Digital Learning Now! did not rank the states. But you can do state-by-state comparisons on this interactive map. And Brian Bridges, director of the California Learning Resource Network (CLRN) and a font of knowledge on digital courses, did calculate the states’ individual totals. Out of a possible score of 72, Utah and Wyoming topped the states with 49. The median was 27, he reports in his blog. With 14 points, California was last.

Charter failure prompts scrutiny

The bankruptcy of a one-year-old charter school in West Sacramento has underscored difficulties with state and federal funding of startup schools and raised questions about the State Board of Education’s long-term capacity to oversee dozens of charter schools that it has approved.

There are probably practical fixes to the funding issue that could reduce the odds that millions of dollars would be squandered on bad-bet charter schools. The issue of the State Board’s oversight of charters raises a deeper question: Who should approve and monitor charters ­– local districts, the State Board on appeal, or perhaps independent agencies and universities, as in other states, with the expertise and a disinterest in the charters they would regulate?

Louis Freedberg, the new executive director of EdSource, writes about both developments in a two-part blog posting that ran Wednesday and today. He details the cautionary tale of the California College, Career and Technical Center, which came up at the State Board’s September meeting.

Before declaring bankruptcy this month, the charter had spent nearly a million dollars funded through a federal startup grant, a state loan, and standard state tuition payments. CCCTEC had encountered setbacks from its opening, when delays with its facility led to a sizable defection in student enrollment, contributing to escalating financial problems that led to a default in payments and loss of government money.

Richard Zeiger, Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction, told the State Board that CCCTEC’s failure was symptomatic of other charter school defaults, which happen “with great regularity,” and over two decades totaled “easily into the tens of millions of dollars, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it went higher.” Zeiger didn’t elaborate further at the meeting and didn’t provide Freedberg with specific numbers, saying the Department of Education is doing the research. It’s presumably a small portion of the 1,400 charters that have been granted over two decades, including more than 900 currently operating.

The federal Department of Education is already paring back grants to California and setting aside more money for proven charter management organizations. On Wednesday, it announced multimillion-dollar startup grants to Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education ($1.9 million), San Francisco-based KIPP ($9.5 million), and Los Angeles-based Alliance College Ready Public Schools ($3.1 million).

However, Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, which provides technical advice and training for charter operators, acknowledged that the state could cut funding losses by tightening procedures for awarding grants and tracking attendance.

Charter operators run on thin margins and need advance money to get rolling, especially first-time charters that start with one or two grades and are projected to break even when they reach full enrollment. That’s why the federal government started the Public Charter School Grant Program, with grants of up to $600,000, and the state started a revolving loan fund, repayable over five years. Throw in deferrals of state tuition payments and unexpected encounters with fire marshals, and new charters can find themselves in precarious spots.

But a more competitive process for grants, with check-off dates for when charters must have enrollments and facilities lined up, could catch problems. There also needs to be stricter scrutiny of attendance figures, on which advance state payments are based, made on the 20th day after the opening of a school. In CCCTEC’s case, fewer students attended than enrollment figures indicated, leading to $219,000 in overpayments last year alone, according to Freedberg.

Time for more authorizers?

Most charters are granted by local districts, but the State Board has granted three dozen – less than 4 percent of the total number of charters statewide – mostly on appeal after rejection by district trustees and county school boards. CCCTEC is one of those.

As State Board President Michael Kirst told Freedberg, “There are charter schools that are turned down by both local districts and counties that deserve to operate and so there needs to be some state appeal mechanism.” Some local trustees are unabashedly antagonistic to charters.

Whether the State Board should be saddled with oversight responsibilities – or contract out that function and leave the Board strictly with policy decisions – is a question that the State Board should confront as the number of appeals and approvals increases.

Charters pay fees, between 1 and 3 percent, to their authorizers, but, with rare exceptions, few districts do the monitoring well. It’s not clear that the State Board should have caught CCCTEC’s spending anomalies and possible misrepresentations earlier. But a review of the events leading up to bankruptcy should be part of the Board’s postmortem.

