California’s Tangled, Corrupt Charter School Sector

Charter schools—created to embody the idea of innovation without the constraint of bureaucratic regulations—have been spreading across our cities for twenty years, and it has now become as clear as can be that, if we have to have privatized charter schools, we can’t do without the protection of some rules.  (I myself would prefer to assign responsibility for educating our children to the public schools—publicly owned and operated and accountable to democratic governance.)

Carol Burris, a former, award-winning, New York City high school principal and now the director of the Network for Public Education, just visited California, where she traveled around interviewing people on all sides of the charter school controversy. Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post has published (in four parts here, here, here and here) Burris’ story of “the never-ending stream of charter scandals coming from California.”

Most alarming is the practice of establishing satellite charter “resource centers” or “learning centers”—places in shopping centers or other accessible sites where older students who study online come occasionally to meet with a teacher. These are often sponsored by tiny elementary school districts who have no intention of overseeing the charters they authorize, but who are instead in it to pad their own districts’ budgets with extra cash—per-pupil state fees paid to sponsors.  In part four of her report Burris writes: “Readers who have been following this series on charters are familiar with the storefront charters and not-for profit shells of K12 (the huge online for-profit chain) that are growing in number across the state. Many of these charters have terrible graduation rates—some as low as zero percent. Students rarely check in—some, like Epic, have the requirement of going to a center only once every 20 days.  Their explosive growth has been driven by corporations courting small, rural elementary districts with promises of additional revenue with little to no impact to the school district. The corporation then operates charter ‘learning centers’ or ‘resource centers’ mostly or exclusively to generate revenue for themselves and their authorizer, even though the schools are not in the authorizer’s district and do not serve their residents.”

In part one, we learn: “Of the San Diego charter schools, over one third promote independent learning, which means the student rarely, if ever, has to interact face to face with a teacher or fellow students. One of the largest independent learning charters, The Charter High School of San Diego, had 756 students due to graduate in 2015. Only 32 percent actually made it.  The Diego Valley Charter School, part of the mysterious Learn4Life chain, tells prospective students that they ‘are only required to be at their resource center for one appointment per week (from 1-3 hours), so it’s not like having a daily commute!’  The Diego Valley cohort graduation rate in 2015 was 10.8 percent, with a dropout rate of 45 percent.”

Burris tries to tease out from a school’s website where it is and which school district sponsors it (in part two): “Desert Sands Charter High School enrolls nearly 2,000 students; almost all are Latino. It is part of the Antelope Valley School District, but you will not find it listed on Antelope’s website.  Nor will you find Desert Sands at the Lancaster, Calif. address given on its own website.  Bryan’s (the name of one student) classroom was located in an office building across from a Walmart, nearly 100 miles away from both Antelope Valley Schools and the Desert Sand’s address.”

In part three we read about the mysterious, “Wise Academy… tucked away on a Girl Scout camp on the Bothin Youth Center in Fairfax, Calif… You cannot find this K-6 charter school, which has been in operation for three years, on the state’s Education Department website. Rick Bagley, the superintendent of the Ross Valley School District in which Wise is located, was never informed of its presence as required by law. No one really seems to be wise to Wise—except perhaps California STEAM Sonoma, which claims Wise Academy as its project. The California STEAM Sonoma charter, was authorized in March 2016 by the Liberty Elementary School District, a tiny district that serves 216 students in its schools. Wise is not within Liberty’s boundaries; it is located in the Ross Valley School District in Marin County. Liberty approved the charter in order to receive funds as an authorizer, knowing that it would neither lose students nor revenue to the school. But Wise did not just begin last March. The school began three years ago with a different authorizer, the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a different authorizing district. The Academy of Arts and Sciences, like California STEAM, is an online charter school based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. It uses the K12 curriculum and the FUEL curriculum, both owned by the for-profit corporation K12, founded by former banker Ronald J. Packard and located in Herndon, VA.”

I suspect that, like me, you have been struggling to track the plot of this story. But at least just this week, as the final installment of Burris’ report was being printed in the Washington Post, the story had a happy ending—assuming that a court decision at the appellate level can be trusted as a happy ending, because of course, there will likely be further appeals. Here is the news from Maureen Magee of the San Diego Union-Tribune: “California’s booming satellite charter school industry that has persevered through lawsuits, scandals, and turf wars suffered a blow this past week when a state appellate court ruled hundreds of the campuses are illegally operating outside their districts. At issue now is how 130,000 California students—including 25,000 in San Diego County—will continue their education. The court decision also puts at stake millions of dollars in revenue generated by the charters for privately run organizations.”

Specifically, how are these store-front learning and resource centers violating the law, according to the appellate court?  Magee explains: “Under the State Education Code, independent-study charters are allowed to operate satellite campuses in their home districts and in neighboring counties.  However, there is nothing in the law about whether a charter can operate satellite centers outside their home district and within their county.”  If you are still a little confused, explains further: “In a victory for school districts, a California appellate court has ruled it is illegal for charter schools to open satellite campuses outside the district that has authorized them… (T)he issue at hand was the legality of opening charter satellite campuses outside the district but within county lines.”

There seems to be one loophole which will leave a number of the strands of this story’s plot dangling.  Dannis, Woliver, Kelley Attorneys at Law explains: “The Court further clarified that these geographical restrictions apply to all charter schools, including independent study charters, and that the exceptions to the restrictions are limited. Where a charter school provides a majority of its educational services in, and a majority of its pupils are residents of, the county in which it is authorized, it may establish ‘a resource center, meeting space, or other satellite facility’ in an adjacent county, provided the facility is used exclusively for educational support of pupils enrolled in nonclassroom-based independent study.”

It is important that plaintiffs got the judicial branch of government involved in this situation as a check and balance, because the executive branch of California’s government apparently is entirely comfortable with all these store-front “resource centers” earning money for tiny impoverished school districts that have neither the intention nor the capacity to regulate them. Both houses of the California legislature passed a bill to curtail such practices, but, in September, when Senate Bill 739 got to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk, he vetoed it.  Brown is known to be friendly to the growth of charters in his state.


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