West County leads the state in pushing for a moratorium on new charter schools
on May 16, 2019
In December, the DeJean Middle School multipurpose room brimmed with onlookers—community leaders, public officials, parents and students—who cheered wildly as Stephanie Hernández-Jarvis and Consuelo Lara took their new seats on the West Contra Costa Unified Board of Education.
The two newcomers had arrived ready and confident. The celebration was a pleasant, gratifying end to their campaigns, and they were prepared to make the hard-fought decisions of public office, including one that day: Whether to re-approve the charter of Benito Juarez Elementary, one of 14 charter schools that have emerged in the district over the past 20 years.
But, unexpectedly, Lara and Hernández-Jarvis could not vote. They thanked the community, sat upon the dais and offered comments—but their voting power was conspicuously absent, stripped away, according to district Superintendent Matthew Duffy, by a law that requires newly-elected school board members to begin their terms on the first Friday of December. That would be two days after this Wednesday meeting.
As a result, the board possessed only three votes—the exact number needed to make any decision regarding charter school renewals. Adding to the urgency: Unlike everything else on the agenda, the renewal could not be pushed to future meetings because of a prior arrangement the district had made with Amethod Public Schools, the parent organization of Benito Juarez.
District staff had recommended the board approve the charter, but with several minor oversight conditions. Because of California state law, school boards generally have little oversight over charter schools in their districts, with much of their control limited to their ability to accept or revoke charters.
But board member Mister Phillips argued for approval without any additional conditions—among other reasons, he felt that the board had been too harsh on Amethod in the past. To force a default, he walked away from the dais as the vote occurred, leaving the board without enough votes to legally stand.
The Benito Juarez charter passed by default—with no conditions.
Lara, an opponent of the charter school industry, was not amused by this turn of events. “I get sworn in. I’m so happy, I’m so surprised, I’m so thrilled,” Lara said, recalling that day. “I get up there and oh, ‘You’re not going to be able to vote. And, by the way, this charter is going to come up for renewal.’”
This first meeting prompted Lara, a retired teacher of 38 years—16 in the West Contra Costa County Unified School District—to strengthen her feeling that the proliferation of charter schools is the most pressing issue facing both the district and California education as a whole. As in other California districts, the number of charter schools in West Contra Costa has grown in the past five years, from eight schools in 2014 to the current 14, with three being approved by the Contra Costa County Board of Education on appeal. The enrollment in charter schools has also risen from 1,234 students to 3,639 over roughly the same period.
Soon after, on a Christmas vacation to Mexico City, the charter school issue lingered in the back of Lara’s mind. Still on vacation, she began drafting a school board resolution to call for a state moratorium on charter schools. She didn’t believe the resolution would pass, but she felt it would at least cause board members to publicly declare a stance on charter schools.
“I thought it would just be me against everybody else,” Lara said. “I wanted the board to have the debate and the discussion. I wanted to force that, because the public needs to know what this issue is, who supports it and who does not.”
With the Charter School Act of 1992, California became the second state after Minnesota to allow for the creation of charter schools. There are now some 1,300 in the state.
But widespread criticism of the charter school industry has arisen over the past several years. People have criticized them for operating without enough oversight, which can lead to a host of other problems, including financial mismanagement and illegal enrollment policies. A 2016 report produced by the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union along with Public Advocates, a non-profit law firm and advocacy group, found that over 20 percent of charter schools in California operated with illegal enrollment policies that exclude some students. The report gave examples of enrollment barriers tied to academic achievement, English proficiency, onerous pre-enrollment requirements like parent/guardian essays and interviews, and discouragement or preclusion of immigrant students by requiring Social Security numbers or other citizenship information prior to enrollment. These barriers don’t exist in traditional public schools.
According to the report, one school in Riverside County required students to earn either “A” or “B” grades in both geometry and biology classes and maintain a 3.0 grade point average with no failing grades. Another, in Yuba County, required 20 hours of annual volunteer service from each parent, which could be bought out “only as a last option,” according to language included in the report, at a rate of $15 an hour.
Others critics have accused charter schools of draining students—and therefore state average daily attendance (ADA) funds—from district-run public schools. Last fall, as teachers in Oakland debated whether or not to go on strike, they argued that the proliferation of charter schools had led to under-enrollment at district schools and was leading to their closure. About a third of Oakland students currently attend charter schools.
