Gov. Gavin Newsom and Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach. (Newsom photo by Rich Pedroncelli; Office of Patrick O'Donell)

Ending months of difficult negotiations, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders announced Wednesday they had reached a final deal on the most extensive changes to California’s charter school law since it was adopted nearly three decades ago.

The agreement would create a truce in the yearslong battles in Sacramento over charter schools and resolve the most contentious education issue facing Newsom in his first year in office.

“A lot of hard work has gone into this, and all that matters to me is the result,” Newsom said Aug. 27 on a visit to Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, the Los Angeles Times reported. “If we can pull something off, it’s a significant thing and it’s not easy. A lot of people have strong opinions on both sides.”

School districts for the first time would be able to consider the financial and academic impact on the district or neighborhood of a new charter school or a charter school that wants to expand. Districts like Oakland Unified that could show they are under fiscal distress will be able to deny any proposed charter from opening. “The presumption in those districts will be that new charters will not open,” said a statement from the governor’s office.

The changes mark a victory for school districts and the teachers unions that have been clamoring for tighter restrictions and more local control. They argued that legislators who approved the 1992 charter school envisioned a small number of taxpayer-funded charter schools created by teachers and parents, not a sector that has grown to more than 1,300 schools — the most in the nation — often run by nonprofit management organizations with additional  funding from wealthy donors. Charter schools serve more than 10 percent of California’s 6.2 million public school students.

Leading charter school advocates have expressed fears that allowing school districts to take financial impact into account would give districts an excuse to reject a charter petition — and bring charter school growth to a halt.

The new version of Assembly Bill 1505 builds on an initial compromise that Newsom’s aides presented in July. It includes revisions to all key aspects of the charter law: the approval and renewal of charter schools; the appeals process for charter denials; and the credentialing requirements for charter school teachers.

The language of the final version may not be in print until after the Senate Appropriations Committee votes on Friday, Aug. 30, to forward the bill to the Senate for approval. It will then be  sent back to the Assembly with the final amendments. The Legislature must pass all bills before Sept. 13.

The California Charter Schools Association, which had vigorously opposed the original bill, Assembly Bill 1505, said in a statement that it is taking a neutral position, having succeeded in tempering the language and gaining some concessions. Among these is preserving a full right of appeal to a county office of education. “Collective action” by the charter school community “was able to secure significant protections for charter school students and schools,” it said.

In its statement, the California Teachers Association, which strongly backed AB 1505, said it “profoundly” appreciated the “hard work” by the bill’s author, Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, and Newsom’s leadership and commitment “to fixing the flawed” charter school law. “The groundswell of action and support for this bill over the last several months underscores the sense of urgency in our communities to enact these much-needed changes,” it said in a joint statement with other school employee unions.

Jeff Freitas, president of California Federation of Teachers, represent 120,000 educational employees, said he was “excited” by the bill’s affirmation of local control by allowing districts to take financial impact into account. He said his union would have preferred that charter schools be denied the right to appeal to the county or state after they had been turned down by a district.

O’Donnell called the new version of his bill a step in the right direction” while adding  in a statement there is “more work to be done to ensure bad (charter school) actors are held accountable.” He too thanked Newsom for finding “a solution that strengthens local control and gives local school boards and administrators the ability to determine how charters can best serve their community’s interests.”

The latest version includes a compromise on a previously unresolved issue: preparation and credentialing requirements for charter school teachers.

Charter schools currently must hire teachers with a state-approved credential in all core academic subjects, including English language arts, math, science and social studies but not in other “non-core” subjects like music, foreign languages and art.

O’Donnell sought to require all charter school teachers to have a credential. Under the compromise, all teachers hired after July 1, 2020 must have the appropriate credential for whatever class they’re teaching. All current charter school teachers without a credential will have until July 2025 to obtain one. And, by next July, uncredentialed teachers must get a Certificate of Clearance showing they’ve undergone a fingerprint and background check.  Under current law, all staff at both traditional public schools and charter schools must have a background check.  But those working at charter schools without credentials or permits have not been required to record the results with the state.

Pending final wording changes, here are the other significant changes to the law:

Approval process

 The current charter school law says that a school board shall approve a charter school if it satisfies several criteria, including providing evidence of financial viability and documentation of a sound academic program.

Newsom sought to balance students’ access to a better performing or different program and a district’s ability to avoid duplicating what it provides and ensure its financial stability.

A charter operator would have to justify the basis for a new school, particularly if similar programs exist. An applicant could point to low-performing district-run schools  to justify the need for an additional school.

Appeals process

Charter schools currently have two opportunities to appeal a denial for a new school or  a revocation — first before the local  county of education, then before the State Board of Education. O’Donnell’s original bill would have restricted grounds for a county appeal and eliminated an appeal to the state board. The amended version would basically keep the county-level appeal as is and limit an appeal to the state board to only when a county or district “abused its discretion” — and that it acted arbitrarily. Oversight of the 29 charter schools that the state board has approved would revert to the districts where the schools are located.

Charter renewals

The current law has imprecise and outdated language for renewing charter schools; it includes evaluating student performance on standardized tests and a school rating system (the Academic Performance Index) that the state replaced, along with with a new testing system.

The new version would create a tiered system that, according to the governor’s office, would reward effective charters — those that have been successful in narrowing achievement gaps — with a renewal, while making it easier  to close down poor performing charters. Charter schools would be evaluated with the same criteria as for other public schools: the multiple measures of performance  on the color-coded California School Dashboard. These  measures include standardized test scores, suspension rates and students’ readiness for college and careers.

Those charter schools that have received blue and green ratings — the top two colors demonstrating excellent performance — could receive a renewal for as long as seven years. Currently the maximum is five years. Charter schools that have consistently performed poorly, receiving red and orange ratings — the bottom two colors — would be subject to closure, unless they could make a case why their charter should not be renewed.

Districts could close a charter school that is financially unsound or if it is not serving all student populations.

The bulk of charters seeking renewal would fall in the middle, with a mix of dashboard colors and be eligible for a five-year renewal. Under the July compromise, alternative charter schools, serving primarily dropouts, expelled students and students substantially behind academically, would be evaluated by other criteria.

The compromise also will place a two-year moratorium on online charter schools; one of the goals of school employee unions had been a moratorium on all charter schools.

Story originally published by EdSource.