Your Guide To The Biggest Changes To California Charter School Laws Since 1992
California school boards now have enhanced powers to block new charter schools from opening in their districts under a sweeping piece of charter school legislation signed into law on Oct. 3 by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
But "high-performing" charter schools could also soon have an easier time securing the permissions they need to remain open.
Add these two elements together, and you've got a basic outline of Assembly Bill 1505, which cleared the state Senate on Sept. 9 and won final approval in the Assembly on Sept. 10. The bill -- the result of a bargain struck between the state's teachers unions and some charter school advocates -- represents the most consequential re-write to California's charter school laws since they were first passed 27 years ago.
And the state's charter school sector has mixed feelings about it.
JUST NOW: CA Assembly has voted to finally send #AB1505 to Gov. Newsom.— Kyle Stokes (@kystokes) September 10, 2019
The sweeping package of changes to the CA's #charterschools laws raises new hurdles to opening new schools but, at @CALcharters’ insistence, will preserve some key protections—including appeal rights. #caleg pic.twitter.com/L6y180GDUP
When the bill came forward in January, the powerful California Charter Schools Association saw the legislation as an "existential threat" to all 1,300 charter schools in the state. But late last month, Newsom's office announced it had brokered a deal to amend the bill and address some of CCSA's biggest concerns.
Those amendments led CCSA to drop its opposition. Now, CCSA leaders say the amended bill represents a reasonable compromise.
"What underpins the agreement around AB 1505," said Carlos Marquez, the charter association's senior vice president of government relations, "is the idea that high-quality charter schools are here to stay."
But several other high-profile, pro-charter school groups disagree.
"This [bill] will be very detrimental to those who want to start new schools," said Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter School Development Center -- and he thinks even some existing charters will have their growth stunted or worse.
THE ISSUE: WHEN CAN DISTRICTS SAY 'NO' TO CHARTERS?
AB 1505 is a comprehensive overhaul of the state laws detailing how charter schools are "authorized" in California.
Charter schools are publicly-funded schools run by non-profit organizations, not school districts. In order to open, a charter's operators obtain permission from their district's school board -- their "authorizer." To remain open, a charter operator must ask their authorizer for a "renewal" every three to five years.
Many critics, California's powerful teachers unions chief among them, complain that state law gives school district leaders very little power to say "no" to these charter requests to open or expand.
Even some school board members grumble that they lack the power to block new schools from opening in neighborhoods already crowded with other charters. (For the record: charter advocates dispute this premise, saying some authorizers are reticent to use the powers they have.)
AB 1505 aims to change this balance of power.
Since February, California's teachers unions have touted the legislation as a means of slowing charter schools' steady growth statewide -- growth which critics believe siphons off funding from traditional, district-run school systems, particularly in urban areas: Los Angeles County alone is home to roughly one-quarter of the state's charters.
THE NOT-GREAT NEWS FOR CHARTER SCHOOLS
AB 1505 gives school districts two new justifications for blocking a new charter from opening:
- If a proposed charter school would be redundant: If the governor signs AB 1505, a school district (or any authorizer) would be able to deny a petition to open a new charter school that "duplicate[s] a program currently offered ... within reasonable proximity to where the charter school intends to locate." They could also use this provision to block "material revision" requests from charters, which allow charters to expand to add new grade levels or open new campuses.
- If a proposed charter school could (really) hurt district finances: A broadly worded section of the bill allows school districts to consider the "fiscal impact" when deciding whether a proposed charter school "would substantially undermine" existing schools in a neighborhood. (Charters, after all, are competing to enroll the same students as districts; enrollment equals funding.) A second, more narrowly worded section would also allow districts to block a charter if approving it would push the district's budget projections into deficit.
For the state's largest teachers unions -- the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers -- and the labor-backed coalition that's supported AB 1505 from the start, these new provisions are significant victories.
In a statement issued in late August, the unions said the bill "will lead to a more equitable learning environment for students in California's neighborhood public schools."
These provisions worry Veronica Brooks-Uy, the policy director for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
"If it's being done within the spirit of the law, then having those types of provisions are fine," she said. "The problem is if you have a district that is taking advantage of those provisions and using them as an excuse."
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COULD THIS MEAN FEWER CHARTER SCHOOLS?
"There is an element of risk," CCSA's Carlos Marquez conceded, that these new guidelines could create new bumps in the road for petitioners set on opening or expanding charter schools.
However, the final legislation stripped language in earlier versions of AB 1505 that would have gutted charter school applicants' rights to appeal to the county Board of Education. As part of the deal with charter advocates to amend AB 1505, Marquez said, this appeal right remains intact.
