The California Department of Education building in Sacramento. (Photo by Louis Freedberg/EdSource)

Each Thursday a group of educators and representatives of labor unions meets — out of the public eye — for several hours at the California Department of Education building in Sacramento to take on arguably the most contentious current issue on California’s education reform landscape: charter school reform.

Known as the Charter Task Force, it was set up by newly elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond in March. Gov. Gavin Newsom requested the task force in the wake of the Los Angeles Unified teachers’ strike and after the school board there called for a “comprehensive study” of various aspects of charter schools in the district, including their “financial implications.”

The 11 members of the task force, with Thurmond facilitating their discussions, have what some might view as a nearly impossible task — coming up with recommendations by July 1 on tough issues that have been simmering in California for years, but have exploded on the state’s public policy agenda largely as a result of heightened teacher activism in Los Angeles, Oakland and other districts.

With over 1,300 charter schools serving over 10 percent of California’s public school children, the stakes are high. Even though California has a disproportionately large share of the nation’s approximately 7,000 charter schools, in recent years the California Charter Schools Association along with other prominent charter school advocates have pushed for a massive expansion of charter enrollments. At the same time, the California Teachers Association and other teachers unions have called for greater transparency in their operations, as concerns have mounted about the impact on the finances of school districts with large numbers of charter schools.

The challenge they face is underscored by the experience last fall of a similar group, called the Charter School Action Team. It was established by former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to review the charter law and “provide recommendations for any needed changes to the next governor, state board and Legislature.” That group met only three times. It laid out a set of key questions to guide policymaking in its report, which was never publicly released. Noting “the very complex issues” it tackled, the group did not come up with any specific recommendations.

The Charter Task Force, by contrast, has already met a half-dozen times. It has mostly heard from a range of experts on various aspects of charter school operations. So far, it has focused on two of the most difficult issues: who can authorize charter schools and whether school districts can take the financial impact of charter schools into account in deciding whether to grant or renew a charter.

Under current law, county boards of education or even the State Board of Education can overrule decisions by local school districts to deny a charter school application. Teachers’ unions have argued that school districts should have the final say and that districts should be able to consider the financial impact of charter schools during the authorizing process. Some charter school advocates, in turn, worry that such reforms could not only halt charter expansion, but potentially kill the entire sector.

The focus during task force meetings has been hearing from a range of experts and school districts with the goal of “making sure all task force members have the same understanding of the trends and practices regarding charter schools in California,” Thurmond said in an interview with EdSource.

Ed Manansala, the superintendent of schools in El Dorado County, said that “initial presentations and dialogue have been engaging” but did not elaborate further on the workings of the group. Other task force members either declined to comment or did not respond to EdSource’s requests to do so.

One feature of the task force is that it is not open to the public, much like the similar group set up last fall by Torlakson.

“I care about transparency as much as anyone else,” Thurmond said. “I wish there were a way to have everyone in the state involved in the group, but at the end of the day, we also want to find a balance, to have a workable group.”

Just six weeks ago Gov. Newsom signed a bill requiring greater transparency in charter school operations. “It’s a transparency bill and we are for transparency,” Newsom said at the signing ceremony. “And sometimes people claim they are for transparency for everybody else, but not for themselves. In this case it’s transparency for all of us.”

Asked why the task force shouldn’t be similarly “transparent,” Thurmond said that was not a fair comparison.

“That is equating two things that are really different,” he said. The charter bill signed by Newsom, he said, requires charter school boards to meet the requirements of the state’s open meetings laws, the same way traditional public schools do.

“The task force in contrast, is not a board or a commission, it is not established by legislation. It is an advisory group that is ad hoc in nature, appointed by the governor,” said Thurmond said. For these reasons, lawyers in the department said in a statement that the panel is not subject to the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Actgoverning state boards and commissions.

“We are doing our best to walk a fine line between balancing providing information and transparency and creating an environment in which the group can work consistently and cohesively,” Thurmond said.

But even if it isn’t subject to open meetings laws, there are still compelling reasons for the task force to be open to the public, said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco that advocates for government transparency and civic participation.

“The issues the task force is going to address are issues of critical importance across the state. They involve funding and whether and how charter schools will be permitted to open,” he said. “Public bodies that deal with issues of this magnitude ought always to err on the side of transparency and openness where at all possible.”