Dissension within charter ranks

A multimillion dollar gift from the Walton Family Foundation (see accompanying post) will arm the California Charter Schools Assn. against its many foes, but its immediate challenge is a family feud – a split with the other chief charter advocate in California, the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center.

The Center posted a webinar Tuesday by its executive director, Eric Premack, in an eleventh-hour effort to defeat three CCSA-backed bills that are nearing passage. The bills – SB 645, AB 440, and AB 360 – represent a negotiated compromise with  Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, a Santa Monica Democrat who chairs the Assembly Education Committee.

SB 645 and AB 440 await action Thursday in the Legislature’s Appropriations Committees, the last stop before final floor votes. Both would set higher academic thresholds for charter renewals (go here for my earlier detailed explanation), out of recognition that poorly performing charters have continued to operate and get renewed. Charters that don’t meet one of three criteria – a 700 API, a 50 point growth in API over the past three years, or a rank of at least 6 out of 10 among demographically similar schools – would need to prove their case before the State Board of Education. Premack argues that the criteria would ensnare charters serving at-risk students.

Premack is especially critical of a provision in AB 440 that CCSA CEO Jed Wallace asserts would give charters more flexibility to target who they will serve. Under current law, charters must serve student populations reflective of the district, although the law also recognizes the benefits of reaching out to underserved minorities.

Charters in general have been criticized for underserving English learners and special education students.

AB 440 would enable charter petitions to focus on district, community, or specific student groups. Premack argues that districts could set their own priorities or hold it against charters if students picked by lotteries don’t meet the targets. Wallace said the criticisms are either wrong or overblown.

AB 360 would impose new requirements for charters to comply with open meetings, public records, and conflict of interest laws, with exceptions that CCSA fought for. Premack argues current laws should be best left alone.

Wallace said the tougher academic requirements and the compromises with Brownley are in the movement’s interest. In the webinar, Premack said that “the Troika” of bills represents  “a poor strategic move” at a time when charter supporters should be united to oppose a raft of anti-charter bills.

Penalty likely to slow charter growth

No one was more surprised than Eric Premack to learn last week that the federal Department of Education had docked California $11.5 million from an expected $51.5 million in critical grants for new charter schools this year – and may whack up to $40 million next year. Premack, the executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, said that 13 years ago, he drafted the language creating the program for its sponsor,  former Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota. The law didn’t include the requirement that federal officials are now using to cut the state’s funding.

California, easily with more charter schools than any other state – 900 and growing –  had been in compliance with the law in past years, Premack said, and had  benefited when President Obama expanded the program. In the latest round, California got a five-year, $300 million award, which should have been enough to fund at least 100 to 150 new charter schools each year.

Now, much of that money appears in jeopardy, and state officials don’t know what they can do to fix the problem. The 39 charter schools opening now and anticipating federal money – anywhere from $350,000 to more than $500,000 for large charters – shouldn’t be affected. But the cut and uncertainty about future funding will be a damper on charter expansion at a time when charters in particular already have been squeezed by late state reimbursements  and by a freeze on funding for  special programs like class-size reduction that excludes new schools entirely. Especially for small, stand-alone charters, the startup grants are essential to tide the schools over for the first few years.

Federal officials had indicated since November that the state was out of compliance with the requirement that charter authorizers – usually local districts – keep track annually of the academic progress of all subgroups of students (by race, ethnicity and income levels, English learners, and special education students) in charter schools and make this the  primary factor when considering charter renewals and revocations.

Premack said that Congress inserted this  requirement in the appropriations bill for the program in 2010. He blamed “hyper-vigilant” federal auditors’ interpretation of the vague language for the problem. And he surmised, as did Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, that the feds may have overcommitted the money nationwide and are looking for a rationale to cut California’s allocation to spread the money to other states.

“The feds are struggling for funding to support charters across nation,” Wallace said, “so they are having o make hard choices.”

