Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Thursday the most significant change in charter school policy in decades. Assembly Bill 1505 is expected to significantly curb the number of new public charter schools opening in California.
“The fact that you are standing together makes me proud as a Californian,” Newsom told CTA President E. Toby Boyd and California Charter Schools Association President and CEO Myrna Castrejón, more than a month after brokering a compromise that offered protections for most existing schools through new charter renewal criteria and a county appeals process.
AB 1505 passed both houses of the state legislature in late August, after the California Charter Schools Association gave up its fight and went “neutral” on the bill.
“This historic agreement affirms that high-quality charter schools are here to stay and that the charter school model is a critical lever in closing the state’s achievement gap,” Castrejón said Thursday. “AB 1505 can finally put to rest lingering questions about whether charter schools serve all students and help turn our collective attention to investing in and holding all public schools accountable.”
The original version of AB 1505, authored by Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), was one of a package of bills that threatened the continued existence of all public nonprofit charter schools in the state. It gave broad power to school boards to deny charters for any reason, with no right to appeal to the county or state.
CCSA, which represents the state’s charter schools, worked behind the scenes with the governor to push for amendments to prevent what it called “devastating consequences” for its member schools.
“We absolutely got to a better place,” CCSA’s Castrejon told Speak UP in August.
Nevertheless, many parents voiced displeasure with the process, and some leading education reform groups, including EdVoice and the Charter Schools Development Center, remained staunchly opposed to the bill.
“Parents were not included in any of these negotiations,” said Roxann Nazario, a parent at GALS charter in Panorama City who led multiple parent meetings with legislators opposing AB 1505. “There was no one in the room voicing parent concerns on any level.”
While 10% of the state’s kids attend public charters, about 60% of public school parents support charter schools, according to a recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California. Thousands of parents, including many Speak UP members, called, emailed, traveled to Sacramento and flooded lawmakers’ district offices over the past six months to oppose the attack on parent choice. Many immediately took to Facebook to vent after news of a deal broke.
“I feel so defeated and unheard,” said charter parent Tanya Do from La Habra. “This shows that politics benefit the one with the best cash offer.”
The powerful California Teachers Association spent $1 million per month this spring to lobby for the bill, making CTA the largest spender of any lobbying organization in the state – outpacing even Big Oil. CCSA did not even crack the list of top 10 spenders.
Charter schools are free public schools run by nonprofit organizations that accept any student regardless of zip code. Serving 660,000 students in the state, they are authorized and regulated by school boards and have more freedom than traditional schools over hiring and curriculum in exchange for increased accountability. Every few years they must come before school boards and prove they are serving kids well in order to stay open.
The compromise bill, according to CCSA, still guts the state appeals process for charter denials but preserves the county appeal so that politicized school boards won’t have sole discretion to decide the fate of these schools. The bill also sets up a three-tiered process for charter renewals with much clearer renewal criteria than currently exist. State law still directs school boards to rely on API test scores, which no longer exist, when deciding charter renewals.
“We’ve got really good renewal criteria that are going to provide stable, predictable, good measures upon which to make renewals, which is not something we have now since the API went out,” Castrejon said. “There are clear benchmarks. We’re very pleased by that.”
Academic performance will continue to be the most important factor in charter renewals, and fiscal impact on a district cannot be considered during the renewal process. “We went through several rounds where they wanted to minimize the impact of academic performance on renewal criteria, and we managed to continue to affirm that that’s the most important basis for assessing whether a school should continue,” Castrejon said.
Charters will now be renewed for a period of seven years, five years or two years, depending on their academic performance. “High performing schools – not just high status schools but also ones that are achieving growth with underserved populations – they will be eligible for a seven-year renewal on an expedited basis,” Castrejon said.
That includes schools beating the state average in SBAC scores, receiving blues and greens on the State Dashboard and doing well with vulnerable populations, such as low-income kids and English Learners.
