President’s Message: Emma Turner
Emma Turner
Let the quest for quality guide our work in charter school reform

On Monday, April 22, I contributed to one of California’s most significant policy discussions when I joined CSBA staff at the Capitol for a press and legislative briefing on CSBA’s report Uncharted Waters: Recommendations for Prioritizing Student Achievement and Effective Governance in California’s Charter Schools. The Uncharted Waters report has gained additional resonance as pending legislation intensifies the debate over charters. In fact, some of its recommendations on transparency and accountability were already adopted into law when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 126 on March 5.

That development was gratifying, as it validated years of CSBA research, advocacy and leadership in the area of charter reform. Uncharted Waters provides a potential roadmap as the Legislature finally begins to address the issue in earnest. The report focuses on charter schools and their impact in four key areas:

  • Quality Expectations
  • Equitable Access
  • Equity, Governance and Transparency
  • Elevating and Replicating What Works in Public Education

These four points of emphasis spark a larger conversation than that of so-called traditional public schools versus charters. They open a conversation on how we can provide a high-quality education for all students. What’s too often lost in the charter debate is the fate of California’s 6.2 million public school students. As I recently wrote in an op-ed for CALmatters, public schools have underserved segments of our student population for far too long. The shortcomings of the public school system have created a void, one which others have tried to fill. The results have been decidedly mixed, but the mere existence of charters highlights the desire for strong schools that capably serve and provide equitable access to a diverse student population.

Charter schools can be a helpful part of this solution, but only if the solution is strategic and takes the health of the entire public education system into account. In contrast, California’s haphazard charter laws force school boards to grapple with loopholes and unintended consequences, creating havoc in a state with the most charter schools in the country.

In an environment where schools have insufficient resources to begin with, it’s critical that authorizers have the ability to consider the district as a whole. Yet, existing charter law compels authorizers to ignore critical factors like the financial impact on existing schools. In some districts, multiple charter schools are approved on appeal, overriding the denial by the local school board. In others, districts are forced to accept charters within their boundaries that have been approved by school boards in completely different towns or even different counties. This is compounded by the growing pressure districts face from sharply rising costs and flat funding levels. As a result, districts must make difficult tradeoffs that potentially hurt some of the very students the Charter Schools Act was intended to help.

With this in mind, CSBA’s report recommends prohibiting changes to the charter petition on appeal, providing districts with more time to act on a petition, requiring that petitioners demonstrate why their proposed model cannot be accomplished within the school district structure, evaluating charter school impact on districts, strengthening requirements for charter resource centers (typically a facility used to proctor exams and provide student services) and limiting out-of-district charters (charters approved by one school district but located within the boundaries of another district).

These measures are critical because school board members and county office of education trustees are the primary authorizers for charter school petitions. They also act as stewards of the districts and county offices that are impacted by charter schools. As a result, trustees have an invaluable perspective on charter legislation, which, if passed, will need to be implemented by school boards.

It’s time to recognize that quality charters have a role in public education and to insist that California correct the shortcomings of the charter authorization process and account for the impact of charters on students in neighboring schools and throughout the district.