When a group of parents submitted a petition to the Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD) to create a Mandarin Immersion Charter School (MMICS), they may not have been expecting the emotional firestorm of concerned opposition that met their request. This quick divide in the community is just one of the unintended consequences of a well-intentioned law. The "Charter Schools Act of 1992" opened the door to creating more charter schools in California and is an important tool for communities with underperforming school districts. For high performing districts, however, there are substantial costs to the establishment of charter schools. While the MPCSD evaluates whether or not the petition meets the legal requirements, the petitioners should consider the concerns raised by district leaders, parents and community members. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.
To be clear, charter schools have an important place, but they are most successful when there is broad-based community support and careful planning?particularly about physical space?to ensure that other district students are not hurt in the process of establishing a charter school. If the turn out at Tuesday night's public hearing is any indication, broad based support is lacking; the vast majority of the more than 200 people who turned out seemed to be against the MMICS proposal. An online petition against the charter school garnered over 400 signatures within 24 hours and currently has around 1100.
Unintended Consequences: Costs To A Community
The MPCSD is currently struggling to deal with a student population that has grown steadily over the past decade while grappling with the economic pullback that impacted property tax revenue. Despite that, the district has highly ranked schools which are aided by parent donations and to the support of the community in the form of parcel taxes. This charter school proposal adds a number of additional challenges to the district.
? The adoption of a new charter school would legally force the district to fund students (@$6500-$7000 per student) from outside the school district (MPCSD would receive 70% of a funding reimbursement for students from Revenue Limit Districts (i.e., Redwood City, Ravenswood), but no reimbursement students from other Basic Aid districts like Los Lomitas and Palo Alto. There are likely to be many students from outside the district (by my calculation, the MMICS petition itself had over 20% of its signatures from interested parents outside the district, including from Los Lomitas, Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Carlos and Sunnyvale.)
? The redirection of resources to accommodate this specialized language immersion charter school would, ironically, likely indefinitely suspend the "Language For All" extension of the MPCSD's Spanish program. The district had intended to establish an early Spanish program for grades K-5 but had to suspend those efforts years ago due to the downturn in the economy. (Note: the district was successful in establishing a K-5th Spanish Immersion program that began six years ago at the K level with an additional grade level being added each year. )
? Perhaps most concerning, petitioners have stated that they intend to seek facilities from the MPCSD. Under Proposition 39, the district would have to provide "reasonably equivalent" facilities to the charter school if it enrolls at least 80 district students. (Ironically, the district had rented a campus location to a private language immersion school, the German American school, for years but because there is so much crowding within the district, the MPCSD had to forgo the rental income for that space and retain it as a campus to accommodate current student population needs.)
While the MMICS petitioners are pushing for a fast implementation, they need only look about 8 miles south of us to find an example of why this should not be rushed. The establishment of the Bullis Charter School began in 2003, but fast forward almost 10 years and a cost to the Los Altos School District of approximately 1.6 million in legal fees alone, and one finds that the issue is still a top topic in the current school board election and that tensions are still running high because of the realities of the new school.
"There are a ton of costs to a community that doesn't really need a charter school?that already has excellent schools. But if people are passionate about starting a school even in a place like Menlo Park, then they should absolutely learn from the 10+ year battle that we in Los Altos have gone through," says Los Altos School District parent Jennifer Doyas. "We have learned that starting a charter school needs to be carefully thought out and that space for the school needs to be clearly identified in advance." Mrs. Doyas's three children are a few of the many impacted. Her oldest daughter is a student at Egan Junior High School and her campus is split with Bullis Charter School. Her two younger children attend one of the seven high achieving elementary schools in the Los Altos School District. She laments that each year, parents in the district have had to worry about whether or not they would be the ones losing their "neighborhood school" to the charter school. Aside from the substantial legal costs, the LASD Board has had to spend much of its time and energy dealing with the charter school issue.
The upcoming election in Los Altos holds one more potentially negative unintended consequence of the charter school implementation: making the passage of bond measures at the ballot box more uncertain. The Los Altos School District is hoping to pass Measure N, which would provide bond funding to alleviate the overcrowding in their growing district by enabling them to update and add to their classroom space. Normally, there would be a confidence in the Measure's passage. However, given negative community sentiment about the charter school, many are greatly concerned it won't pass. While the LASD and the charter school boards have recently shown positive signs toward working together, the Los Altos community as a whole is very wary of supporting anything to do with the charter school.
Can that be avoided in Menlo Park? One certainly hopes so. One bright spot that came out of the public hearing on Tuesday is that there seems to be greater public support for incorporating a Mandarin language program within the district. If the goal is to seek greater language immersion programming?and there was nothing presented by the petitioners that criticized the current education being provided by the MPCSD other than the lack of a Mandarin immersion program?then those options should be exhausted before putting the education of a broader community of children at risk. Resources are not infinite, and if the district cannot prioritize a Mandarin Immersion program as quickly as the petitioners would like, they may have to consider a private school option like the
International School of the Peninsula.
I am hopeful that the petitioners of the charter school will rescind their petition and opt to work with the district to achieve something realistic given budget priorities. If a charter school is ever to be established, it should be done cautiously and with tremendous care. To not do so is to ignore the painfully obtained lessons readily available to us.