The number of charter schools in our community has been growing, and will continue to grow.
With this more visible role that charters are playing in our public school system, there is increasing attention not just to the charters themselves, but also to the agencies that authorize them. There are questions, and sometimes confusion, about the role these authorizers play. This seems especially true when the authorizer is the County Board of Education.
Charter schools are public schools, providing a free education to the children they enroll. They must accept any child who applies from within their attendance area–typically, the boundaries of a school district. (If there are more applicants than available seats, the charters must use a random lottery process to allocate those seats.)
Charter school operators must petition an authorizer for permission to open a school, providing substantial evidence that they have the capacity to provide the educational program that they propose, and that this program will benefit students.
They must re-apply on a regular basis, and provide updates to the authorizer on the educational progress of their students and the fiscal health of the school. In exchange for public funds and a great deal of freedom in what and how they teach, charter schools must accept the risk that their charter can be revoked, and the school closed, for failing to meet standards of quality education and financial accountability and responsibility. These standards are described in state law.
In most cases, the authorizer is the local school district. However, if the operators’ application is rejected by the school district, in our county they have the right to appeal to the Santa Clara County Board of Education. Also, if they can demonstrate their educational program offers benefits to a county-wide student population, they can make their initial application apply directly to the County Board. In either case, if the County Board of Education approves the application, it’s the County Board—not the school district–that becomes the authorizer.
Assessing whether or not the charter school is meeting the required standards is the responsibility of the authorizer. Authorizers may not substitute standards of their own, nor expect that the charter school do more than state law requires. Additional documents, such as contracts between the charter operator and authorizer, can detail how the oversight process will work, but cannot impose additional standards on the school.
There are a very limited number of reasons to reject a charter petition, and a smaller number of reasons to deny renewal. These reasons also are described in state law. Hence, the most important decision an authorizer makes is the initial approval or rejection of the petition because, although charter revocation is always a possibility, closing any school is always the option of last resort.
Those who follow public education know that occasionally, the relationship between charter schools and their neighboring traditional schools and districts becomes tense, even antagonistic.
In these cases it seems natural to look to the authorizer to mandate a solution. But that is not the authorizer’s appropriate role. Solving these conflicts requires both sides’ lowering the rhetorical temperature, understanding what charter schools and their authorizers can and cannot do, and focusing on working together to improve all our schools for all our children.
The rapid growth of charter schools in the county, state and nationally, represents an important change in public education. Like any change, it can be uncomfortable.
From everyone involved, it requires goodwill, frank communication, and a focus on common goals. With all of the challenges to public education in the state and country, we should be devoting all our energies to improving the system for its students. Let’s make sure our first step is to agree on that.
Additional information and a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page are at www.sccoe.org/depts/charter/
Cary Dritz is Deputy Superintendent of the Santa Clara County Office of Education. Dritz and staff provide support to the County Office, school districts and other educational agencies, through Administrative Services, which include charter schools, and Personnel Services. The Santa Clara County Office of Education became the authorizor of the Bullis Charter School in 2003, after the Los Altos School District turned down the application by the then-prospective charter school.