To Lara, Oakland represents the future for West Contra Costa if charter schools continue to proliferate at their current rate. “It’s unfortunate that Oakland is going through all this destruction, but for us it’s very educational,” Lara said. “I felt like, oh, if you wanted to look into the crystal ball at what could happen if we let [charter school growth] go unchecked, that is what’s going to happen. So we have to start checking them.”
But proponents argue that the experimentation allowed by charter schools—because they operate under less oversight than district-run schools—can improve primary education as a whole. They also offer more school choices. At WCCUSD board meetings, the parents of charter school students often tell similar stories about how moving their child from a low performing, district-run school to a charter school greatly improves their educational experience.
For example, last October, at a revocation hearing for John Henry High School, which is overseen by Amethod, hundreds of students, teachers, and administrators—most wearing yellow shirts, which had been handed out by Amethod staff earlier—poured into the DeJean Middle School auditorium to protest. Many students shared stories about how their grades had improved after choosing to attend John Henry.
Eric Munoz, a senior at John Henry, said he was going to be the first person in his family to graduate from college. He added that he wanted his two younger siblings to have the same opportunities that he’d had. John Henry senior Maria Contreras talked about how the stress of having to come to a revocation hearing only added to stress of being a student, and said she felt safe as a student at John Henry.
“At this very moment, I should be studying for my test and as well for my upcoming SAT, but I chose to speak today for my school,” said Contreras. “John Henry makes sure that each individual’s learning experience is accompanied by care and security. If it weren’t, people who care about their security—slash the parents of John Henry students—would not maintain their kids in the school they are in now.”
The revocation issue—which was unrelated to the school’s charter—was later resolved. (A previous, now largely-resolved notice of violation, had alleged that Amethod ran an enrollment lottery which gave preference to students with siblings at any Amethod school. The notice also mentioned several other alleged violations, including the failure to hire properly-credentialed teachers; inadequate special education services; and a failure to comply with a conditional use permit that allowed Amethod to set up a school in an area not zoned for schools.)
Representatives from Amethod, as well as local pro-charter-school advocacy groups Education for Change Public Schools and Lighthouse Community Public Schools, did not return requests for comment by press time.
But boardmember Phillips, who argued against the revocation of John Henry, said that though he thinks the current system is unfair to public schools, and though he agrees charter school laws should be updated, he doesn’t like seeing some Richmond-based charter schools lose out. “I hate to see homegrown charter schools like John Henry High School and Richmond College Prep caught in the crossfire,” Phillips wrote in an email, referring to a charter school that’s been operating in the district since 2004. Richmond College Prep officials recently attempted to expand their program into a tech-heavy high school, but their request was denied in a 2-2 vote at a board meeting in April. “I believe these two schools add significant value to our community,” Phillips wrote.
During the November 2018 election, the battle against the charter school industry played out in political campaigns, both at local and state government levels, and the idea for a moratorium on new charter schools was already circulating.
The election for State Superintendent of Public Education, a largely symbolic role, involved combined campaign spending of over $50 million, shattering all previous records. Tony Thurmond, a former West Contra Costa school board member, ran on a platform that favored a moratorium on new charter schools while the state determines their financial effect on district-run schools. Thurmond was opposed by Marshall Tuck, a former president of a charter school organization in Los Angeles, who opposed such a moratorium. Thurmond was supported by organized labor, including the California Teachers Association, while Tuck, who held a 2-1 funding advantage over Thurmond, was backed by wealthy charter school donors.
Charter schools were also a major issue in the campaign between gubernatorial candidates Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa—with more than $23 million spent on Villaraigosa’s campaign by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates. During his campaign, Newsom, though he had supported charter schools as mayor of San Francisco, made calls for transparency in charter school organizations, while Villaraigosa—who as mayor of Los Angeles had a record of opposing teachers’ unions and supporting charter schools—made his support for charter schools known.
When the dust settled, the candidates who had been heavily funded by charter school interests were defeated. Newsom took over as the governor of California and Thurmond won the race for State Superintendent.
