Charter School State Law Govern County School Boards' Authority

Charter schools are increasing in the state and the country, but what county boards of education can and can't do are not well-understood by the public.


By Cary Dritz

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.

Laurie Uhler May 22, 2012 at 02:51 AM
As I understand it, the SCCOE must ensure that charters follow the law. In our little town of Los Altos, the SCCOE has been made aware of illegal application requirements of Bullis Charter School on numerous occasions and by numerous people. I don't see the SCCOE actually doing their job on this as all is status quo on the application package.
Joan J. Strong May 22, 2012 at 02:57 AM
Charles Weis, Cary's boss and the Superintendent of SCCOE has gone on record as saying that, in essence, charters serve no educational purpose but placate people who happen to want them: http://www.kpao.org/2012/04/sccoe-what-is-your-view-of-the-legislative-intent-of-the-ca-charter-act.html Diane Ravitch, former Asst. Secretary of Education, and one of the original proponents of Charter schools now repudiates them as they are achieving the exact opposite of their original intent: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/?pagination=false Charter schools engage in a concept called "creaming" where only the most diligent and easy-to-educate kids are drawn there, leaving the most difficult (and expensive) for public schools to deal with. Yes, with an "everybody for themselves" attitude and no care for the less fortunate, this might seem like a great deal. Even the KKK loves charter schools, and you can guess why. The Creaming concept invalidates the Charter school concept. Read more about it here: http://bullischarterschoolthoughts.blogspot.com/2012/03/public-education-dictionary-creaming.html
Joe Seither May 22, 2012 at 04:15 PM
It's so odd to read from Cary Dritz that charter school operators must provide substantial evidence that their program will benefit students. Through correspondence with Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) I have been told otherwise, in no uncertain terms. There is no requirement that a charter petitioner claim or provide any evidence to suggest their proposed charter program will benefit students versus a district program. Simply requesting a charter is sufficient justification for our county Board of Education, which makes no comparison between a district program and a charter program being proposed. Under Superintendent Dr. Chuck Weis and Joe Di Salvo's Board of Education charters need not take into consideration the educational needs of students at all. How Cary Dritz - who works for Chuck Weis and Joe Di Salvo's BOE - could hold such a different view of things is a mystery. In fact, Cary Dritz was Cc:d on many of our email threads, including those quoting Chuck Weis, saying "the proliferation of charter schools is not a solution to an educational problem, it is a political solution" and charter school are "a political solution by the legislature not a pedagogical (educational) solution." Where student needs justify them, charter schools can be a terrific remedy to a serious social and educational problem. But without any requirement that they fulfill unmet student needs, charters can become de facto private schools serving the privileged rather than the needy.
Bill May 22, 2012 at 04:31 PM
the creation of "public private schools" through exploited loopholes found in a law that had the intent to provide for disadvantaged children is shameful...... for more information on what the California State School Boards Assoc says about Charter School governance.... http://www.csba.org/en/EducationIssues/EducationIssues/~/media/D3A48BACC09B45C89F35FC33ABC3A86A.ashx
john May 22, 2012 at 05:22 PM
I especially enjoyed your articulation that the change can be uncomfortable. Just from the comments we can see it's uncomfortable. Charters are financially accountable -via annual audits- and, one can argue, they are MORE accountable than traditional schools, because if people weren't happy with the charter schools they could leave (and return to their traditional schools) or just not apply? As you said the process is uncomfortable-I'd love to know WHY people find it so uncomfortable (after they look at the facts, not fabricated, emotional red herrings). Or flipside, WHY is there SO much demand for charter schools? Why do 60% of LASD incoming students apply for the charter lottery? They must be doing something right? Why doesn't the district give people what they want and embrace progressive learning? Those stories would be great to see! Thanks in advance As for Diane Ravitch-her change of perspective in iinteresting. Charters began as a way of improving poor schools, but why can't we ALL improve. "Public education brightens the dull & dulls the bright" Why can't we aim to brighten EVERYone? Not just the middle 60% performers? But the top 20% performers & the bottom 20% performers.
