One State Sets Out to Rethink Public Oversight of Charter Schools

I am encouraged by the findings, released last Friday, of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s California Charter School Policy Task Force.

Newsome set up the group to consider recommendations to the Legislature for reining in an out of control charter school sector. He proposed the task force earlier this spring after massive teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland brought attention to the amount of money flowing out of public school budgets into the charter schools whose location and authorization has been pretty much beyond the control of the public school districts where charter school have been able to locate.

EdSource‘s John Fensterwald reminds us that the mere size of California’s charter sector—1,300 charter schools, more than any other state—makes oversight and regulation a poignant issue. One reason the issue of charter school oversight has drawn attention this year is that Governor Gavin Newsom has shown himself willing to consider the need for increased regulation. Former Governor Jerry Brown, himself a founder of charter schools in Oakland, was known to veto charter school oversight laws on the occasion they did reach his desk. Gov. Newsom assigned State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond—elected last November on a pro-public schools platform—to facilitate the Task Force.

The issue of the cost for public school districts of a rapidly expanding charter school sector in California was further elevated a year ago by a report published by In the Public Interest. The report’s author, Oregon economist Gordon Lafer documented very sizeable losses of public dollars to charter schools in three school districts during the 2016-2017 school year: Oakland Unified School District lost $57.3 million; San Diego Unified School District lost $65.9 million; and Santa Clara County East Side Union High School District lost $19.3 million.

The Task Force released its findings last Friday, June 7. Before one even considers the consensus recommendations and majority recommendations of the Charter School Policy Task Force, however, one must recognize that it is surprising the Task Force report contains any consensus recommendations at all. The Task Force was not made up of academic researchers; neither was it a collection of experts on good government and public finance. It is one of those groups carefully balanced to provide a forum for both sides of what has become a contentious debate about whether or not there ought to be a charter school sector.  Actually whoever recommended the appointments seems to have accepted the idea that the fight is between unions and charter schools—an assumption I believe is wrong, because the debate is not limited to the fact that fewer teachers in charter schools belong to teachers unions.

Several members of the Task Force represent public schools, educators’ professional organizations, and organized labor: the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association; the California Teachers Association (the state’s NEA affiliate); the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99; the California School Employees Association; the Association of California School Administrators; the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 57; the El Dorado County Office of Education, and the San Diego Unified School District.  Four members represent charter school chains or charter school advocacy organizations: the California Charter Schools Association; Green Dot Public Schools California; Aspire Public Schools; and Fortune School of Education.

The Task Force lists a number of consultants from whom its members received input. On the one side, they heard from: The Alameda County Office of Education; the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, the California Department of Education Fiscal Services Division; the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team; the Legislative Analyst’s Office;  and the Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego Unified School districts—along with economist Gordon Lafer.

On the other side, the Task Force members considered the views of the California Charter Authorization Professionals; the California Charter Schools Association; the California Department of Education Charter Schools Division; the Charter Accountability Resource and Support Network, and Green Dot Charter Schools—along with Paul Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and designer of the theory of Portfolio School Reform—which envisions running a school district like a business portfolio with investments in traditional public and charter schools alike.

Across the divided points of view of the group’s participants and advisers, the Task Force’s members were able to reach consensus on four needed reforms. Although these consensus recommendations don’t seem particularly earth shaking, they do highlight that in California, according to the way things operate right now, a local school district doesn’t have much control at all about who opens a charter school within the boundaries of the district, what kind of school opens, and how much money students carry away from the public schools on the day they exit.

Here are the consensus recommendations: (1) The length of time must be extended from 60 to 90 days for an authorizer to consider a charter schools petition for authorization.  (2) A new statewide entity must be created to develop standards for the authorization and oversight of charter schools.  And the new statewide entity must train authorizers to more carefully investigate the schools they are sponsoring and to increase oversight of schools once they are authorized.  (3) The state must continue to provide a student’s state funding to the public school district for one year after a student transfers to a charter school. (4) Public school boards must be given greater capacity to consider the impact on the public schools when the school board is asked to make a decision to approve or deny a petition for a new charter school.  Further,  the California Department of Education cannot any longer be the sole oversight body for the 39 charter schools currently authorized by the State Board of Education, because the schools are geographically so far apart that the three current staff people have been unable to provide adequate oversight.

Additionally, the California Charter School Task Force reports seven other “proposals discussed” by members of the Task Force and “supported by the majority.”  EdSource‘s John Fensterwald clarifies what this “majority” designation likely really means: “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.”  Here are the seven proposals discussed and supported by the majority:

  1. “There has been growing concern that virtual charter schools are operated without appropriate academic rigor and oversight, providing a sub-par education for their students.”  “Enact a one-year moratorium on the establishment of new virtual charter schools.”
  2. “Remove the California State Board of Education from hearing appeals of charter petition denials.”  Currently in California, charter schools turned down by the school board of the district where they are to be located or the County Board of Education can appeal to the State Board of Education to override their rejection at the local level.
  3. “Limit the authorization of new charter schools to local districts with an appeals process that takes place at the County Board of Education only when there was an error by the district governing board.” This provision would increase the local control of the elected board of education in the school district where charters seek to open.
  4. “Prohibit districts from authorizing charter schools located outside district boundaries.”  “Current law allows a charter school to open one site outside of the authorizing district only if the charter school has attempted to locate within the authorizer’s boundaries, but an appropriate site was unavailable.” The Task Force explains that the rule here has not been enforced and that, “such a prohibition would limit the potential for the detrimental practice of using oversight fees as a revenue stream, while incurring only limited expenses associated with authorizing the charter school.”
  5. “Allow authorizers to consider fiscal impact as part of the authorization process.”  Here the Task Force provides considerable explanation: “Presentations from Oakland,… Los Angeles,… and San Diego Unified School District(s) to the Charter Task Force demonstrated significant fiscal impact to school districts due to the cost of charter schools located within district boundaries. In addition to the oft-cited loss of ADA funding, other costs may include, but are not limited to: inability to reduce expenses proportionally without direct harm to student programs and services (utilities, staff, daily maintenance, etc.); obligations to keep schools open and facilities available; increased liability and litigation; disproportionality of special education costs, competition for state, local, and other funds; thorough oversight; and marketing in a newly competitive environment.  Allowing authorizers to consider fiscal impacts of a charter petition enables them to evaluate the impact on the entirety of their local educational system.”
  6. “Establish clear guidelines for use by authorizers and by charter applicants for new charter petitions.”  The Task Force’s report explains: “Current law requires charter petitions to include a description of 16 elements. Beyond these elements, there are no standards that provide guidance on the level of detail an applicant should include. As such, applicants submit charter petitions of varying quality… Clear guidelines, such as rubrics or handbooks, for applicants to follow would standardize the quality of new charter schools.”
  7. “Update Education Code requirements to reflect current state accountability.”

Members of California’s state legislature have been considering a package of bills to increase regulation of the charter school sector. For Capital Public Radio, Ricardo Cano reports that, after the winter’s teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, “In the Democratic-controlled Legislature, proposals to regulate charter schools quickly followed. But many lawmakers made it clear in recent weeks that they wanted the report to factor into their decisions, though they are not bound to take up any of its recommendations. Though a bill to regulate so-called ‘far-flung’ charters has moved easily through the process, another to give districts more authority over charter authorizations and remove appeals at the state and county level, barely made it out of the Assembly, as some lawmakers expressed hesitance in moving forward without the recommendations from the Charter Task Force.  And two others, to cap the number of charters and enact a temporary moratorium on new ones, stalled before coming to a floor vote.”

The two bills still being considered are addressed in the proposals which a majority of the Task Force approved. Cano explains: “For instance, the majority supported prohibiting districts from authorizing charter schools outside of their geographic boundaries, a key aim of the ‘far-flung’ charter’ bill, Assembly Bill 1507.” (majority proposal #4)  Cano adds: “A majority of the Task Force also seemed to support some aspects of Assembly Bill 1505, the sweeping proposal that would tighten appeals for denied charters, including prohibiting appeals to the State Board of Education. A majority also supported limiting the authorization of new charter schools to local school districts and limiting appeals to the county education boards.” (majority proposals #2 and #3)

We must further hope that the Task Force’s majority proposal #5—on the damaging fiscal impact of charter school growth on the budgets of the public school districts where charters are located—continues seriously to be considered by the Legislature, by Tony Thurmond, and by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The reality, considered and agreed on by the majority of the Task Force, that charter schools are operating as fiscal parasites on their host school districts is the very heart of the problem in California and across the states.

This blog is now on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday summer schedule.

Oakland’s Teachers Are On Strike: How Charters Have Contributed to the School District’s Fiscal Crisis

In Oakland, California the school district is broke, and the teachers are on strike.

In a major report published last May, the political economist Gordon Lafer described the fiscal crisis in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD): “In November 2017, California’s Oakland Unified School District faced a budget deficit of $15 million.  Parents, students, and teachers protested against planned cuts, which targeted everything from books and copy paper to substitute teachers and mental health professionals. ‘These cuts will touch students in every school in the district,’ said one group of parent activists, urging the Board of Education to concentrate cuts in central district offices and spare school-site staff.  Yet cutbacks at the central office also proved painful, which became apparent when the district announced plans to terminate its head librarian.  In the end, OUSD instituted $9 million in cuts, including slashing funds for academic counselors, school supplies, and even toilet paper.”

Last week, for Jacobin Magazine, Eric Blanc explains part of the reason: “The project of free market education reform is so widespread in America that many cities and states insist on claiming the title of ‘ground zero’ of education privatization. Whether or not Oakland can claim that unfortunate title, it’s clear that the privatizers have made huge headway in the city: Oakland is now the city in California with the highest percentage of students in privately run charters, and the city’s school district is aiming to deepen its downsizing project by closing twenty-four of the city’s eighty-seven public schools.” Blanc then publishes a who’s who of billionaires—Gary Rogers, Eli Broad, and Bill Gates—who have funded the pro-charter group, GO Public Schools, which has invested in the political campaigns of pro-charter candidates for the Oakland Board of Education, where today a majority of members support what is known as “portfolio school reform.”