Andrea Ball, president of Ball/Frost Group, LLC, a government relations firm, noted that the “legislative process has built-in means of public review and comment.”

“It will be important for the task force to share with the public some update on its progress and let folks know what technical and expert counsel is being provided,” said Ball, who has a long history of involvement in state education policymaking.

Thurmond said that he is working on ways for the public to provide input. That includes setting up an email account that people can send information to ( He said he has also been in touch with parent groups and hopes to figure out a way for students to provide input.

“What I would ask people is to give the group some time to do its work, and to make its recommendations, and to give the process a chance,” Thurmond said.

Beginning next week, he will also hold a biweekly in-person “media check-in” in Sacramento to discuss what the California Department of Education is “focused on and actively working on.”

At its meeting last week, the task force heard a presentation on charter schools in San Diego, the first of a series of case studies on districts with large numbers of charters schools. This week it heard one on Oakland Unified. It also heard presentations from organizations such as California Charter Authorizing Professionals and the Charter Accountability Resource and Support Network, which assist school districts and the other hundreds of agencies charged with authorizing and overseeing charter schools.

In previous meetings, it heard a presentation from Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon and author of a controversial paper, Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts. The paper concluded that the school districts in California suffered substantial financial damage as a result of charter enrollments. The panel also invited Paul Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, who is viewed as more sympathetic to charter schools. Other groups, including the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team, have also made presentations.

“We try to offer balanced perspectives, recognizing that there are different perspectives on the same topic,” Thurmond said.

One issue that has generated some controversy is the makeup of the group itself. Members include representatives of organizations from all sides of the charter debate, including four members from teachers’ unions and other labor organization. Erika Jones, for example, is on the board of directors of the California Teachers Association. Another four members of the commission come directly from the charter school sector, including Margaret Fortune, who runs a network of charter schools in the Sacramento area and also chairs the board of directors of the California Charter Schools Association.

Prominent charter school critic Diane Ravitch laid out a different calculation in a blog post this week. According to her, only four members of the group were “not connected politically or financially to the charter industry,” with the remaining seven tilting towards the charter camp.

But Thurmond, who was fiercely opposed by charter school interests in his race for state superintendent last year, rejected the suggestion that the group is too pro-charter. He said he thinks it is made up of a good mix of people who are from different sides of the issue, as well as “some folks who might be perceived as being in the middle.”

“At the end of the day, you could probably never come up with a group that would meet every person’s specifications,” he said. “But it is a balanced group.”

In addition to the pressure of coming up with its own recommendations, there is another timeline that the task force must keep an eye on: what is happening in the Legislature, where similar issues are being debated and acted on. If the task force does not come up with its recommendations by July it risks being outflanked by what happens there.

Several bills limiting charter growth have already been introduced in the Legislature. Those proposed changes would bar the State Board of Education from granting a charter after it had been denied at the county and district level, put a cap on charter growth and allow districts to take into account the financial impact of charter schools.

What is uncertain is whether the Legislature will wait to hear the group’s recommendations, or proceed on its own. The Assembly Education Committee has already approved three bills restricting charter growth, some of them dealing with issues similar to those that the task force is expected to make recommendations on.

At the hearing in which the bills were approved, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, a former school board member, said she couldn’t vote for the bills because she wanted to wait for the task force’s recommendations. “I can’t in good conscience vote for bills knowing that many of us asked for a task force, and now we have one, and it just got started,” she said, arguing against any “major restructuring” of charter schools before getting the recommendations.

But Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, the education committee’s chair and a longtime teacher, said the Legislature should proceed on its own.

“I look forward to seeing the recommendations of the task force, which may help and inform and change the bill,” he said. “But the Legislature is a separate branch of government and we should determine our priorities and move forward. We should not kick the can down the road. We should act today. We should not wait for a committee that is outside this building to come and tell us what to do. Will we listen to them? Absolutely. Will we incorporate some of their ideas? I am sure we will.”

Key to what happens is Gov. Newsom, who presumably will be awaiting the recommendations of the task force he initiated before deciding what reforms and bills, if any, he will support.

For now, Thurmond recognizes the challenge and is confident that the task force will deliver on its primary mission. “These conversations have been happening for many years,“ he said. “This task force will produce a product. It will produce recommendations for some reform of charter schools.”

“I just ask that folks just give us a bit of time to let the process work and give the group a chance to make some recommendations,” he said.

Story originally published by EdSource.