Proposed Legislation Takes Aim at State’s Charter Schools

From “The Acorn Thousand Oaks”
Original article location: https://www.toacorn.com/wp-content/uploads/images/2019-05-02/16p1.jpg
By Dawn Megli-Thuna, Acorn Online

Thousand Oaks’ public charter schools have joined forces to oppose a package of Assembly bills they say would threaten their future.

Administrators from Bridges, MATES and River Oaks Academy have visited Sacramento twice in the past month to weigh in on a trio of proposed laws, AB 1505, 1506 and 1507, which were introduced by a group of five Democratic assembly members.

Proponents of the bills say they will restore power to local elected school boards and bring accountability and oversight to the charter industry; opponents argue that the bills would reduce the number of choices for families in search of the school that best fits their children.

AB 1505 allows school districts to consider the financial impact a charter school would have on their budgets when considering whether to grant a charter. In the past, districts were allowed to look primarily at increases in academic achievement.

The bill would decrease from five to two the number of years a charter can operate on an existing renewal and limit the circumstances under which a county board of education, rather than a school district, could issue a charter.

It would also require county-approved charter schools to obtain permission from the districts within whose boundaries they operate. That limitation is of great interest in T.O., where the charters of all three schools were issued through the county versus CVUSD.

AB 1506, which opponents consider the most draconian, would cap the number of public charter schools in the state at the current figure, around 1,300. A new charter school would be allowed only if an existing one closes. This would limit the ability of T.O.’s existing charter schools to grow and open middle school or high school programs.

Lastly, AB 1507 would eliminate a rarely used exemption that allows a charter school to operate outside the boundaries of the district in which it was approved in the event it can’t find a suitable location within that area.

Claudia Weintraub is the director at River Oaks Academy, a home-school-based program with 300 students and offices in Oxnard and Westlake Village that offers personalized learning plans and a flexible schedule that can’t be found locally.

Weintraub said parents should have a choice when it comes to cell carriers, grocery stores and schools.

“All of our parents want a choice. The public school system did not work for them for one reason or another,” she said.

Tensions have been rising between California school districts and public charters as competition for attendance-based funding has increased. By law, districts like CVUSD must provide accommodations to charters, but they do receive facility use fees in return.

The number of charter schools in California has steadily increased since 1992, when the state passed legislation to allow them. As of this school year, public charter schools have opened in 54 of the state’s 58 counties, according to the Department of Education. The CDE reports that over 620,000 students—or roughly 10% of California’s student population— attend charter schools.

Brenda Olshever is the executive director at Meadows Arts and Technology Elementary School (MATES), which has an enrollment of 396 students. She taught at Meadows Elementary until the Conejo Valley school board voted to close it in 2008 due to a districtwide decline in enrollment.

A group of teachers and parents fought to keep the neighborhood school up and running as an arts and technology-based charter.

The CVUSD denied MATES’ application, so the school appealed to the Ventura County Office of Education and received approval for its charter.

Though amendments are still being made to the legislation, Olshever said, AB 1505 would limit the ability of charters to appeal to agencies outside of district boundaries like MATES and Bridges did. Olshever said school boards will usually deny a charter because they don’t want to lose attendance-based funding.

MATES has more than 90 students on its kindergarten waitlist.

“The money is not the districts’,” she said. “The money follows the students.”

Olshever said the proof is in the pudding when it comes to the success of charter schools. Last month, she said, Granada Hills Charter High School took top honors in the Academic Decathlon competition for the seventh year in a row.

The Assembly bills come close on the heels of SB 126, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in March. The bill requires public charter schools to abide by the same laws that apply to school districts when it comes to open meetings, public records and conflict-of-interest rules.

Kelly Simon, the director at Bridges Charter School, which serves 410 students, said charter schools in Ventura County already follow the same open meeting laws as public school districts.

The director said the rising cost of pensions and a lack of adequate state education funding drive much of the rivalry between public school districts and public charter schools.

“We’re all facing financial hardships from the state. . . .” Simon said. “All public schools are facing similar challenges, and it’s not the fault of charter schools.”

Bridges pays 1% of its ADA revenue to VCOE, which provides oversight to charters it approves.

CVUSD trustee Betsy Connolly said while the VCOE keeps careful watch over the schools it has authorized, other faraway agencies, like Acton-Agua Dulce Unified, authorize schools that operate within CVUSD boundaries and do not provide the same level of oversight.

One such school is Compass Charter Schools of Los Angeles, a K-12 home-school program with an office on Hampshire Road and an enrollment of 579 students, according to the CDE. The California School Dashboard shows that the school has a graduation rate ranked in the red category, the lowest classification possible.

“Those other districts are approving charters that have no impact on the approving district, so they’re doing it for financial gain and then experiencing no pain,” Connolly said.

The CDE reports that the Thousand Oaks branch of Compass Charter Schools of Los Angeles received $5 million in funding for the 2018-19 school year.

As the authorizing entity, Acton Agua Dulce Unified is entitled to from 1% to 3% of that funding.