Like Los Angeles, Oakland’s financial crisis is related to California’s embrace of charter schools and the school district’s adoption of a portfolio school reform governance plan by which the district manages traditional public and charter schools as though they are investments in a stock portfolio. The idea is to establish competition—launching new schools all the time and closing low scoring schools and schools that become under-enrolled.  It is imagined that competition will drive school improvement, but that has not been the result anyplace where this scheme has been tried.

To better understand the issues underlying why Oakland’s teachers are on strike, it is worth examining Lafer’s in-depth profile of the Oakland Unified School District.

Lafer’s report explores the Oakland Unified School District as an exemplar of a California-wide and nationwide problem: Uncontrolled charter school expansion undermines the financial viability of the surrounding public schools. “In every case, the revenue that school districts have lost is far greater than the expenses saved by students transferring to charter schools.  The difference—the net loss of revenues that cannot be made up by cutting expenses associated with those students—totals tens of millions of dollars each year, in every district.” “California boasts the largest charter school sector in the United States, with nearly 1,300 charter schools serving 620,000 students, or 10 percent of the state’s total student body.”

“(W)ith a combined district and charter student population of over 52,000 in 2016-17—(Oakland) boasts the highest concentration of charter schools in the state, with 30 percent of pupils attending charter schools.” “By 2016-17, charter schools were costing OUSD a total of $57.3 million per year—a sum several times larger than the entire deficit that shook the system in the fall of 2017.  Put another way, the expansion of charter schools meant that there was $1,500 less funding available per year for each child in a traditional Oakland public school.”

Lafer identifies two problems at the heart of California’s enabling legislation for charter schools. First, a local school board has no control over whether charters can expand in the district: “Even when districts determine that there are already enough schools for all students in the community—or even if a charter operator petitions to open up next door to an existing neighborhood school—it is illegal for the district to deny that school’s application on the grounds that it constitutes a waste of public dollars. By law, as long as charter operators submit the required number of signatures, assurances against discrimination, and descriptions of their plans and program, school districts may only deny charter petitions for one of two substantive reasons: if ‘the charter school presents an unsound educational program,’ or ‘the petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition'”

The second problem, Lafer explains, is particularly serious as it impacts Oakland Unified School District: “While charter schools are required by law to accept any student who applies, in reality they exercise recruitment, admission, and expulsion policies that often screen out the students who would be the neediest and most expensive to serve—who then turn to district schools.  As a result, traditional public schools end up with the highest-need students but without the resources to serve them.  In Oakland, this can be seen in the distribution of both special education students and unaccompanied minor children who arrive in the district after entering the U.S. without their families.”

The problem is made worse because California does not allocate state funding based on the number of disabled students who require special services: “Special education funding is apportioned in equal shares for every student attending school, irrespective of the number of enrolled students with disabilities. Even in districts without charter schools, special education is an underfunded mandate, in that the dedicated funding for this purpose is insufficient to meet the needs that school systems are legally required to serve.”

Lafer reports that in 2015-16, Oakland’s charter schools served merely 19 percent of Oakland Unified School District’s students with special education needs: “The imbalance is yet more extreme in the most serious categories of special need.  Of the total number of emotionally disturbed students attending either charter or traditional public schools in Oakland, charter schools served only 15 percent.  They served only eight percent of all autistic students, and just two percent of students with multiple disabilities… Thus, charter schools are funded for a presumed level of need which is higher than the number of students with disabilities they actually enroll, while the district serves the highest-need students without the funding they require.”

And neither the federal government nor the state reimburses Oakland for the special costs of its large number if migrant children: “(I)n recent years the country has seen a spike in the migration of children entering the country without their families.  Oakland is their second most common destination in the state; in 2015-16, the district served over 150 refugee children, nearly 200 asylum seekers, and over 450 unaccompanied minors. Beyond the special costs of caring for these students, the district must hold open spaces in its classrooms in anticipation of students who arrive continuously throughout the year.  Per-pupil funding from the state, however, is not provided until a student is actually present in the school… In 2015-16, over 1,200 newly-arrived students entered OUSD schools including 700 who arrived in October or later.  All told, the cost of ensuring sufficient space and staff for these students amounted to an estimated $4.2 million in district expenses that were uncompensated through state or federal per-pupil funding. No charter school is required to accept refugee children in the middle of the year—but the district is.  As there are no special funds for doing so, the district must draw from its general fund.  Since school districts are uniquely obliged to serve all students, they provide services that no charter schools are required to provide….”

Lafer concludes by describing what the $57 million lost every year from the Oakland Unified School District to charter schools would buy: “If those costs were reimbursed, or had never left the district, OUSD could maintain classrooms at a maximum of 18 students per class in every elementary school… double the number of nurses and counselors in the system, and still have $10 million per year left for additional services.”

Lafer concludes: “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars.  But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

Lafer’s report provides essential background for understanding the financial crisis in Oakland and the reasons teachers are striking today.