Most charter schools will continue to be renewed for five years, but the “the lowest of the low schools will be restricted to a two-year renewal,” Castrejon said. “There’s stronger safeguards to ensure that really low-performing schools do not get continuously renewed.”
Parents and educators who want to start new public charter schools, however, will have a much harder time doing so in the future. Districts will be able to consider the fiscal impact a new charter would have on a district. Because schools are funded per pupil based on student attendance, districts often consider independent charters competition for funding.
While school boards will have far more power to say no to new charters going forward, CCSA managed to ensure that the academic needs of students will be weighed against any fiscal concerns.
“We fought like heck for that,” Castrejon said. “If we have a proven operator who wants to start a new school that is particularly targeted in an area where students have not be well served, then that has to be balanced. They have to take into consideration how well are students being served and how can they be better served.”
Districts in fiscal distress will have the broadest authority to deny new charters. “The statute right now is presumed approval,” Castrejon said. “For districts in fiscal distress, it’s going to be presumed denial, but we’ll have the opportunity to rebut, and they still have to answer to how this best serves the interests of students to deny this charter.”
The bill also includes a two-year moratorium on new non-classroom based charter schools, including homeschool charters. CTA originally sponsored a separate bill calling for a moratorium on all new charters, but CCSA and parents managed to defeat that proposal early in the process.
Going forward, charters will also have less flexibility to hire un-credentialed teachers in non-core subjects, such as professional dancers teaching a dance class or a college professor teaching a class in an area of expertise. Existing charters will have five years to make sure all un-credentialed teachers in non-core subjects get credentialed, and a streamlined process will be created to ease the path for professionals to get those credentials.
Not all charter supporters were happy with the compromise, and some questioned CCSA’s decision to negotiate, believing that a more extreme version, one unshaped by CCSA’s input, would never get passed.
“I am dismayed,” said Amber Golden Raskin, a founder and parent at iLead Schools. “The flexibility that was intended to allow charters to innovate is being chipped away bit by bit.”
“CCSA will tout this as a compromise when really they are rolling over and letting the union win,” said one charter supporter who asked not to be named. “This is why you do not negotiate with a group that wants you dead. Period.”
The political reality, however, has shifted considerably since last November’s elections, when CTA won a number of legislative victories, and since the winter wave of teacher strikes during which unions demonized charters. (Unions view public charter schools as a threat to their power because many charter employees have chosen not to become dues-paying union members.) United Teachers Los Angeles strong-armed the LAUSD Board to call for a moratorium on new charters as a condition for settling its January strike.
The issue created huge divisions within the Democratic Party, with privileged white progressives often opposing charters, while the majority of Democrats of color believe charters provide a vital public option for kids who would otherwise be stuck in schools that have failed them for decades. Those divisions led to a contentious and bruising floor fight in the state Assembly, with authors forced to promise amendments preserving a charter appeal process in order to narrowly push it through.
Charter parents, who are not directly represented by CCSA, continued to organize against the bills on their own, while CCSA made a calculated decision to work with the governor behind the scenes rather than risk losing another floor fight in the Senate. Compromise was necessary, Castrejon said, “in order to secure the administration’s support to protect good schools and all our movement to continue to thrive.”
As a condition of going neutral, CCSA secured a promise to have CTA stop attacking charters and to pursue no more anti-charter legislation for the foreseeable future.
“Leadership in this moment meant protecting our movement from the most extreme proposals but to also come reasonably to agreement so that we can move forward,” Castrejon added. “Needless to say, they spent $4 million to defeat us, and we were basically facing an opposition that wasn’t just CTA but all of unified labor, management groups and the Legislature. Under those conditions, our existence was in question. Just like our schools every day get up and take on some of the greatest challenges in public education, like our families rise up from the most difficult situations for our most underserved students, we’re beating the odds. We’re beating the odds.”
— This story was updated after the governor signed the bill into law.