In a report forwarded to Gov. Gavin Newsom, the statewide task force on charter schools is unanimously recommending that school districts be given more discretion to approve new charter schools by including “saturation” and need for new schools as factors that districts could consider.

Districts with large numbers of charter schools, like Oakland Unified and Los Angeles Unified, have clamored for financial relief and more controls over charter schools. If Newsom and the Legislature implement the task force recommendation, those districts could cite duplication of effort and charter school overload as reasons for rejecting new applications.

More leeway in decision-making on new charter schools was one of four recommendations — reached by consensus — of the California Charter School Policy Task Force, whose 11 members include representatives of charter school organizations, labor unions and organizations representing county offices of education, school administrators and school districts. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has led the task force, which has been meeting privately for between three and five hours each week from March through May. The recommendations are:

  • Providing school districts additional discretion when authorizing charter schools to consider “saturation,” including the number and enrollment in proposed charter schools, academic outcomes and offerings and a statement of need for the school. This recommendation also called for freeing the California Department of Education of oversight responsibilities for charter schools that the State Board of Education approves.
  • Giving school boards an extra month to decide on charter school applications. Districts had complained they were rushed to make a determination.
  • Establishing new state agencies to set standards for authorizing and overseeing charter schools and for training districts in implementing the standards;
  • Reimbursing districts for one year for the loss of state tuition payments for students transferring to charter schools, consistent with current state policy to cover drops in enrollment for other reasons;
  • Eliminating the responsibilities of the California Department of Education for overseeing charter schools that the State Board of Education approves. The recommendation, however, does not eliminate the role of the state board as the final level of appeal; the department could assign oversight to the county office where the charter would be located.

The report includes seven additional recommendations, supported by an unnamed majority of the task force — presumably without some or all of the four charter school-affiliated members — that urge more severe restrictions on charter school growth. These include:

  • Limiting the grounds for county offices of education to hear appeals of charter school denials;
  • Eliminating the right to a second level of appeal to the State Board of Education;
  • Allowing, for the first time, school boards to consider the financial impact that a charter school would have on a district. Along with the loss of state funding from students leaving to charters, the districts could consider other factors, including the disproportionate impact of charter schools on the district’s special education costs, the inability to proportionally reduce staffing and building costs, charter oversight expenses and costs from “marketing in a newly competitive environment;”
  • Prohibiting districts from approving charter schools that would be located outside of the district;
  • Enacting a one-year moratorium on the establishment of online or “virtual” charter schools, but not on other charter schools.

“It’s important to include both the areas where a consensus was reached, as well as the areas where a majority was reached, in order to show the depth that members were willing to go and the challenging and difficult conversations that occurred throughout this process,” Thurmond said in a statement.

Some of these recommendations parallel restraints proposed in legislation authored by leading Democrats this year.

Responding to the report, Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, said in a statement, “While we recognize that this marks an important step forward in fulfilling the charge entrusted by Governor Newsom to Superintendent Thurmond, there are elements that are deeply concerning and require more work ahead. But ultimately, these efforts will play a pivotal role in charting a path forward for California’s students.”

In its statement, the California Teachers Association praised  the recommendations of the majority of the members, not the consensus recommendations, also supported by the four charter school members. CTA  urged the passage of current legislation that would restrict the appeals process and inclusion of financial impact as a factor in approving charter schools. “I have seen firsthand how our marginalized school communities have been deeply impacted when districts are forced to make difficult decisions and lacked the discretion they needed,” said Erika Jones, a teacher in Los Angeles who represented CTA on the task force.

The 10-page task force report, with a short cover letter from Thurmond, was dated June 1. Thurmond released the report June 7. Newsom had set a June 30 deadline for the recommendations.

A number of legislators have said they would use the report to determine their votes on bills calling for increased restrictions on charter schools. Newsom, who has called for a “balanced” approach to examining how charter schools are authorized and their financial impacts, has been waiting for the report before indicating his preferences. He must now decide whether balanced means recommendations by consensus or majority votes.

Noting that the task force had a limited charge and a tight deadline, the report observed that charter school issues are “complex” and will require “further review, discussion and debate.” Thurmond said he would lead the Department of Education in taking the next step, revising current standards, guidelines, and authorization processes.

At Newsom’s urging, the Legislature adopted legislation imposing additional transparency requirements for charter schools, including compliance with the state’s laws on open meetings, public records and conflicts of interest. Many charter schools already had complied voluntarily or as a requirement of their locally approved charter.

As part of his revised state budget released in May, Newsom proposed to tighten requirements for open admissions to charter schools, banning charter schools from setting admission requirements and from conducting pre-admissions interviews with students and families.

In a statement June 7, Newsom’s press office said the governor acknowledges that charter schools’ financial impact is hindering some urban districts’ ability to provide essential services to students. He is reviewing the report to determine the  next steps, the statement said.

There are currently more than 1,300 charter schools in California — the most of any state in the nation. About 11 percent of public school students in the state attend them. Charter schools are public schools, freed from many of the regulations by the state and requirements of districts, and governed by nonprofit, unelected boards of directors.

Story originally published by EdSource.

John Fensterwald