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.

Nearly 1,000 charter schools in state

With a net addition of 70 schools this year, 7 percent of California students – about one in 14 students – now attend a charter school. In Los Angles Unified, it’s more than one in 10 students; in Oakland, it’s one in five.

The California Charter Schools Association released its annual census on Tuesday. There are now 982 charters in the state, the most in the nation. One hundred started this fall ­despite a very inhospitable climate for opening new schools; in addition, 30 closed.

“In spite of the challenges, charters continue to open,” said Jed Wallace, CCSA president and CEO. “This speaks to the momentum of the charter movement.” And that is expected to continue next fall, with dozens of  schools in the pipeline, he said.

New schools, especially those that roll out a few grades each year, feel the squeeze. Late state tuition payments have pinched all public schools, but particularly charters that lack access to cheaper lines of credit. Between 50 and 60 charters this year and next will get federal startup loans, but they’ve been late, too, leading some charter leaders to take out second mortgages or take huge pay cuts, Wallace said.

Charters in California are a county-city phenomenon, with few in the suburbs. There are small rural and independent study charters and there’s a large and growing number of urban charters for low-income minority students run by charter management organizations (CMOs) like KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, and Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools.

Still, single, one-off charters remain dominant, with 577 charters; there are 257 charters run by CMOs, and 142 charters that are part of a decentralized network.

There are 200 charters in Los Angeles Unified alone, where CCSA has sued over access to school facilities provided to charters without charge under Proposition 39. Charter schools there match district demographics in some respects, and fall short in others. L.A. charters serve larger numbers of African Americans (they comprise 17 percent of the charter school population in Los Angeles, compared with 8.8 percent in the district); about the same proportion of Hispanic students (60 percent vs. 63 percent of the district population); but fewer English learners (21 percent vs. 31 percent districtwide) and students with disabilities, who are generally more expensive to educate (8 percent of Los Angeles Unified charter students, according to CCSA, or 6 percent according to the Los Angeles Times, compared with  12 percent districtwide).

The growth in charters parallels what appears to be the public’s favorable impression of charters. In a USC/Dornsife poll on education issues released on Tuesday, 48 percent of the 1,500 respondents agreed with the statement that charter schools provide a higher quality education than traditional public schools, while 24 percent disagreed; 52 percent of respondents with children said they would send their own child to a charter school (see page 22 of the poll).

There was one cautionary note: Asked whether the state should spend more money increasing the number of charter schools or improving public schools, respondents chose investing in public schools by a three-to-one margin.

Wallace criticized the wording of the question, because it failed to state that charter schools are public schools, and didn’t include a third option: spend more money on charters and district schools.

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.”

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.

Walton pumps up charter assn.

The Walton Family Foundation, already the largest contributor to the California Charter Schools Association, has pledged $15 million over the next three years, doubling its yearly donation and upping the charter organization’s $14 million budget by a more than a third.

Coming at a time when many budget-strapped school districts are resisting charter expansions, the money will assure that CCSA will have money to challenge the denial of charter petitions, pursue rights to school facilities, and advocate for the association’s positions in the Legislature.

The Walton Foundation has spent a mini-fortune pushing school choice nationwide, but recognizing that California remains infertile ground for vouchers, has put its money behind charter schools here.

A focus of the California efforts will be Los Angeles, one of seven districts nationwide where the Bentonville, Ark., foundation is concentrating its efforts. The 90,000 charter students in LA already comprise one-seventh of the district’s students. The goal of the grant is for an additional 20,000, at which point nearly a fifth of students would attend a charter school, said Jed Wallace, CEO of CCSA.

Access to facilities has been a particularly contentious issue in LAUSD. CCSA has sued the district over charter schools’ right under Proposition 39 to comparable facilities. Legal fees comprise about $2 million of the CCSA’s $14 million budget, Wallace said.

The donation should signal to districts that they’ll be wasting taxpayers’ money if they rely on tactics of delay. CCSA now has deeper pockets.

Wallace said that CCSA will increase its efforts on a local level to support start-up charters, support parents, and improve charter schools’ use of data on student achievement.

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.”