Ongoing efforts by the San Francisco Unified School District to hold charter schools operating within its boundaries to a greater level of accountability could soon gain support from two pieces of state legislation.
Assembly Bill 1505 would, among other things, significantly increase local control of the charter approval process for school districts across the state, while AB 1507 aims to tackle a loophole in current law that has allowed school districts to approve charters outside of their boundaries.
The two bills started out as part of a package of four bills that, among other things, sought to place a moratorium on charter school growth. Both are expected to move to the Senate Appropriations Committee this month for hearings.
In San Francisco, school district leaders have long struggled with regulating what they have described as a “rapidly growing sector of the educational system” that has not been required to adhere to the same standards as traditional public schools.
Under state law, SFUSD is required to provide space to charter schools that request it, often resulting in the involuntary co-location of traditional and charter schools in the same facilities. Public school advocates have criticized charter co-locations for taking resources away from public school students.
“When charters operate with impunity and they know that they are taking dollars from us but are not accountable to us, that’s not a mechanism for accountability,” said San Francisco School Board Commissioner Alison Collins, who pointed to a recent petition for a new elementary school in the Bayview by the KIPP Charter consortium as an example of a situation that tied the hands of district leaders.
“They were denied at the local level and went to the state [to appeal]. They forced their way into Malcolm X Elementary School using Prop. 39, which forced our district to displace programming at [the public school] and do a co-location with KIPP at the Malcolm X site,” she said.
A spokesperson for KIPP did not return requests for comment by press time.
Last year — after several squabbles with charter school operators seeking to renew their petitions to operate within SFUSD — The City’s school board unanimously passed a resolution calling for the creation of a Charter School Oversight Committee to review charter school student data and complaints on a monthly basis.
The commissioners said at the time that the district often does not have access to charter school data on student enrollment, demographics, and academics.
The board’s resolution also calls for an investigation into the demographics of students at charter schools, the funding diverted from public schools, suspension and expulsion rates and teacher retention, among other things.
“We feel strongly that charter schools need to be more closely regulated, with more community oversight — that’s a top priority of this board,” said School Board President Stevon Cook. SFUSD’s proposed oversight committee is still being formed and is expected to convene for the first time this fall.
The proposed state bills could help SFUSD enforce more regulatory control over charters operating within The City. Cook called the bills “a step in the right direction.”
But not everyone agrees.
“Charting a path forward for California’s public school students involves thoughtful conversations and a willingness to compromise. However, we cannot and will not sacrifice the needs of our most vulnerable students who are thriving in charter public schools,” said Emily Bertelli, a spokesperson for the California Charter School Association, which is currently engaged in negotiations over amendments to the bills.
“As these bills make their way through the legislature, we remain focused on making sure the needs of students come first,” said Bertelli.
Collins argued that students’ needs are jeopardized when charter schools are not required to be directly accountable to the districts in which they operate.
Schools authorized by the state, for example, are not required to host public meetings where parents can air their grievances in the same district or city where the schools are located, stifling parent involvement. Unlike public school teachers, educators who work at charter schools are not required to be credentialed in the areas they teach, according to Collins.
“It’s hard enough to manage schools that you technically don’t manage. When their authorization is in Sacramento, it’s impossible,” said Collins. “If the bills are signed, these schools will function like our district schools. We require compliance.”
San Francisco’s total charter school enrollment in the 2018-19 school year was 6,700 students.
In the coming school year, there will be 18 charter schools operating in San Francisco — four of which were denied by the local school board but later approved by the State Board of Education on appeal, according to SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick.
Under AB 1505, districts like SFUSD would be allowed to consider how a charter school applying for an initial authorization to operate would impact the community and the neighborhood schools. It would also allow districts facing financial distress to deny a charter school.
Additional reforms under the bill include requiring charter schools currently authorized by
the state board — some 29 schools in total — to have oversight by their local school district; establish a limited appeal process to the state Board of Education if a local district denies a charter petition; shorten the time frames for charter school renewals; and require charter school teachers to have credentials for their assignments and a state level background check.
AB 1507 would ensure that the charter schools approved by school districts also operate within those districts.
“At this crossroads in education, we must establish jurisdictional sovereignty at the local level to ensure proper charter accountability and oversight,” said Assemblywoman Christy Smith, who is spearheading AB 1507. “When our school districts are entrusted with critical fiscal responsibility, we must eliminate resource waste and provide quality assurance for all public schools — both traditional and charter — to elevate all California students.”