Long-Awaited Charter School Reform Just Scratches the Surface, Parents Say

A state bill returns charter school approval to local control but families still seek transparency.

California is on the verge of passing major reform that returns much of charter school approvals to local control — but due process remains a central issue.

Pending Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature, charter schools will have a tougher time petitioning the state to supersede a school district’s denial to launch a new school. Newsom’s office struck a deal with teachers’ unions and the California Charter Schools Association in August, marking the biggest revisal of laws around the publicly-funded, independently-run schools in more than 25 years. (The state’s legislative session ends Friday, with Newsom having until October to sign.)

The agreement struck for Assembly Bill 1505 comes after Newsom signed another bill, Senate Bill 126, in March to increase transparency by setting the same standards around open meetings and conflict of interest subjected to public schools. Charter school opponents, including teachers unions, had little luck with similar bills vetoed by former Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger as proponents poured millions into elections over the years, including to defeat Newsom and Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. 

For local education leaders in San Francisco, it means more power to deny charters that don’t meet standards around fiscal responsibility, teacher credentials, worker protections through teachers’ unions, and rights for students with disabilities, says School Board Commissioner Alison Collins. Under existing law, the state overruled the Board of Education’s unanimous denial of KIPP Bayview Elementary and forced Malcolm X Academy to make room in their building. (KIPP did not return requests for comment before press time.) Four of the city’s 18 charter schools were approved by the state.

“In effect, we have certain charters in our district that we didn’t agree on and they did not meet our standard and yet we have to house them in our buildings,” Collins said. “Charters are circumventing local control. We have very little power over fixing things and holding them accountable.”

Under AB 1505, that addresses the issue over authorizations and renewals, which happen every five years. But it doesn’t help parents like Saira Ramirez, whose son Antonio went to a San Francisco charter school from about 2012 to 2016. Throughout the years, Ramirez tried to communicate about issues regarding Antonio which she said fell on deaf ears. It eventually got to the point where the school had a security guard follow him around and Ramirez had to call the police to obtain surveillance footage leading up to Antonio’s expulsion.

Ramirez felt things escalated because she kept asking too many questions. When asked who she could go to for help during that period she said “No one. You go to no one.

“SFUSD can’t go in there and ask, ‘Hey, these are allegations coming up, what’s going on?’” Ramirez said. “There’s no check of power with them. They don’t have to answer to anyone else.”

Ramirez said she would “absolutely not” place Antonio in another charter school, especially given how well he progressed at James Denman Middle School and in the public school district. But it’s not without consequences, as he now doesn’t trust the adults around him. And her experience is just one of the known cases, which is why she wants a separate body to investigate incidents.

Schools like Five Keys in SoMa and Lifelong Learning Academy on Treasure Island have been commended by local groups for not only being responsible but going above and beyond like charter schools are meant to. But KIPP doesn’t often have meetings often in San Francisco, giving parents limited chances to get out of their regular schedule to air grievances.

“Due process can vary from school to school,” said Julia Roberts of SF Families Union. “There are still huge gaps for families and their rights, and in the quality of education, they can expect. This law doesn’t do much to address that.”

That’s where a Charter School Oversight Committee will come in, which the school board approved in 2018. Once set up later this year, SFUSD may be able to identify patterns of issues with its charter schools based on family input given on a monthly basis and requested data finally made public. Paired with SB 126, which subjects charter schools to the California Public Records Act, the board will have better evidence to work with when renewals arise. 

This is especially important for students with different sets of challenges like having disabilities, being gender non-conforming, are immigrants, foster kids, homeless, and so on.

“Now we can take into account their demographics and how they impact us fiscally as an entire district,” Collins said. “Families of students that tend to be harder to serve end up getting pushed out of schools. These are all students that rely on public education and we should center those populations.”

While the bill doesn’t end issues for charter school families, it’s a major step forward in preventing potentially problematic schools from establishing roots in the first place. 

“If you open charter schools, you will close public schools,” Roberts said. “It’s very important to make sure we’re not opening schools that shouldn’t exist in the first place.”

But, she added, “The fact that [CCSA] isn’t actively opposing it, I think speaks to some of the ways this compromise doesn’t go far enough.”

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