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California

Larry Sand
California’s Endangered Charter Schools
The state’s powerful teachers’ unions want to regulate charters into submission.
13 March 2012

Try as the California Teachers Association might, the powerful union cannot realistically organize all of California’s 900-plus charter schools, only about 15 percent of which are currently unionized. Instead, the union is taking an indirect approach, sponsoring legislation that, if enacted, could over time greatly diminish the number of charters in the state—and thus reduce what little school choice Californians have. While other states have readily embraced school choice, including vouchers, Californian’s only real alternative to traditional public schools is charter schools. Charters are, in fact, public schools, but they aren’t bound by the intrusive union contracts that stifle so many traditional public schools. The flexibility that non-unionization offers is a key attraction for teachers and parents. And so the CTA’s long war against the charter option continues.

In 1992, California became the second state in the U.S. to pass a charter school law. Today, about 400,000 students in California are enrolled in charter schools. That might sound like a lot, but charters represent only around 10 percent of the state’s 9,000 public schools. Their record is impressive: the California Charter School Association’s second annual “Report on Charter School Performance and Accountability,” published late last month, shows that charters are more likely than non-charters to have both above-average academic performance and above-average growth on standardized test scores. The CCSA report reinforces the findings of previous studies, including a 2010 Duke University investigation of Boston’s charter schools and a 2009 study of New York City charter schools by Caroline Hoxby that showed how, on the whole, students enrolled in charter schools show large and significant test-score gains, especially in middle school and high school. Of course, not all charter schools perform adequately. But if a school isn’t academically successful, the charter authorizer—usually the local school district—can close it after the initial five-year authorization period is up.

Unable to unionize charters in sufficient numbers, the CTA lately has focused, with little success, on changing the way these schools are authorized and re-authorized. Last year, the union sponsored two anti-charter bills, AB 269 and AB 1262, both of which failed in the legislature due to heavy lobbying by the CCSA. The California Federation of Teachers, the other state teachers’ union, last year sponsored AB 401, which would have imposed a cap of 1,450 charters through 2017, slowing the expansion of new schools. (Current law allows charters to grow by 100 schools each year.) That bill, too, never saw the light of day.

But the union wolf is always at education’s door in the Golden State, and in late January, the state assembly voted 45 to 28 to approve Assembly Bill 1172. Authored by state assemblyman and former teacher’s union activist Tony Mendoza, and sponsored by the CTA, AB 1172 would allow local school boards to block the creation of a new charter school if it would have a “negative fiscal impact” on the school district. Trouble is, the bill doesn’t clearly define what that means. California’s charter law already provides several clearly defined reasons why new petitions may be denied. Mendoza’s bill would only obscure the existing law. And besides, charter schools get less funding than traditional public schools. According to the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst Office, new charters received $721 less per pupil in 2010-11 than traditional public schools. The bill currently awaits a vote from the state senate’s rules committee.

AB 1172 doesn’t merely threaten to kill new charters. Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association, argues that hostile school districts could broadly construe “negative fiscal impact” as an excuse not to renew existing charter schools after the statutory five-year period. The only other way for a charter to be granted would be for an operator to appeal to a county board or the state board of education. But these entities don’t have the manpower to take on all charter-authorization duties. Thus, if AB 1172 passes, the number of charter schools in California could plummet within a few years.

Governor Jerry Brown is the great unknown here. One of his first acts as governor last year was to sack seven of the eight members of the state board of education, populated heavily with charter supporters and reformers. One of Brown’s appointees, Patricia Rucker, is a top CTA lobbyist. But as mayor of Oakland, Brown opened two charter schools—the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School of the Arts. Neither is unionized. And in October, Brown vetoed another Mendoza bill, AB 86, which would have given unionized school staff such as bus drivers and office workers the power to veto a charter conversion at the schools where they work. “Notwithstanding the important contributions classified staff make to the operation of a school, this bill would unnecessarily complicate an already difficult charter school petition process,” Brown said in his veto message.

It’s fair to say that Mendoza’s CTA-backed legislation would “complicate an already difficult charter school petition process” even more. The bill serves no other purpose than to bolster teachers’ union power. At some point, the legislature needs to stop writing bills to protect union members’ jobs and start thinking about what best serves California’s parents and children.

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