Making sense of the senseless war on California’s charter schools
There is an alarming and growing pushback across the country against charter schools, with the biggest arguably in California. Two charter school focused bills have already been signed into law recently, with four more still under consideration. Of these, three were the focus of an LA Time Editorial Board piece on April 29th. The title hints at the challenge to balance all the perspectives, and the risks of title-news-bite consumption:
"California is weighing bills — some helpful, others vicious — to rein in charter schools".
Keep in mind that the printed version of the same editorial is:
"Toughening up on charter schools, finally"
As a the founder and leader of a charter school in Los Angeles for over 14 years, I can tell you that is has been tough and viscous for quite awhile. But the coming academic year shows clear signs that it's about to get even harder.
The message of the editorial is mixed because there is a deep context needed by the reader to make sense of this piece's input to a highly contentious debate. Even the picture for the online publication of the piece is muddled, showing a man in red at a rally staged by the local teachers union against the California Charter School Association holding a sign that reads:
"PUT THE MONEY where the STUDENTS ARE!"
The LA Times Editorial Board surely saw the irony given that the California charter school law does EXACTLY that: puts public dollars where the students are, i.e., the public schools they choose to ATTEND, whether it be a traditional district school or a charter. This picture is like a Rorschach Test for which side of the debate you are on.
But when you get past the title and the photo, it is very clear which side the LA Times editorial board is on, describing the anti-charter laws currently in the legislature as "vindictive", "nasty", "vicious" and "based on ... ham-fisted politics." Then the piece puts some charter schools in a favorable light, including those that have "provided safe, well-run havens of education in areas that desperately needed them."
In it's quick analysis of the three anti-charter bills, it tangentially points the reader to one of the biggest issues for charter school law in California: the inherent conflict of interest between the local districts and the charter schools within their boundaries to which parents CHOOSE to send their kids. This might be part of the genius of the California charter laws. Yes, put the fox in charge of the chicken coup, BUT only with a safe out for the chickens. That is what the current appeals path represents for charter schools that can go to the county office of education, and if needed the State Board of Education. This is exactly what our school did in 2010 and 2015 when the local overseers unjustly moved to close our school. With no appeal rights there is nothing to safeguard against a hungry fox. The editorial is correct to be against a bill (AB1505) that would eliminate a "much-needed avenue for appeal" without additional oversight controls.
The LA Times points to "some good ideas in the bills", calling for "better oversight" and "more willingness to close" under-performing charter schools. This is actually an indictment of the oversight, not of the concept of charter school or the schools in and of themselves. At a state Senate Education Committee hearing in October of 2017, this very insightful question was made: "Who is providing oversight of the charter school overseers?"
Overall, most readers of the editorial will have to recognize that the piece more than once unmasks the package of bills as an attempt to "halt the charter movement in its tracks" with "a mixed bag of helpful ideas and downright vicious ones" which would "squash the formation of potentially great charter schools..." That is, assuming the reader reads the whole piece. Please do. That way you’ll be able to interpret the comments posted online... which quickly go in both directions, just like the now nationally-polarized debate.
Of course in California, and in the many other states where this dynamic is playing out, like New York, we can’t go in both directions. We must not let all charter schools be stopped under the banner of fixing them. Let's at least start by recognizing what is a fox and what is a chicken. This editorial does.
Executive Director, Academia Avance
Board Chair, The Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools