School board moves to increase charter school oversight

A resolution calling for more oversight and accountability for charter schools opening and operating in San Francisco passed unanimously at the Board of Education Tuesday.

The resolution, authored by Board Vice President Stevon Cook and Commissioner Mark Sanchez, drew dozens of supporters as well as opposition from charter school leaders who argued they were already adhering to many of the same standards and regulations that San Francisco’s public schools are required to follow.

“I also honestly struggled the first time I read the resolution — the language within it — the way it felt as if it was an attack on what we do, who we are, without being part of the process,” said Sharon Olken, executive director at Gateway Public Schools, a charter school network that has been in operation in San Francisco since 1998. “It felt unfair, honestly, based on all that I think we have in common, and the ways in which we are working in partnership.”

The resolution alleges, among other things, that some of The City’s most vulnerable and most challenging students to serve are not admitted into charter schools, namely “those with special education needs … social-emotional needs, newcomers, English learners, foster youth and homeless/transitional students.”

According to the resolution, these student subgroups are “at times ‘counselled out’ of charter schools, undermining the communities these schools purport to support.” The resolution directs the district to conduct a “thorough” analysis of the “fiscal, educational and socio-emotional impacts” that charters have on San Francisco’s students.

“By no means do I think that all charters are evil,” said Sanchez. “The is issue of who is served by [some] charter schools… that are appealing to the state, over our heads. They want to serve and do serve poor African American and Latino students. But the way the charter school law is written — they will never serve the most at risk African American and Latino students because [they] cannot get into those schools.”

This analysis will investigate the demographics of San Francisco charter schools in comparison to public non-charter schools and to what extent funding is diverted from the district’s schools by charter schools operating alongside them, among other things.

“This resolution is about determining whether this is happening or not. Should we have control or not? Should local parents have control?” said Cook. “This is the start of a new era of transparency, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it brings about.”

SFUSD is required under state law to provide space to charter schools that request it, often resulting in the co-location of traditional and charter schools in the same facilities, which public school advocates say has put SFUSD’s students at a disadvantage.

“Imagine your children not being able to use the bathrooms when they need to — That’s what we deal with at Malcolm X right now. We didn’t have the opportunity as a community to speak out about what was going on at our school,” said Ebony Scott, the mother of a student at Malcolm X Academy in the Bayview District.

The K-5 school was recently forced to cede 11 of its classrooms in a mandatory co-location with a charter school. Scott described the experience as a “hostile takeover.”

The report mandated by the resolution will “take into account the impact of charter school co-location on the existing campus and students attending other schools within the surrounding community” before new charter schools are approved and strengthens the district’s current regulations around approving co-locations.

“In my 10 years on school board I have gotten increasingly frustrated with the way the state charter law and Board of Education ties the hands of local school boards,” said Commissioner Rachel Norton. “There is almost no way to engage the community around that, and what happens is that communities that already feel somewhat abandoned by us find themselves sharing a space suddenly with other schools.”

State education code does not require charter schools to report data on student expulsions and suspensions to the same degree as traditional public schools, and charters are not required to “track and publicly report data about their students, internal practices, and policies to the same standard as SFUSD schools,” per the resolution.

It is the latest iteration following several revisions, including to its language, that acknowledge and clarify that not all charter schools operate in the same spirit.

“I do think we as a board have the responsibility of encouraging more accountability and transparency of charters,” said Commissioner Emily Murase. “It sounds like there are quite a few charters that already do these things.”

Still, the commissioners presented a united front in demanding that increased local control be granted to the San Francisco Unified in vetting new charter schools and then monitoring their operations.

The resolution will enable SFUSD to verify parent signatures needed to petition for a new charter school to open its doors within in the district, and directs the district to enact legislation that among other things would mandate that charter schools under its oversight comply with the Ralph M. Brown Act — a state law that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies— and the California Public Records Act, as well as conflict of interest laws.

The district will also be tasked with establishing a Charter School Oversight Committee that is open to community participation and will review charter school student data and complaints on a monthly basis.

Some charter school leaders present at Tuesday’s board hearing requested to also be granted a seat at the table. 

Patrick Walsh, of the California Charter Schools Association, said that he formerly worked as a charter school authorizer and “closed down more than 10 charter schools for failing to perform, failing to serve special education student and failing to meet their academic expectorations.” 

“CCSA and the charters in this room and in San Francisco are not shirking their responsibility,” said Walsh. “I do want to remind the board that there are thousands of families choosing charter schools every day in our city and there is a reason for that.” 

Walsh said that charters are required to “submit the same data” as district schools across the state and asked that a “charter school representative be specifically named” on the oversight committee.

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