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Orange County charter seeks hall pass from county education board to bypass local approvals

Members of the Orange County Board of Education at a Dec. 1 regular meeting.
(Daily Pilot Staff)

When the Orange County Classical Academy came before the Orange Unified Board of Education in December 2019 seeking a charter to operate a K-5 school that would offer 360 students a classical education curriculum, it was a tough sell.

School district staff in a 14-page report recommended board members deny the petition, finding the charter proposal to be inadequate, its budget documents “fundamentally flawed” and its educational plan out of line with California state standards.

They maintained the findings in their report were legally sufficient to support the board’s absolute denial of the charter but also issued a warning.

Staff concluded should the petitioners ever decide to propose another charter that they possess “the knowledge, understanding and expertise necessary both to write an educationally, fiscally and practically sound charter petition and to operate a sound charter school.”

A set of guidelines adopted by the O.C. Board of Education advising schools reopen without masks and social distancing has ties to an anti-union, pro-charter school group opening an Orange County campus in August.

What followed was an hours-long public hearing among trustees and some 50 public commenters, who spoke passionately on both sides of the debate. Supporters touted the school’s commitment to scholarship, moral character and civic virtue while criticizing public schools and teachers.

Although board members urged people to practice civility throughout the hearing, audience members employed cheers, jeers and even chanting as the meeting approached 1:30 a.m.

A divided board ultimately voted 4-3 in favor of pushing the petition forward, clearing the way for the Orange County Classical Academy — a school founded by conservative-leaning think tank the California Policy Center — to open in July 2020.

Now, into their second academic year, school leaders are looking to expand and have charted a course that could allow them to operate multiple campuses across the county without having to seek or secure approval from individual districts, as is the norm.

OCCA members last month submitted a charter school petition with the Orange County Department of Education that, if approved, would let operators close the single-site campus on June 30, 2022, and reopen as OCCA II — a TK-12 countywide charter school that could draw students from, and operate within the boundaries of Huntington Beach City, Huntington Beach Union High, Orange and Placentia-Yorba Linda unified school districts.

Dr. Jeff Barke, a Newport Beach family medicine physician, has been a vocal opponent of mask wearing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their proposal need only be approved by the Orange County Board of Education, some of whose members have spoken openly in favor of school choice and charter schools and whose campaigns for office have been backed by charter-related organizations and PACs.

In a public hearing Wednesday, school leaders made their case for becoming a countywide charter. Headmaster Semi Park reported students in grades three through five who participated in the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests outperformed the state average in English and math.

Park also said the school, in its first year, added two sixth-grade classes, reclassified 55% of English learners and had maintained $200,000 in reserve funding.

“It’s an education in moral virtue, such as courage, learned through good habits and intellectual virtues, such as prudence and wisdom, which rest on the moral virtues,” she told county board members. “It is truly meant to serve all students, regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic status or ability.”

With 420 students enrolled in TK-6 classes, the waitlist to get into OCCA has maxed out at 700 family names, Park said, indicating a strong appetite throughout Orange County for the classical education being offered.

To be granted countywide charter school status, California Education Code stipulates an institution must prove it can provide instructional services to a student population that cannot be served as well by a single-district charter school.

Officials say the International School for Science and Culture overreported its enrollment, operated at an improperly zoned site and charged fees for instruction. But board members are hesitant to issue a notice of violation.

David Patterson is president of California Charter Authorizing Professionals, a Sacramento nonprofit supporting agencies that provide oversight of charters. In an interview Friday, he said he was involved in early discussions that informed that piece of the code.

Such provisions were made to accommodate programs that would need to pull from a wider geographical area than a single district to fill seats, such as military academies or dual-language immersion schools.

“There were times when it made sense because of the nature of a program, where a countywide approach made more sense than having to deal with individual districts,” Patterson explained, adding it’s up to county boards to interpret and apply the code.

“It was clearly written in a way to give counties an opportunity to make a judgment call,” he said.

Petitioning charters seeking countywide status must also be able to show parents are meaningfully interested in having their children attend the school.

OCCA supporters Wednesday maintained the program was unique and offered a curriculum students could not get in their home districts. Officials used the maxed-out waiting list as proof of parent interest, and several parent speakers bolstered the claim.

“Every day, I receive phone inquiries about enrollment opportunities,” said Yesenia Flores, mother of two OCCA students, whose stint as a parent volunteer turned into a job as campus monitor. “I truly want to share this community experience with other families who value the same thing for their children.”

Board members listened to comments throughout the hearing and did not provide any critical analysis. That may come in January, when the panel is scheduled to hear a staff report and recommendation regarding the petition.

President Mari Barke recused herself from the discussion due to a potential conflict of interest. Her husband, Jeff Barke — a doctor criticized last year for waving a gun during a YouTube show and calling it more effective in the pandemic than mask wearing — serves as chairman of OCCA’s board of directors.

Board Vice President Ken Williams offered some thoughts on the presentation.

“I do believe this charter [is] a very unique situation,” he said. “I wish we had it in every school district.”

The Orange County Board of Education is expected to vote on the petition during a Feb. 2 meeting. That decision cannot be appealed.

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