What do the feds want?

Charter schools receive annual standardized test scores, as do all public schools, breaking down proficiency results for every subgroup. This month, they will soon receive their annual Academic Performance Index score as well, with subgroup information. Charter authorizers clearly have that data, but there’s no state requirement that they do anything with it or report the information to the state. They presumably use the information every five years when charters are up for renewal. But again, there’s no requirement that they certify to the state that they treated this as the primary factor, including subgroup data, in deciding whether to renew or revoke a charter.

However, as state officials pointed out to the feds in their response, charters must meet minimum growth in API scores to have their charters renewed. Their scores also cannot be among the bottom 30 percent of similar district schools to remain in business. Last year, the State Board strengthened its oversight of poorly performing schools, allowing it to revoke charters whose API scores are in the bottom 10 percent of schools before their charters up  for consideration. State officials also pointed to AB 440 (formerly SB 645), which the California Charter Schools Assn. helped write, setting minimal API growth and scores, for renewal. The bill may face a final vote in the Assembly this week or next.

Federal officials, in several rounds of letters, insisted that the state laws and AB 440 don’t address the subgroup question or don’t apply to all charters.

Lupita Cortez Alcalá, a deputy state superintendent, said it was unclear whether the federal decision can be appealed, whether the sanction is a deferral or actual cut, and what can be done next. It’s also unclear whether the State Board of Education can adopt emergency rules to address the problem or whether a fix from the Legislature is necessary. The state must have a plan of action to address the problem by Jan. 31 or risk further loss of money, she said.

Deal on charter regulation

Charter schools will have to follow state public records, open meeting, and conflict of interest laws. They will also have to make higher academic gains on standardized tests and serve proportionally the same numbers of special education and low-income students as in the surrounding neighborhood or school district to have their charters renewed.

These are among requirements in a trio of bills that mark a meeting of the minds, after long negotiations, between a leading legislator and the primary organization representing charter schools. In a year in which charter advocates have been swatting back a slew of anti-charter legislation, the compromises on the three bills – AB 360, AB 440 and SB 645 – and their likely passage are a notable accomplishment that will serve the long-term interests of the charter movement, according to Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association.

For Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, the agreement will assure that her effort to put charter schools under stricter scrutiny will finally be signed into law. During the past two years, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed similar accountability bills that she sponsored.

The difference this time is that Brownley agreed to carve out several exceptions to conflict of interest laws that would otherwise limit the role of teachers to sit on boards of charters they founded and of board members to financially support nonprofit charters.

“We need clear and unambiguous  conflict of interest standards,” Wallace said, adding that charters will willingly accept more accountability as long as there is flexibility out of recognition that charters are distinctly different in key ways.

But another charter leader, Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, is opposing all three bills, especially the new academic and demographic criteria for charter renewals. He suspects that anti-charter school districts and unions will use them as excuses to revoke charters.

Here’s a summary of the bills and why they’re significant:

AB 440 (Brownley): Serve all students

Its main purpose is to establish a separate auditing guide for charter schools, which the state controller would oversee. Its most controversial section – perhaps the most contentious of the three bills – is an attempt to require charters up for renewal to show that they have served the same proportion of low-income students, special-needs students, and English learners that are either in the district, neighborhood, or target population that the charter pledged to serve. The current law is not as specific.

The section is intended to address “creaming,” the charge that some charter schools market to higher-skilled students or force out low-achieving students. There may be explanations why charters’ students may not match district demographics, despite a credible outreach program. However, the proposed bill permits but doesn’t require a chartering district to consider mitigating factors, such as vagaries of the student lottery.

Premack, who often defends charters against antagonistic authorizing districts, says, “This opens up a new front for districts to chew up charters on renewal and does it in the area of pupil selectivity.”

But Wallace, looking at the growth of charters in California, says charters “must be eager to serve all students. We want to put the issue behind us.” At the same time, the Association is not naïve and will take action against districts that use minute or explainable demographic differences to revoke charters, he said.

