News broke last week that one of Sacramento’s most vexing legislative issues had reached a compromise. The teachers’ union and charter association had agreed on a compromise bill on revising the charter law. I’m not clapping for a broken process, that was all about what choices California’s most underserved families will have—and had none of those actual parents at the table.
And I am not clapping for the “compromise” which as far as I can tell, was the State abdicating its authority and role in making sure the charter law is followed. A role that is critical in protecting students.
The compromise did nothing to fix the fundamental problem of California’s charter school law, which is one of incentives and incompetence at the district authorizing level, and actually gave districts more power—but there is a better way, and you can see it in action. But before we get there.
What’s Really Wrong with the Charter Law?
99% of what you hear complaints about in California’s charters are failures of charter authorizers to do their job, and mind you, it is a very hard job. You have some 1300 school districts and each one is supposed to perform this incredibly complex and rule driven process, you have 1300 potential failure points. And that is what we have seen.
In many cases, charter authorization is political. It’s about who you know on the local school board and how many votes you can count. Even where districts had very strong charter school staff, like Oakland has for the last couple of directors, the politics of the Board meetings often contravene the staff recommendations. So, the staff expert studies the case, knows the extensive laws and regulations, analyzes the data—and the board members do whatever they want. Regardless of the charter law itself or the children and families. It’s about politics and not families.
In other cases, the districts are just dysfunctional and messy. Like the case in Oakland where the school board tried to deny a charter renewal, but didn’t know the voting rules and accidentally approved it. You can’t make this ish up. It would be funny if it weren’t kids and families swaying in the wind of a fickle and dysfunctional board.
While that is bad, the even worse issue is that some districts, are getting rich off authorizing. There is the infamous celerity case. But many others as well, where the districts interest in authorizing is not about children and families, but money. The LA Times did a great series, “Small districts reap big profits by approving charter schools with little oversight” and looked at this, these tiny districts approving but not supervising charters and raking in cash. And so did the California State Auditor, the problem is well known, but not solved by this bill.
And when both the district and the charter are about money—kids definitely get screwed over.
The “Problem” of the State Board is the Solution
One unintended consequence of district failure that also demonstrates district incompetence in authorizing, is how many charter schools are authorized by the State board, who is the second largest authorizer in the state. While some see this as a problem, it actually should point us toward a solution.
The state board is the authorizer of last resort, you generally had to be turned down locally, then at the county and then go to the State. It was never intended that it would have so many schools, but it does because the other bodies did not do their jobs, and follow the law. The State Board is a very strong authorizer, it has high quality staff, knowledgeable board members, and it follows the law.
Taking them out of the equation is exactly the wrong answer. Instead they should accept their role as the premier authorizer and get local districts out of the game. Seriously, the fact that so many schools are state authorized is evidence of the needed role that they play, and the failures of districts to follow the law and do their job. They should have a larger role not be taken out of the equation.
The State Charter Commission Got it Wrong Too
Similarly, the recommendations of the state charter commission that we should just provide 1300 plus districts with shifting politics, staff, and attention spans more professional development on authorizing. Yeah somehow I don’t think that will work.
We don’t need long, expensive appeals processes and inconsistent standards and outcomes from the 1300 plus authorizers. We need a few consistent, professional authorizers, that follow the law and focus on children. So rather than getting rid of the state board it should be resourced to actually oversee more schools. And while we don’t need appeals we do need some authorizer choice, so UC or Cal State might take that role on, like the State University of NY (SUNY) does in NY, whose schools regularly outperform peer schools by double digits. They, alongside the State Education Department, authorize all schools.
This can work in CA, and would be so much better than our current patchwork of politics, self interest, and incompetence—that drive much of the current district led authorizing.
The latest compromise compromised our children. The most important decision you may make as a parent is where your child will be 8 hours a day. By abandoning its role as an authorizer, the state has abandoned all those children who will be failed by district politics—either because schools are wrongly denied or wrongly approved.
A message to the State Board of Education– California families need you, please don’t abandon us to the dysfunction that gave rise to the charter schools in the first place.