By Ricardo Cano, CALmatters
A highly anticipated state report on charter school reforms was made public Friday, recommending that California school districts be financially buffered from the loss of students to charters and get more flexibility in deciding whether to approve any more of the privately run, publicly financed and mostly non-union schools.
Commissioned by Gov. Gavin Newsom and led by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who both overcame opposition from charter supporters on their way to election, the report, drawn up by a special state task force, stopped short of calling for some of the more sweeping regulations now under legislative consideration.
But it also pointedly noted that a majority, if not a full consensus, of the 11-member panel—an even mix of labor and charter advocates, plus Thurmond—supported some of the key rule changes state lawmakers have been mulling at the urging of teachers unions.
Among them: provisions that would let districts include the financial impact on traditional schools in their criteria for determining whether to authorize charters and that would make charter school denials harder to appeal.
Months in the making, the report has been on the minds of legislators as they have weighed a cluster of hotly debated charter regulations against the backdrop of urban teacher strikes. The charter issue has pitted two powerful constituencies—organized labor and wealthy proponents of school choice—against each other, and was a campaign flashpoint in the 2018 races for governor and state schools chief. Union opposition to charters has been particularly vocal in big urban districts such as Oakland and Los Angeles.
Convening the task force was one of Newsom’s first acts as governor, after striking teachers in the state’s largest school system, the Los Angeles Unified School District partly blamed charter growth for LAUSD’s financial distress. 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 report made four recommendations that it said gained consensus approval. Among them:
- More discretion for local school districts in considering new charter authorizations, including changing the criteria to include academic outcomes and the “saturation” of schools already in the district compared with student enrollment.
- A one-year “hold harmless” protection for school districts that would essentially provide a “‘soft landing” to districts for any loss of state average daily attendance funding due to student transfer to charter schools.
- A new agency to create standards for charter school authorizers and provide training, as well a longer timeline for authorizers to approve or deny a new charter petition.
Charter school operators, meanwhile, would get to keep the existing appeals process under the “consensus” recommendations, in exchange for the “broader discretion” that districts would get in denying new charter petitions. This would balance appeals rights, the report said.
Though the report estimated the “soft landing” would cost more than $96 million for the state’s 10 largest school districts, the overall price tag on the unanimous recommendations was unclear.
Beyond the consensus findings, however, the task force listed another seven recommendations that the report said had support from a majority, though not all of the task force. Exact vote counts were not included.
“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. “The public deserves a transparent report, and one that also reflects honestly that there is more work to be done.”
Some of those “majority” recommendations supported components of the legislative package. 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.
A majority also seemed to support some aspects of AB 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.
The report also dealt with the longstanding question of whether charter schools funnel money away from traditional public schools by taking enrollment. According to the report, presentations from Oakland Unified, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified—three large, urban districts that make up a considerable portion of the state’s charter student enrollment—”demonstrated significant fiscal impact to school districts due to the cost of charter schools located within district boundaries.”
Newsom’s office received the report Thursday, according to the California Department of Education. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Charter advocates and teachers union each cited positive takeaways from the report.
Within an hour of the release, the California Federation of Teachers tweeted: “BREAKING NEWS: CA Charter School Task Force report just released. Majority of panelists call for greater local control & accountability, giving a boost to the growing momentum to pass #AB1505 in Sacramento!”
The California Charter Schools Association, meanwhile, noted that the recommendation to give districts more latitude in denying charters also didn’t make any substantive changes to the current appeals process.
“These are polarizing times, and Superintendent Thurmond had the difficult task of pulling together education stakeholders who have passionately disparate views about the vision for California’s public school system,” 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 Gov. Newsom to Superintendent Thurmond, there are elements that are deeply concerning and require more work ahead,” Castrejón said. “But ultimately, these efforts will play a pivotal role in charting a path forward for California’s students.”
CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.