Nicole Assisi, founder and CEO of Thrive Public Schools, didn’t expect her almost 500-page petition for a public charter school to be denied, especially after San Diego Unified School District staff — including the superintendent — recommended the public charter to the school board.
But it was. That denial launched her on a journey through the sometimes arcane process of getting a charter school approved in California.
“The big learning for me through this process is charters aren’t always evaluated based on their educational capabilities,” Assisi told Watchdog.org. “Sometimes decisions are political rather than based on educational outcomes.”
After being denied by the local school board, Assisi appealed to the county, which also turned her down. She then appealed to the state Board of Education, where Thrive won unanimous approval.
“Now we have a strong relationship with the district. We work well with them,” said Assisi.
Assisi’s experience is not unusual.
Operators and advocates say the climate for charter school operators thinking about opening a school in California is less welcoming than it once was.
“Is the charter process broken? There’s a feeling that the system is not performing really well,” said Lance Izumi, Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.
The arduous process Assisi went through illustrates, said Izumi, that success can often depend on the local politics of school choice and whether a school board is for or against charters.
“We saw that in Los Angeles Unified School District,” Izumi said. LAUSD has the largest student population in the country being educated in charter schools — more than 150,000, nearly twice as many as second-ranked New York City, but charter growth in Los Angeles and statewide has sparked some hostility toward applications and renewals. “It makes it difficult for charter school organizers.”
Others have had a smoother path.
Steve Mancini is public affairs director for KIPP, a charter management organization with 183 schools serving 70,000 students nationwide. He said that since opening its first charter schools in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area in 2003, the KIPP has faced only one rejection at the local level.
“Back in 2003, one school district rejected us. We ended up getting it approved on appeal,” said Mancini, referring to the San Lorenzo Unified School District. “That same school district not only renewed the charter but they helped make bond money to open to us down the line.”
Mancini stressed the importance of public charter schools and traditional public schools finding ways to work together.
“[San Lorenzo Unified School District] saw us as partners and that’s critical in this work,” said Mancini. “At the end of the day, we support the opening of more high quality schools whether they are charter schools or district schools.”
Unfortunately, KIPP’s experience might not be illustrative of the general trend in the Golden State.
Nelson Smith, senior advisor at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says the very success of charter schools in the state has contributed to the concerns traditional public school boards have.
“Because of the way the law is written, the law just points to one kind of entity and says you be the authorizer,” said Smith. “If you are going to be an authorizer, you should really want to be in the business and you should want to develop a strong business practice.”
“I think we’d like to see some movement toward there being another type of authorizer,” said Smith.
The potential conflict is clear.
“If you see the local school board is controlled by the teachers union, who are against charter schools, some people who want a charter may not go for it,” said Izumi.
The upper hand
Bill Lucia, president and CEO of Sacramento-based EdVoice, told Watchdog.org the number of problems facing charter school operators has increased in recent years.
“The governor signed the Local Control Funding Formula [LCFF], which repealed the ability of charter schools to have an appeal during a revocation proceeding,” said Lucia. “That’s given school districts the appearance of the upper hand. They’re feeling emboldened.”
Lucia said in some cases charter schools face threats of revocation for even small infractions, when previously schools would be given time to correct minor infractions in order to come into compliance with regulations.
“The single biggest deterrent for charters is the fact that the governor signed the LCFF,” said Lucia, adding that school boards now have too much power over charter schools. “The LCFF scheme is not fair to charters.”
Smith told Watchdog.org that most California charter authorizers do not use the NACSA’s 12 Essential Principles and Standards for charter schools, while most large charter authorizers nationally report using a substantial number of NACSA’s guidelines, which include: a timeline for charter school applications; application criteria; financial audit; revocation and renewal criteria; annual report; and other factors. Nationally, more than 60 percent of large authorizers report following 11 or all 12 of the guidelines, and receive the group’s highest ranking. In California, for 2015 only the Los Angeles Unified School District and Oakland Unified School District received the highest NACSA ranking.
“This is not elaborate stuff,” said Smith. “This is the floor. Not the ceiling.”
How many authorizers?
Smith and Izumi said having another entity able to authorize charters might help with some of the problems in California. Multiple authorizers or the possibility of going directly to the county or state instead of first going to a local school board would potentially open up the process to additional applicants.
“People should not necessarily be tied to just going to the local school board,” said Izumi. “There should be another authorizer. They should be able to go to a county board or another entity. There should be alternative avenues.”
Many district school officials say school boards are the best judge of charter applications because they are more familiar with what their constituents want.
Izumi said he has watched good charter school applications from applicants who have successfully run charter schools before rejected in California simply because the school boards were uninterested in allowing charter schools to open at all.
“If you are facing a local board that is hostile to charter schools, it’s very daunting,” said Izumi. “Almost always those against charters are financially backed by the teachers union. They can be like a brick wall. It’s discouraging.”
“Teacher’s unions historically around the country have been hostile to charter schools opening. That’s also true in California,” said Smith. “There should be a sort of coherence of visions and views between the professional staff and elected boards of education. That’s sometimes tough to pull off because people are representing different interests.”
Lucia said he doesn’t think it’s just as simple as creating another authorizer.
“There’s definitely a question of, is it a problem with the law, is it bad actors not following the law, or is it the governor,” said Lucia. “It’s more complicated than just saying theoretically the model should be changed.”
Lucia said the charter school law in California needs improvement, but school districts also need to follow existing laws.
“This is the politics of power,” said Lucia. “This is the politics of adults looking at kids as an ATM for money instead of looking at what’s best for students.”
Lucia has watched some districts such as LAUSD become increasingly hard on charter applicants in recent years.
“There are certain areas that seem really hostile toward charters, and students end up stuck in failing schools,” said Lucia. “Some districts are much friendlier and work hand-in-hand with charters. They look at the charter schools as part of the portfolio of schools.”
Izumi says residents need to stand up for themselves if they are in favor of school choice and charter schools. Assisi echoed that, for the point of view of an operator.
“It is possible. You don’t have to be a large CMO or organization like KIPP,” Assisi said. “You just have to persevere. You can’t let the opinions of a few dictate the futures of many.”