SB 645 (Simitian): Academic minimums

The Charter Schools Association has been campaigning to raise academic standards of charters, in response to criticism that low-performing charters are setting back the charter movement. Sen. Joe Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat, sponsored the Association’s bill and Brownley agreed to the basics, demanding only one substantial change and incorporating the basic bill into her own, AB 440.

Under the bill, a charter school will not be renewed unless it meets at least one of the following three criteria:

  • A 700 API score in the most recent year;
  • API growth of at least 50 points over the previous three years;
  • An API rank of between the sixth and 10th decile in the rankings of schools with similar student demographics in the previous year or last two or three years.

All of these criteria are significantly stricter than under current law, and could ensnare between 10 and a dozen charter schools – or about three to five each year – according to the Association’s estimates. Still, that would represent only about 2-3 percent of all charters. Charters serving students at risk would be exempted.

Those low-performing schools that would lose their charters could provide other academic performance evidence on appeal to the State Board of Education.

Brownley added one condition: Schools in the fifth or subsequent year of sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law would not have their charters renewed unless they met two of the three criteria. Those schools too could make their case to the State Board on appeal. Wallace estimated this would affect one or two schools per year, at most.

SB 645 also includes a long-sought goal of the Association. State rental assistance for charters serving low-income students would rise $50, from $750 to $800 per student, and the threshold for qualifying schools would expand as well.

Premack called SB 645 “the wrong fix to a misidentified problem.” (Click here for his webinar on the issue.) He said it would create perverse incentives to shun serving low-performing students and would “discourage depth and critical thinking in favor or fact-based and standards-based instruction” – a common complaint by district schools as well.

Update: Despite Brownley’s entreaty, the bill failed to get majority support of  the Assembly Education Committee on Wednesday. Late last night, the bill picked up the crucial sixth vote, when Democratic Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan of Alamo switched from not voting to support; the bill will now move on to the Appropriations Committee. Democratic Assemblymembers She and Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco and Joan Buchanan of Alamo said they opposed the provision allowing charters that failed to make the minimum academic criteria to appeal an automatic revocation to the State Board of Education. The Board could consider factors other than API scores, such as graduation and attendance rates indicating progress. Simitian told the committee that some local school board members would just as soon have the State Board make the tough decision over revocation, but Ammiano and Buchanan said that revocation should be left to local school boards. That is also the view of the California School Boards Assn. It’s unclear whether the bill can be amended to satisfy opponents; the California Charter Schools Assn. will likely oppose cutting the State Board out of the loop. Simitian indicated he would consider an amendment  to incorporate local boards’ recommendations on charter renewal as part of the record of information that the State Board would consider in making its decision.

AB 360 (Brownley): Comply with state laws

Many charter schools already follow the spirit, if not the letter, of the Brown Act, governing access to public meetings, and the complex Public Records Act, although lawyers have disagreed whether they had to. The bill “will codify what has been practiced,” Wallace said, and force others to comply. It will also require compliance with the Political Reform Act (although charters will be able to write their own conflict of interest code) and the state law, known as Section 1090, that bans someone from being on the governing board of an organization in which the person has a financial stake. But small charters often have founding teachers on their boards, and count on wealthy board members for financial help when in trouble; Los Angeles former mayor Richard Riordan’s bailing out ICEF Public Schools is an example. So the bill will now permit involvement in a few instances, including leasing out a facility owned by a board member. (The board would have to prove that it was the best deal around, and the board member would have to recuse himself.)

Section 1090 is a complicated law, and Premack said he expects unions and districts to cite it to hassle charters – but Wallace said the Association’s legal fund would be at the ready to prevent this. “To become a truly transformational reform movement,”  he said, “people need assurance that charters will be open and accountable public schools.”

Brownley, in a statement, said of the package of bills, “Our agreement contains important protections for students and the public while preserving charter schools’ autonomy as an alternative to traditional public schools.”