California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) did something on Tuesday that his Democratic predecessor, Jerry Brown, had refused to do: sign into law a bill that requires charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, to be as transparent to the public about how they operate as traditional public school districts.
The change has long been sought by critics of the charter school movement in California, which has more charter schools and charter school students than any other state. California has allowed charters to expand with little oversight amid growing controversy over financial scandals and other issues.
The law follows a nonbinding December opinion by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), who said charter school governing boards should be required to comply with the same transparency laws as public school districts.
The move marks a shift in the state government’s attitude about charter schools — and more changes may be coming. Last week, Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell (D), chairman of the Education Committee, along with some colleagues, introduced legislation that would significantly restrict the growth of charter schools in the state in important ways. There are more than 1,300 charters in California.
While it is not clear what will happen with the four new bills — Newsom has not taken a position — a charter moratorium has new support in unlikely places.
The Los Angeles Board of Education passed a resolution urging the legislature to place a moratorium on new charters in the Los Angeles Unified School District as one concession to end a teachers’ strike in the largest school district in California. That was a big shift for the pro-charter board. The same thing just happened in Oakland, where a pro-charter school board agreed to support a halt on new charters to end a teachers’ strike.
The California Charter Schools Association criticized the move by both school boards to call for a moratorium on new charters. Nina Rees, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, issued a statement that said her group “strongly oppose[s]” a moratorium on charter schools “because it does not put students first.”
About 6 percent of America’s school-age children attend charter schools, with the vast majority attending traditional districts. But in Los Angeles, 20 percent of the more than 600,000 students attend charters. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a big supporter of charter schools, as are some of the country’s biggest education philanthropists, including Eli Broad, who once developed an idea to “charterize” as many as half of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s students.
But a growing number of education advocates and groups, including the NAACP, have called for a moratorium on charters until issues involving transparency and operations are resolved. In California, Brown, who opened a few charter schools in Oakland when he was the mayor, sided with the charter movement and repeatedly refused to sign legislation that would have made charters more accountable to the public.
The election of Newsom as governor and Tony Thurmond as the California schools superintendent signaled that change was coming. Though Newsom has supported charters, he and Thurmond said they wanted to focus resources on traditional public schools, which, despite being in a wealthy state, are at the low end of the list of states for per-pupil funding.
Charter schools are designed to operate outside the rules of school district bureaucracies, but critics say they have been allowed in many places to operate with little or virtually no oversight or accountability to taxpayers who fund them. That’s why California became known as the “Wild West” of charters. A 2016 report found, for example, that more than 20 percent of California’s charters had enrollment policies that violate state and federal laws.
In recent weeks, the legislature quickly passed, with little opposition, the bill that Newsom signed on Tuesday. Representatives of major education organizations attended the signing, including two that have been battling over charters: the California Teachers Association and the California Charter Schools Association.
The charter school group had expressed reservations over Becerra’s opinion but backed the transparency bill. The group says many charters were already as transparent as traditional public schools even before Newsom signed the bill.
Under the law, charters will have to comply with the same open records and conflict-of-interest laws as traditional public schools. That means members of the individual charter boards would no longer be able to vote on any contract in which they might have a financial interest. And charter schools will have to follow California’s laws on making meetings open to the public and public records available to them.
The four bills introduced last week would address the way that charters have spread. The legislation would set a cap on charter school growth. And it would stop charters that have applications rejected by a local authorizing authority from appealing to county and state officials, a practice that is permitted.
One of the bills also seeks to stop charter schools from opening in a district other than the one that authorized their application under certain circumstances — without the permission of either district. In the past, some districts filed lawsuits when charters moved in without their permission.
For example, the Grossmont Union High School District several years ago found two charters operating in the district under agreements signed by another school district. In 2015, the San Diego Union-Tribune quoted Scott Patterson, Grossmont’s deputy superintendent of business services, as saying, “It’s been described as the Wild West out there. When you have charters from far-flung districts operating in Grossmont, it gets to issues of accountability and oversight. Where is the oversight? We know we’re not providing it.”