Charter schools, on paper, seem like an intriguing concept:
Public schools that are run by private entities, and which are granted a large degree of autonomy; laboratories for experimentation and innovation that would inject some free-market magic and fresh thinking into an antiquated, risk-averse educational arena.
Indeed, throughout their existence, charters —or at least the idea of charters — have at various times been championed by an array of backers from across the ideological spectrum.
Yet, in an educational landscape fraught with controversy, you’d be hard-pressed to find any topic as contentious as charter schools. Across the nation, many charter operators have been dogged by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, and even absent such accusations charters are viewed by many as an exercise in unfulfilled promises, misguided policy and wasted resources.
A new report from the Network for Public Education charged that about $1 billion in federal funds for charter schools has been lost to fraud and waste. It also found that many charters, which are ostensibly open to all students, employed methods to limit enrollment to select groups.
A recent three-part Los Angeles Times series provided an alarming portrait of some of the problems plaguing charters. One part detailed the case of wealthy charter operators accused of self-dealing; another showed how some small districts were exploiting a state law that allows them to charge charters fees without restricting how the money is used, and a third addressed long-stalled reform efforts.
Despite these well-documented issues, positive change will not be easily achieved in such a combative environment. Even the history of charter schools is the subject of argument, with various factions putting forth versions of the origin story that happen to support their agendas.
As the larger debate rages, Orange County residents have their own reasons to be resentful and suspicious after a recent turn of events involving two planned charter schools. In March, the Orange County board of education defied its own staff recommendations and voted to approve charter proposals that the Newport-Mesa Unified and Ocean View school districts had deemed grossly inadequate.
Newport-Mesa Supt. Fred Navarro minced no words in his assessment of one of the charter proposals, calling the financial plan “unsustainable” and its educational plan “unsound.”
“The petition sought to use taxpayer funds taken from our community as ‘venture capital’ in a highly speculative, flawed proposition,” he told the board.
Sadly, his opinion was ignored. The county education board’s decision is final, and in the next school year the International School for Science and Culture (ISSAC) will begin operations in Newport-Mesa, and the Sycamore Creek Community Charter School will open in Ocean View. Both charter schools will be able to enroll students from the districts in which they operate and from other areas.
One of the approving trustees, Mari Burke, justified her vote by saying that “children need choices.”
“I think choices include quality, and good schools will improve the quality of the education, the excellence of the education.”
So once again, the idea of charter schools won out over what many believe will be flawed enterprises that will siphon needed funds away from established public schools.
Not surprisingly, evidence suggests that states with the loosest rules and lax oversight also have the worst outcomes when it comes to charters, while those with more vigorous accountability mechanisms have greater success.
California, home to more charter schools than any other state, has what many agree is a dysfunctional system, and lawmakers have long resisted taking on the political minefield of charter school reform.
Yet we might now be reaching an inflection point, as the charter school controversy ramps up and calls for reform take on a new sense of urgency. Indeed, there are signs that the state may at long last be poised to increase oversight of charters.
Our new governor, Gavin Newsom, has signaled that charter school reform could be a priority in his administration. He has already signed legislation making charters subject to the same public records, open meeting and conflict of interest laws that public schools must follow.
One point of contention is whether charters should be approved and overseen by one statewide entity — as is the case in some other states — or if that responsibility should rest with local districts.
A trio of state Assembly bills— 1505, 1506 and 1507— would side with local school boards, giving them greater authority over charters. They would enable districts to deny proposals; cap the number of new charters; and prevent charters from operating outside the boundaries of the authorizing district.
These proposals will no doubt face stiff opposition, and even if they do pass it remains to be seen whether they would prove to be the right prescription.
Either way, it’s clear that there are profound problems with charters that won’t be resolved absent a concerted, good-faith effort by all parties. For the sake of our children and future generations of children, the various competing interests must soften their rigid ideological positions, shelve their self-interest, and work together to find a means of providing rigorous standards and accountability to a broken system.
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Patrice Apodaca is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, and is the coauthor of “A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon’s Memoir of Apartheid.” She lives in Newport Beach.