Joe Seither May 22, 2012 at 07:14 PM
@john - I agree completely that improving education for every quintile is a worthy goal. My unanswered question is who judges - how do we judge - the likelihood of positive "educational ROI" when deciding to establish a charter - especially where the charter is established by county authority upon a district - and the charter and host district are not mutually supportive. A scenario with a high probability for achieving positive ROI - something we'd all love to see: a) well defined student needs, b) program designed to meet these unmet needs, c) defined cohort of students, d) highly qualified staff, e) defined outcomes measurement protocol and success criteria, e) community/host district that supports the mission & value prop of the charter. If/when there's no demonstration of need, little or no educational value add, but delivery costs and civic costs (discord & dislocation) are high, a charter's ROI is questionable at best.
Joan J. Strong May 22, 2012 at 07:23 PM
John, it's not 60% it's about 28% last I checked, and a ton of those are siblings of existing BCS families. But why do people apply? Because it's a discount private school. It's free money. The school is subsidized (for the time being, until their own kids graduate) by some very rich families who are letting a scant few join their private party. Why do so many "apply" for lottery tickets when very few win them? Same thing. All the BCS regime is doing is using their $billions to buy their way into a free school campus. Opening up their growth is simply a weapon they use against the District. If they had the campus they wanted, the school would be half the size it is and open to nobody. So why doesn't the District "give people what they want"? They can. Simple. Just give the District the money that BCS gets (~$7000/student more) and we can have all of their super-luxurious programs too. Repeal prop 13. Triple the current another parcel tax. Done. Then all of our kids can go on annual field trips to Costa Rica and China like the BCS millionaires do. Until then, get real, and stop spreading lies.
Bill May 22, 2012 at 08:00 PM
@John....you sound like you are perpetuating "the ends justifies the means"......if the "bright" 20% needs to be differentiated, is isolation an acceptable result? How can we as a society espouse that belief? And since there is not a statistically significant difference between LASD and BCS scores, I hardly think one can accept a bifurcated community.
lasd resident May 22, 2012 at 08:01 PM
Laurie, there's nothing illegal about BCS's application. Mr. Weis was incorrect when he spoke about both issues.
lasd resident May 22, 2012 at 08:03 PM
Joe, I don't see how you can consider BCS a "private" school. Is it because they offer programs more like a private school? Children get in via a lottery. Academic ability is not even considered. The fact that parents are asked to donate a lot is solely because the charter school does not get equivalent funding as the district.
lasd resident May 22, 2012 at 08:05 PM
Charter schools were NOT created solely for disadvantaged children. I recognize that people would like to think BCS is using a loophole but that's just not the case. Charter schools were created to innovate, provide competition, etc. Some certainly focus on disadvantage children but the legislature understood that not all would. BCS is a legal entity doing exactly what charter legislation was intended for.
lasd resident May 22, 2012 at 08:06 PM
Free money? JJS you live in a different reality. Many parents at BCS donate $5000--that's hardly free. It's been shown time and time again that BCS and LASD spend almost the same per student.
Joan J. Strong May 22, 2012 at 08:58 PM
Many BCS lottery ticket buyers believe that they might "win" and they won't have to pay anything and simply live off of the backs of "rich" people like yourself. That's why so many apply. It's a chance at a free private school--until the non-freeloading parents get sick of paying for the freeloaders that is. Don't get me wrong, certainly a lot of parents to APPLY to BCS would never never actually ENROLL there--they are just tire kickers. *** It's been shown time and time again that BCS spends over TWICE AS MUCH per typical student as LASD typical students. Please see: http://bullisCharterScam.org/bullis_charter_money.php "Magic" does not pay for plane tickets to exotic field trips all over the world for every child, tons and tons of MONEY does...
Joe Seither May 22, 2012 at 09:54 PM
@lasd resident - I didn't mention BCS - the issue I've raised in not specific to our local situation by any means. Here's an article (from elsewhere in CA) that speaks more directly to this "de facto private school" issue. http://www.laweekly.com/2011-10-13/news/charter-schools-getting-your-child-on-the-list/


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