As governor, Newsom was ready to sign legislation that would curb the power of charter school companies. But first, local education advocates would have to start pressing for specific legislation. In several cities in the state, the germ of that legislation looked like what Lara had been writing over her Christmas break—a call for a state moratorium.
To Lara, 70-years-old and Latina, the fight against charter schools was more personal than for most. She became a teacher partly because public schools offered a safe space for her while she was growing up, a place where she could find consistency, care and respite from the alcoholism, depression and poverty that she said was prevalent in her family.
“I was really quiet, I was very shy, very timid, I didn’t talk hardly at all. And part of that was just fear, and shame. There was a lot of shame.” Lara said. “I just felt like teachers could sense it. And they nurtured me.”
Lara became passionate about helping poor schools and students. As a teacher, she helped take the English language development department of Helms Middle School, located in San Pablo, from the worst in the district to the best. “I love working with those individuals, those children, those schools that have the most challenges to overcome,” Lara said, “because I’ve seen when they can overcome those challenges. I’ve done it myself, you know. Who’d have thought I’d be where I am, if they knew me as a little girl?”
Lara said that she doesn’t have a problem with specific charter schools, and says she doesn’t want to shut any schools down. Even so, she stresses her belief that the charter school industry is destructive to public education because they lack transparency about their spending. She feels that the economic incentives underpinning the industry have led to a profiteering mindset.
“I know there’s people who say, ‘Oh find common ground,’ or ‘Understand both sides’ and I think that’s impossible,” Lara said.
In her school board resolution, Lara called for the board to push the state to enact a moratorium on new charter schools. The resolution noted the extreme proliferation of charter schools in recent years, the lack of accountability and transparency in charter school organizations, and mentioned the shortage of resources caused by co-locating charter schools within district-run schools. As Thurmond had also done, she argued that a state moratorium would allow the California government enough time to review the effect of charter schools on public education, leading to possible changes in the law.
The resolution also cited a 2018 study by research group In The Public Interest which calculated the financial cost of charter schools on three districts: Oakland Unified, San Diego Unified, and the East Side Union High School District in San Jose. Specifically, the study found that charter schools cost Oakland’s district $57.3 million, San Diego’s $65.9 million, and the East Side Union’s $19.3 million annually. For Oakland, this amounts to a yearly loss of approximately $1,500 for each student attending a district-run school, according to the study.
Responding to the study last May, the California Charter Schools Association issued a statement which claimed that it “unfairly scapegoats” charter schools. These schools “are not responsible for, nor do they have control over, any district’s financial decisions,” the group’s statement reads.
Meanwhile, in early 2019, teachers’ strikes in the Oakland and Los Angeles school districts—which are among the most charter school-heavy districts in California—were echoing Lara’s call for a moratorium. While both strikes principally called for better wages, the financial strain caused by charter schools was among the striking teachers’ chief concerns.
At 277 charter schools, the Los Angeles district has the highest number of charter schools of any district in California. As a condition to resolve the strike, in January the Los Angeles Unified School Board (LAUSD) called for the state to enact a moratorium on new charter schools. In Oakland, teachers struck in February, also asking for an agreement that Oakland’s school board enact a five-month moratorium on new charter schools, and ask state officials to pursue a California-wide one.
But pro-charter school organizations have opposed the call for a moratorium. In January, just before the LAUSD school board voted for their moratorium resolution, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools issued a statement in opposition. “We strongly oppose placing a moratorium on charter schools because it does not put students first,” wrote Nina Rees, the group’s president. “A vote for a moratorium on charter schools is a vote against students and a vote against families.”
As the debate was heating up statewide, Lara’s moratorium resolution rattled through two contentious February board meetings. Members of the audience expressed differing opinions on the resolution during the public comment period, though most argued for the moratorium.
Charter school supporters argued that the option had personally benefited them. Gabriella Rodriguez said she was a parent of two daughters in charter schools, and told the story of how she chose to transfer her children out of district-run schools. “Five years later, I can tell you that transfering my daughter to that school was the best decision I ever made,” said Rodriguez.
But others directly criticized the drain charter schools were having on district funding. Demetrio Gonzalez, president of United Teachers of Richmond, said that five years ago, when the Aspire Richmond Technology Academy charter school opened, about 200 students left Bayview Elementary School, where he was in his second year of teaching. As a result, Gonzales said, Bayview had to cut teachers and programs.
