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Charter school law: recipe for creating elite schools?

Original post made by Pat Gemma on Oct 23, 2006

Below are remarks by Pat Gemma, superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District, during an Oct. 19 meeting in San Jose on charter schools. The event was chaired by State Sen. Joe Simitian.

In 1983, T Green, an American educational researcher, wrote an article about the ways public policy and regulations have been able to influence excellence, equity, and equality in public schools. One of the conclusions he drew from his study was, "Minimizing evil is the proper aim of public policies - maximizing good is probably not."
Charter School Law is public policy in California. What is the intent of Charter School Law? To what degree is Charter School Law designed to minimize evil, and to what degree is it designed to maximize good?
One of the features of California Charter School Law is to enable a group of individuals to form its own school funded with tax dollars. The founders of this new school are encouraged to set aside bureaucratic regulations and policy and experiment with new structures, instructional delivery, and even curricular content.
The goal of this bold new policy was to provide improved educational opportunities for "especially the low performing students." One of the strategies to achieve this goal is also written in the law. That strategy is to provide competition to the traditional public schools. Perhaps some believe that traditional public schools have become too much of a monopoly which will not change from within unless there is an external competitor vying for the same funding source (tax dollars).
Well, what have we seen since the enactment of the 1992 Charter School Legislation? I can only answer this question from a singular perspective, acknowledging there are other experiences and points of view.
Since 1992 I have read about unscrupulous individuals exploiting the Charter School legislation for their own personal gain. It is apparent to me that these cases occurred, because no one was "minding the store."
Over the last eight years, I have heard the stories of over a dozen superintendent colleagues regarding charter schools in their respective districts which have become "white flight" schools, or schools for the "aristocratic elite." Are these schools providing a unique curriculum or are they also marketing themselves in a manner which promotes the growth of an elite student body and implies that low performing students need not apply.
I have personal knowledge of a charter school which recently approached a district for sponsorship. The school had previously been sponsored by a district over a hundred miles away. Subsequent legislation closed that particular loophole of absentee sponsorships.
In its petition, the charter high school wanted the sponsoring district to accept a "founding families program." This program guaranteed a family's son or daughter admission upon entering the ninth grade. To earn this priority the family had to commit to 25 or 30 hours of volunteer time.
When the sponsoring district looked deeper into this matter it discovered that some founding families had made sizable donations to the charter school's foundation. More importantly, it was further discovered that over 80 percent of the founding families lived in some of the most affluent cities or towns in the State. Some of these cities were outside the sponsoring school district's boundaries.
It was also discovered that, if all the founding families' students were given priority over other students, over 50 percent of each of the incoming freshman classes for the next seven years would be students from these founding families.
The founding families program seemed to the sponsoring district to be a recipe for creating an exclusive rather than an inclusive school.
The sponsoring district granted a two-year charter and denied the founding family program. The two-year charter gave the school time to recruit a student population similar to the population of the sponsoring district.
The charter school continues to recruit from the affluent cities and towns in the area. At a recent recruitment event, it was stated that the charter school will fight to reinstate the founding family program, because it believes this is the school's right, and it is in keeping with the purpose and strategies of charter school law.
Perhaps the charter school will win this battle, because even if they are denied a renewal by the sponsoring district, they can appeal to the County and then to the State for sponsorship.
The intent of the founding family programs and other preference programs for involved parents is to circumvent the state-mandated admissions lottery for all students who live in the attendance area. By providing unequal access opportunities, these schools are functioning as if they were private schools. No public K-12 school could ever survive legal scrutiny where preferences were given to white families with high incomes, high education levels, and an ability to donate funds and/or time.
In another district I witnessed an independent charter school set aside the advice or direction of the sponsoring district. The charter school stated to the sponsoring district, "We are a charter school, and you have no authority to tell us what to do." The charter school then proceeded to take out a loan with an 18 percent interest rate, and subsequently discovered that it had overestimated its tax revenue by double. The charter school ultimately went bankrupt and was revoked by the sponsoring district. After over a half million dollars in legal fees, the sponsoring district and the lending bank are still in court.
This case points to one of the major flaws of charter law. The law has created a lack of alignment between authority and responsibility. The sponsoring district has responsibility but little or no authority.
While I could go on with many more observations or personal experiences, I would like to end with this last point. It is clear in the charter law that the Legislature wants local school boards to "encourage the formation of charter schools," and only limited reasons are provided for a sponsoring district to turn down a charter petition. In fact, a sponsoring district may not deny a charter petition merely because the existence of that charter school will have a negative financial impact on the sponsoring district. Please realize this constraint exists in a state where public education is significantly underfunded.
This means a locally elected school board is forced to turn its back on the children and families it serves and send its limited funds to a school it must both compete with and, at the same time, encourage. Additionally, it has little or no authority over the charter school -- yet it maintains significant fiscal responsibility.
When a school board approves a charter petition it is taking from the many to give to the few. The board is then limited in its ability to manage the tax dollars and budget for which it is responsible. When one takes from the many to give to the few, and the few are children from upper middle class and wealthy families, the chasm between the haves and have-nots widens and greater inequities result.
As we all continue to live with charter schools, perhaps we will have the wisdom and courage to pass modifying legislation that will minimize evil. I would suggest the following two areas for legislative relief:
(1) Enhance local regulatory control in ways other than charter revocation, and
(2) Clarify the Legislature's intent that charter schools are to foster diversity and serve primarily low performing students, that no family is exempt from participation in an admission lottery, and that failure to respond to the Legislature's intent would constitute grounds for revocation.

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