Gov. Gavin Newsom late on Tuesday, March 5 signed into law Senate Bill 126, which ensures that all corporate charter schools are held to the same transparency and accountability standards as neighborhood public schools.
During the debate on the Senate bill and several still-pending Assembly measures, charter school advocates were concerned about the impact of the legislative initiatives aimed at their growing industry, which includes non-profit and for-profit schools.
Traditional public school officials and teacher union representatives said they believe that new oversight of charter schools is long overdue and will establish an equal playing field for their districts.
“The charter schools industry is concerned with the package of bills that was introduced as they could have a devastating impact on the ability to provide equitable choices and education for all students,” said Kirsten Carr, of the non-profit Navigator Schools, which operates charters in both Gilroy and Hollister.
Senate Bill 126, along with Assembly Bills 1505, 1506, 1507 and 1508, could change the landscape of how charter schools have been allowed to operate under the existing charter school law established in 1992 and amended in 1998.
“The Morgan Hill Federation (of Teachers) has advocated for increased charter school transparency and accountability for many years because they receive public funds,” MHFT President Gemma Abels said. “We applaud the legislature for prioritizing this bill that makes Charter School and Charter Management Board subject to the same rules on open meetings and conflict of interest as all public school boards.”
The new law will make charter schools abide by the same Brown Act opening-meeting laws as traditional public school districts, and require public elections of its school board members, who are now appointed. The Senate bill also requires conflict-of-interest disclosures by charter school board members.
In Morgan Hill, 840 students are in two charter schools.
Charter schools in Gilroy and Hollister have 540 and 480 students, respectively.
At the Charter School of Morgan Hill, which has been in operation for more than a decade, Executive Director Paige Cisewski said her school already follows all open meetings laws.
Her charter school “believes in transparency and follows open meeting, conflict-of-interest and disclosure laws,” Cisewski said, adding it “adheres to the Brown Act, the Public Records Act and the Political Reform Act—just like district schools.”
“As an integral part of the local public school community, Navigator believes in and practices transparency at our board meetings,” Carr said. “Our meetings have always followed the Brown Act, are open to the public, have our agendas posted online, and all of our board members adhere to our conflict-of-interest code.”
At the county level, where Santa Clara County’s Office of Education oversees 22 charter schools, Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan explained that open meeting laws are incorporated into the binding agreements it makes with charter companies under its purview.
“It doesn’t specifically say that (is required) under the existing law. That lack of clarity creates a gray area in some cases for some charter schools and for some authorizers,” said Dewan. “A majority of charter schools do a pretty good job and share in the understanding, but just having that clarity would be helpful and provide transparency with the use of public dollars.”
Four charter-related Assembly bills introduced by the California Teachers Association are the source of much of the charter schools’ anxiety.
AB1505 focuses on more local control by requiring charter schools to gain authorization and renewal solely with the local school district, and takes away the ability to appeal the local decisions with the county and state boards.
Navigator has two schools authorized through Gilroy Unified and Hollister school districts. However, it was rejected twice by Morgan Hill Unified as well as losing on appeal with the county. More recently, Navigator—which was also unsuccessful in two Salinas school districts—won on a state appeal for its Watsonville charter after failing to do so in Santa Cruz County.
The Assembly bill would take a hefty workload away from the county office, which reviews charter petitions at nearly every one of its meetings.
Dewan acknowledged that some local school districts could reject a charter school petition regardless of what it brings to the table, because of a perceived negative impact on the district. In Morgan Hill, Navigator (twice), Rocketship and Voices Academies were all rejected for various reasons based on the 13 elements required by law. The Charter School of Morgan Hill is the only district-authorized charter in Morgan Hill; Voices operates on a county charter.
The Morgan Hill teachers’ union “will continue to advocate for further charter school reform including expanding the reasons a district may deny a charter school petition, and ensuring charter schools provide the same financial transparency for public funds as all public entities,” said Abels.
AB1506 puts a cap on the growth of charter schools, only allowing new ones to open in place of old charter schools that go out of business. AB1507 assures that charter schools only operate within its operating district. AB1508 would change the existing charter law to “allow authorizers to consider facilities, fiscal and academic impact on the district when considering new charter school petitions.” Currently, boards are not allowed to take into account the impact on their district.
“These bills, with the exception of SB126, as introduced and if passed, can have traumatic effects on students who have already been among the traditionally underserved for generations,” Carr warned. “Charter schools provide an opportunity to incubate and beta test new learning and teaching strategies which can then be shared with other traditional public schools.”