Charter school operators fought hard to preserve that right. In L.A. Unified, charter schools denied by the district's school board often successfully appeal to the L.A. County Office of Education.
CCSA believes districts will have to meet a high standard of proof under the new legislation to invoke the "undermining" or "fiscal impact" provisions. So long as charters can appeal the decision to the county, a solid applicant should be able to get approval, the group says.
"District behavior has already tacked toward this idea that fiscal impact and program duplication is a defensible reason for denial," Marquez said. "Codifying that in statute really doesn't change the world from where we sit so long as we can preserve -- and we have -- de novo appeal at the county."
Premack, the Charter Schools Development Center leader, is less optimistic about the new legislation.
While appeal rights to county offices remain intact, AB 1505 phases out the State Board of Education as an authorizer -- and, Premack said, limits the State Board's discretion to reverse county-level decisions. He worries that this will give counties more leeway to judge charter school applications more harshly.
"For those schools that are content with the status quo," Premack said, "and located in counties with county boards that are either neutral or favor charter schools, I think those schools will be in pretty good shape.
"The ones we're concerned about," he added, "are any schools that are located in counties with less-friendly boards and/or that would like to add grade levels or grow. And this will be very detrimental to those who want to start new schools."
WHAT CHARTER SCHOOLS GOT OUT OF THE DEAL
But Brooks-Uy from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said other portions of AB 1505 handed charter school advocates some pretty clear wins. Such as:
- 'High-performing' charter schools will have an easier renewal process: Existing charter schools with two consecutive years of strong test scores, graduation rates or performance by English learners cannot be denied a renewal -- unless the school district can document serious concerns with how the charter is being run. Not only will they be presumed renewed, they'll be able to fill out a streamlined application, and could even earn renewal for as long as seven years, rather than the usual five years.
- Low-performing charter schools will have a harder time getting renewed: Conversely, AB 1505 says school districts "shall not renew a charter" if it's received two straight years of poor ratings on California's Dashboard rating system. But charter school leaders will have the opportunity to make the case that their students are showing growth and that the school is "taking meaningful steps to address the underlying cause or causes of low performance" -- and district leaders are required by the bill to take these mitigating factors into account.
Officials for Green Dot Public Schools -- which operates 20 charter schools in L.A. County -- had dropped their earlier opposition to AB 1505 by the time the bill passed. In a statement, Green Dot spokesman Sean Thibault cited these new renewal provisions as critical to their support.
"Closing the state's achievement gap through greater incentives and accountability is the main force that should guide charter school openings/closings -- and that's what this agreement does," the statement read. "Performance matters and the academic needs of students must always guide decisions."
The bill allows for charters to submit evidence beyond standardized test scores and English learner metrics as part of their renewal efforts. But some advocates found the focus on those conventional metrics is troubling. Charter schools focused on vocational or career-technical programs, for example, don't fit well into those evaluation systems.
Premack said the bill "decreases the risk for conventional schools that serve higher-achieving populations and increases the risk for more innovative schools that serve more challenging populations."
Bill Lucia, head of the pro-charter advocacy group EdVoice, registered a similar concern in a July letter to state Senate lawmakers.
"AB 1505 limits the evidence of academic achievement to statewide tests in grades and subjects that may not be offered by the charter school," Lucia wrote, "establishing a charade that academic achievement would carry the greatest weight in making a decision on renewal."
(A representative for EdVoice said the organization still opposed to the bill, even after the amendments, but that Lucia was not available for further comment.)
On Oct. 3, Gov. Newsom signed AB 1505, which emerged from a compromise his office helped forge.
The broad-ranging legislation also goes beyond charter authorization. It also phases in new teacher credentialing requirements and creates a two-year moratorium on new virtual charter schools starting in January 2020, among other provisions in the bill.
The big question, though, is whether the deal will slow charter schools' growth -- and only time will tell.
Premack, who helped craft California's original charter school laws in 1992, wonders why charter advocates were willing to cut a deal at all. AB 1505 barely eked out of the Assembly in May. He thinks charter critics might've had a tougher time pushing their original bill through the Senate. So why compromise?
CCSA's Marquez said the deal "cleared the deck" for broader compromises on other issues that unite advocates for both charter and district-run schools -- like their desire for increased funding for all K-12 public schools.
The deal, Marquez said, "is a proof point that we can work together and get really big things done for kids. That should be the springboard off which we can create the space, and have a greater focus on the issues that impact the entire system."
UPDATE, Oct. 3, 12:30 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 1505 into law.