“Our school went to chaos,” Gonzalez said. “And the worst part is that the kids that they took from my class were my six highest-achieving students. They didn’t take the students that I pushed for them to take. They didn’t take my special ed students. They didn’t take my newcomers. They took my highest-achieving kids.”
The board agreed, for the most part, with the intent of the moratorium, but they initially disagreed with how to carry it out. Board President Tom Panas was the sole board member opposed to the resolution, though he said he agreed with it in principle. At the first meeting, Panas argued that the board shouldn’t hinder the ability of parents to chose the schools they want, especially considering the low performance of many district-run schools.
At a second meeting, board members debated the language of such a resolution, including considering a version edited by Panas. The board president said he wouldn’t vote for Lara’s version of the resolution because it did nothing to address student outcomes, which he argued the board should focus on with razor sharpness. He brought up a litany of issues that have plagued the district for 30 years—low test scores, overspending on infrastructure, lawsuits—before the charter school law had materialized. “I think the resolution makes an important statement, but this board needs to be focused, in my mind, on student outcomes this year, next year, and the following year,” said Panas.
Boardmember Valerie Cuevas, who had cosponsored Lara’s resolution, rebuked his argument. “I know what the problem was in terms of underserved students for the last 30 years, Mr. Panas. I appreciate your comments,” Cuevas said. “But at some point I have to believe in hope. This board has an opportunity to say, ‘We will be the change.’”
“I’m going to stop using failing kids as an excuse to drain dollars out of the public school system,” she continued. “I’m happy there’s solutions for some; I need it for all.”
Ultimately, it became clear that Lara’s original moratorium had enough votes to pass. In the end, the resolution passed 4-1, with only Panas voting against.
The state still has not passed a moratorium on charter school openings, but related legislation is now winding its way towards the governor’s desk. While none of of the bills are exact duplicates of the resolutions passed by the school boards in West County, Oakland or Los Angeles, all of them are fed by the pressure local teachers and school board officials have been placing on state legislators.
In March, Newsom signed Senate Bill 126 into law, which requires charter school boards to comply with public record, open meeting, and conflict of interest laws that regular district school boards must also obey. It will go into effect on January 1. The bill, introduced by Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino), received support from both the California Teachers Association and the California Charter Schools Association, though it did not address the calls for a moratorium.
A package of four other charter school bills, all sponsored by the California Teachers’ Association, are also currently running through the legislature. Senate Bill 756, by Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), would establish a 5-year moratorium on new charter schools. Assembly Bill 1505, by Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), would give districts where charter schools are located full power to approve and deny charter petitions—patching up the ability of charter schools to appeal denials to a county board of education, and then to the State Board of Education.
Assembly Bill 1506, by Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), would cap new charter schools at their current number—about 1,300—meaning that new charter schools could arise only as old ones close. And Assembly Bill 1507, by Christy Smith (D-Santa Clarita), would remove an exemption that allows charter schools to locate outside their chartering district, but within the same county, if they are unable to locate within their district’s jurisdiction.
On April 10, the Assembly Education Committee passed the bills out of committee, and they now await further action.
But they will likely face considerable resistance from charter school advocates. On April 24, after SB 756, the bill calling for a 5-year moratorium, passed through the senate education committee, Myrna Castrejón, president of the CCSA, issued a statement: “Today’s vote by Sacramento politicians was a setback for parents and kids wanting better public schools that put their needs first,” she wrote. “But the fight is far from over; we will not accept legislation that forces students out of schools where they are finding success, often for the first time.”
Outside of legislation, other changes could be on the way. An 11-member Charter Task Force, made up educators and labor representatives—including four members who represent charter schools—was set up by Thurmond in March to examine the financial impact of charter schools at the request of Newsom. The group meets weekly and will report back to Newsom by July 1.
Lara feels hopeful about the future. The bills in the legislature, she noted, cover much of the same territory as her original resolution. The winds of public opinion, Lara said, seems to be shifting. But she doesn’t think her push to slow the growth of charter schools is over. “It’s going to be a constant struggle. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to be easy,” Lara said. “And I think I just hope to be a part of that. I want to spread as much knowledge as I can and I want people to not be afraid.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the number of West Contra Costa charter schools that were active in 2014.
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