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Lawmakers are trying to end a weird quirk of California’s charter school sector. Here’s why the state is so unusual

Kevin Mahnken | July 8, 2019

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The state capitol building in Sacramento. (Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

California legislators are considering a change to education law that would address a peculiar and controversial feature of the state’s charter school sector. The proposed fix is dredging up long-standing issues around how the state permits and oversees schools of choice.

At present, California school districts have the option to authorize charter schools that don’t fall within their geographic boundaries — in fact, the schools sometimes operate inside other districts that had previously thwarted attempts to form a charter. AB 1507, a bill that has been approved in the state Assembly and is now being considered by the state Senate, would forbid that practice, partially as a response to angered local authorities who have complained of charter schools opening within their boundaries that they expressly opposed.

The proposal is one of two aimed at reforming California’s charters, which, at just over 1,300 schools, make up the largest statewide sector in the country. AB 1505, the more sweeping and controversial of the bills, would grant more leeway to districts in deciding whether to approve or deny charter applications; two others, which would have capped the total number of charters across the state and imposed a two-year moratorium on new openings, were withdrawn earlier in this legislative session but could be up for reconsideration next year.

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AB 1507 is the more targeted of the provisions, addressing a practice that has proven divisive in the past few years. Charter critics say that allowing school districts to authorize schools far from their normal zone of oversight is a recipe for abuse and profiteering. Even skeptics of the bill agree that some bad actors are taking advantage of a loophole in the state’s charter school law, one of the nation’s oldest.

“Certainly newer charter laws have very different authorizing structures,” said Colin Miller, a senior adviser at the California Charter Schools Association. “It’s a section of law that really wasn’t that thought-out, I think, when we initially enacted the Charter Schools Act [in 1992].”

AB 1507 isn’t the first attempt on the part of California lawmakers to address the practice referred to as “remote authorizing.” In both 2014 and 2016, the legislature passed bills to tighten restrictions on where charter schools could be authorized. In both instances, then-Gov. Jerry Brown — an avowed charter school ally who founded several in Oakland — vetoed the legislation.

All the while, concerns grew that some districts were approving charter schools nowhere near their own boundaries, solely to bring in money.

The most publicized case was that of Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District, a tiny district in northern Los Angeles County that began authorizing new charters outside its borders in 2013. Its first approval was the Albert Einstein Academy of Letters, Arts and Sciences, a charter whose application had been rejected by multiple other districts. Albert Einstein opened that fall 20 miles away — in Newhall School District, which had previously rejected its application. Within a few years, Acton-Agua Dulce had increased its enrollment by thousands of students and reaped millions of dollars in authorizing fees from the state.

That led to lawsuits, as well as a 2017 audit of remote authorizing, which found that the phenomenon “allowed districts to increase their enrollments and revenue without being democratically accountable to the communities that are hosting the charter schools that they authorize.” Most Albert Einstein charters in California have since closedincluding those authorized through Acton-Agua Dulce Unified, after struggling with enrollment and financial difficulties.

John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at UCLA, echoed the audit’s concerns. He said he supports AB 1507 as a means of bringing charter expansion back in line with the intent of California’s original charter school law.

“It aims to advance what seems to be a fairly commonsense, small-d democratic proposition: that the decisions relative to school governance and programs should be made by elected representatives of the community in which those programs are being operated,” he said. “That’s extremely commonsense, but since we’ve had a structure that has stretched beyond that, I think it’s a useful corrective.”

The problem, many believe, grew from the state’s unusual approach to charter school authorizing.

For background: Each charter school answers to a charter authorizer, which approves its application, supervises its performance and finances, and decides whether to reapprove the school’s charter at the end of a set length of time. Different states maintain varying standards for authorizing and designate separate institutions as eligible to act as authorizers, but experts tend to agree that responsible authorizers adhere to scrupulous oversight practices around contracts, staffing and financial auditing.

California’s charter laws set the state apart from many other states, which restrict charter authorizing to either a single statewide entity (such as the state board of education) or other trusted institutions (often universities). Instead, every school district in the state is eligible to authorize charter schools, resulting in a remarkably decentralized authorizing sector: Each charter authorizer in California presides over an average of 3.5 schools, just half the national average.

Quantity hasn’t necessarily translated to quality. Many school districts — particularly small ones short of both staff and funding — have a hard enough time overseeing the traditional public schools under their purview, let alone new charters. In a 2018 paper, Harvard University education professor Martin West called for changes to the state charter law that would boost authorizers’ capacity and make them more accountable for the performance of charters under their oversight.

In an email, West said that AB 1507 could play a “constructive” role in improving the situation in California.

“Barring districts from authorizing charters outside of their boundaries could be constructive. It is obviously more challenging for an authorizer to provide effective oversight remotely, and the sheer number of districts in the state increases the risk that one will embrace authorizing as a money grab without any interest in ensuring the growth of high-quality options for students.”

But others aren’t so sure. Veronica Brooks-Uy, director of policy at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said that “substantial changes” were necessary to correct California’s authorizing culture. (The organization published a 2016 report condemning “inconsistent and ineffective” practices.) But she also warned that AB 1507 only remedies one aspect of a complex problem.

She wrote in an email that even though AB 1507 “attempts to address the bad incentives for smaller districts to authorize schools, without addressing the others simultaneously, it is likely to create negative, unintended consequences for existing good charter schools. This includes many charters that would face closure when they went up for renewal, not because they aren’t serving children well but because their new local district authorizer may not want to authorize at all.”

The CCSA’s Miller agreed that California’s charter authorizing issues were so “systemic” that dealing exclusively with remote authorizing could prove shortsighted.

“Some of these schools have operated at or near where they intended to be,” he said. “And over time they have ended up across the street, in the perfect facility, which is technically in another district. In those situations, there’s really no question about the quality of the schools or the ability of that district to do the oversight — it really is a matter of the geographic line where the district is relative to where the charter school can get a facility. And in some of those cases, those schools have been operating for 15, 20 years.”

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