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Opinion

Editorial: California is weighing bills — some helpful, others vicious — to rein in charter schools

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A United Teachers Los Angeles rally outside California Charter School Association offices in Los Angeles during the recent strike.
(Los Angeles Times)

California has needed better regulation and tighter oversight of its charter schools for years, but state policymakers have been curiously deadlocked over making meaningful change. It took until last fall for the state to enact a law requiring charter schools to provide free lunches to the students who qualify financially, something that should have happened decades ago. Oversight of charter schools has often been lax and meaningful regulation has been slow to pass.

That’s changing now, with progressive Democrats turning against the charter movement and related school reforms, and the Los Angeles teachers’ strike eliciting a wave of support for traditional public schools. A new package of bills making its way through the Legislature takes a critical view of charter schools, especially the extent to which they siphon funds from traditional public schools by drawing away students. Though there are some good ideas in the bills, there also are too many vindictive, nasty moves against charters, many of which have provided safe, well-run havens of education in areas that desperately needed them.

The legislative season started out well with a bill fast-tracked by Gov. Gavin Newsom to require greater transparency and public accountability from charter schools by making them comply with the same open-meeting and public-records laws as district-run schools. Charters make a point of saying that they are public schools, and they are funded by taxpayers; that means they should be fully accountable to the public in every way that traditional schools are.

No one knows the right number of charter schools for California; such decisions should be based on unbiased evidence, not ham-fisted politics.
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But then came a set of three bills clearly aimed at stemming the growth of charter schools. It’s a mixed bag of helpful ideas and downright vicious ones, all backed by the California Teachers Assn. — a union that represents teachers at many traditional public schools but few charters.

Perhaps worst of all, none of them would supply what’s most needed: better oversight of charter schools and more willingness to close those that aren’t clearly outperforming district-run schools.

AB 1507, which would prohibit school districts from approving charter schools outside their own boundaries, deserves strong support. As a recent series in the Los Angeles Times showed, small school districts have been able to make money by approving applications for charter schools operating in other communities and charging them for various services. The districts have a financial incentive to green-light sketchy applications and provide little oversight; they’re not the ones who lose students to the charter schools they bless. It’s time for this charade to end.

But by the same token, school districts have a vested interest in minimizing the number of charter schools within their boundaries. State funding follows each student who enrolls at an independent charter, leaving less money for the home district. In order to guard against that conflict of interest, California has allowed rejected charter applicants to appeal to county departments of education and, eventually, to the state. AB 1505 would reverse that, giving sole authority to approve charters to the district where the school would be located. No longer would applicants be allowed to appeal to county and state officials.

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Admittedly, the state has performed its role poorly, approving charter applications but then failing to follow up on whether the schools do right by their students. Even some avid charter supporters agree. But there’s no reason why county offices of education shouldn’t continue to provide a much-needed avenue for appeal, as long as the Legislature also sets down stricter laws about the level of oversight they must provide.

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Here’s a bill with nothing to recommend it: AB 1506, which would cap the number of charter schools, in each school district and statewide, at the number operating on Jan. 1, 2020. It’s a transparent attempt by the California Teachers Assn. to halt the charter movement in its tracks. But there’s nothing magical about the number of charter schools operating at the end of this year, and it makes no sense to debate the merits of a cap before the state fully studies how charters might benefit education here — or harm it. (In fact, it has launched but not yet completed a study of the financial impact of the existing 1,300 or so charters.) No one knows the right number of charter schools for California; such decisions should be based on unbiased evidence, not ham-fisted politics.

Better charter regulation is needed, but the goal of AB 1506 isn’t better education. It’s simply an attempt to squash the formation of potentially great charter schools in an effort to please the teachers’ union.

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