Funk: A look at charter school reform — what is needed?
Sí Se Puede Academy, a Rocketship charter school in San Jose, is pictured here. Photo courtesy of Rocketship.

At the end of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s tenure, charter school opponents sought relief in the “Charter Schools Act of 1992.” Specifically, school districts were seeking the ability to deny a charter based on financial stress to a district.

Although no legislation was passed, the spark was generated.

Within the first two months of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s tenure, he signed Senate Bill 126, which requires California’s charter schools to follow the same laws governing open meetings, public records and conflicts of interest that apply to school districts.

The law includes ensuring board meetings are open to the public, providing records to the public upon request and, to prevent personal gain, banning board members from voting on contracts in which they have a financial interest.

The original intent of the Charter Schools Act of 1992 was to provide a school of choice to parents who had an underperforming school in their neighborhood and to provide innovative teaching methods and professional opportunities for teachers. It also included a statewide cap of 100 charter schools.

Today, there are 1,300-plus  public charter schools throughout California.

In East Side Union High School District (ESUSHD), we have 13 charter schools; 10 district approved, 2 approved by the Santa Clara County Board of Education and 1 approved by the California State Board of Education. East Side parents have 26 public high schools from which to choose from. Parents clearly have a choice within ESUHSD.

I have yet to see any type of innovative teaching coming out of charter schools that you will not see taking place in our public, non-charter schools. Granted, professional development is easier for a school with the size of 20 to 30 staff members than a school with 80 to 120 staff members, but the type of professional development is not unique or more effective.

To be fair, you will find outstanding teaching in some charter schools just as you will find outstanding teaching in all ESUHSD schools. Our teachers are more highly-qualified and make teaching a career compared to the high turnover rate at most charter schools.

Approximately 3,500 students have left ESUSHD to attend charter schools and we have lost approximately $15 million due to charter school enrollment.

School districts such as ESUHSD are seeking an enrollment cap in the number of charter schools within a specific geographic location and the ability to deny a new charter school petition due to fiscal solvency.

Declining enrollment, increase in pension costs and increase in costs to provide special education services to our students with special needs is forcing us into deficit spending and requiring us to make significant cuts to services to our 22,000 students we serve.

One of the biggest fiscal impacts that separates public schools from charter schools is serving students with special needs. Although most of the charters in our district serve students that have mild to moderate learning disabilities, the greater impact is serving students who are moderate to severe and/or who have severe medical or emotional needs.

Some students require services that a school or district is unable to support and, in the best interest of the student, requires placement in a non-public school (NPS).

The cost of placing a student in an NPS can be upwards of $100,000. In 2016-17, only two students in our charter schools were placed in an NPS; whereas, ESUHSD placed 88 students. The district also placed more than 240 students in Santa Clara County schools; while no students in charters were placed in a county program.

It has been clearly documented for years now that public entities are struggling with the rising costs of pensions. Under Gov. Brown, there’s been a 16 percent increase to public school employer contributions to the state pension program. For ESUHSD, this equates to a $14 million increase in expenses over a six-year period with no new money to support.

It is for the reasons above that school districts are advocating legislation which permits authorizing agencies the ability to deny a charter school petition based upon its fiscal impact. Below are some key proposed legislation making its way through the legislature.

  • AB 1505 (Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach), which would make significant changes to the charter school authorization and renewal process by giving school districts more discretion in denying charter school petitions.
  • AB 1506 (Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento), which would cap the number of charter schools statewide at the number of charter schools operating as of January 1, 2020, and would prohibit school districts, county offices of education or the State Board of Education from authorizing a new charter school unless an existing charter school under its jurisdiction closes.
  • AB 1507 (Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita), which would prohibit a school district from approving a petition for a charter school that will operate outside the district’s boundaries, and would allow for a charter school to establish one resource center within the jurisdiction of the school district where the charter school is located.

In ESUHSD, we are not looking at eliminating current charters.

We are simply requesting relief in the law to allow us to deny any new charter school petition because we have met the intent of the Charter Schools Act of 1992. We have worked and will continue to work collaboratively with our charters within East Side to provide a collection of excellent schools for our community to choose from.

San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at [email protected] or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.

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