California must reform charter schools. Here’s how

By Emma Turner, Special to CALmatters

In education circles in California and nationally, the fundamental question is this: How do we ensure all public schools are high quality?

In Sacramento, much of the debate focuses on charter schools, as the Legislature considers several related bills related to them.

What’s too often lost in the discussion is the fate of California’s 6.2 million public school students.

For too long, public schools have underserved segments of our student population. The shortcomings of the public school system have created a void, one which others have tried to fill.

The results have been decidedly mixed. But the mere existence of charters highlights the desire for strong schools that capably serve and provide equitable access to a diverse student population.

California has more charter schools than any state in the union. Yet our haphazard charter laws force school boards to grapple with loopholes and unintended consequences, too often creating havoc in our state.

Can charter schools be part of this solution? Absolutely. But that solution should be strategic and consider the health of the entire public education system.

School board members and county office of education trustees are the primary authorizers for charter school petitions. They also act as stewards of the districts and county offices that are impacted by charter schools.

Schools have insufficient resources to begin with. So it’s critical that school board members have the authority to consider the district as a whole. They must be given the power to focus on school quality, access, equity, opportunity and good governance.

However, existing charter law compels authorizers to ignore critical factors such as the financial impact on existing schools. In some districts, multiple charter schools are approved on appeal, overriding the denial by the local school board.

In others, districts are forced to accept charters within their boundaries that have been approved by school boards in different towns or even different counties. This is compounded by the growing pressure districts face, given that funding hasn’t kept up with sharply rising costs.

As a result, districts must make difficult tradeoffs that potentially hurt some of the very students the Charter Schools Act was intended to help.

Trustees have an invaluable perspective on charter legislation, which, if passed, would need to be implemented by school boards.

In a recent report, the California School Boards Association argues for:

  • Prohibiting changes to the charter petition on appeal.
  • Providing districts with more time to act on a petition.
  • Requiring that petitioners demonstrate why their proposed model cannot be accomplished within the school district structure
  • Evaluating charter school impact on districts.
  • Limiting out-of-district charters in which one school district approves charters located in another district.

The study has gained additional resonance as pending legislation intensifies the debate over charters.

We must recognize that quality charters have a role in public education. But we also need to insist that California correct the shortcomings of the charter authorization process and account for the impact of charters on students in neighboring schools and throughout the district.

If we let the quest for better student outcomes guide our work, we will find the answers everyone is seeking.


Emma Turner is California School Boards Association president and vice president of La Mesa-Spring Valley School District in San Diego County, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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