Charter School Critics Have Potent New Tool to Block Approvals, Renewals

In an effort to portray a far-reaching bill as a compromise between charter schools and teacher unions, Gov. Gavin Newsom invited leaders of both groups as well as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurman to recent signing ceremonies for Assembly Bill 1505.

In remarks at the event, Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, asserted that the new law “affirms that high-quality charter schools are here to stay and that the charter model — one that embraces accountability in exchange for the flexibility to innovate — is worth protecting and is of tremendous value to the students we serve.”

But what Newsom and Castrejón sought to depict as a balancing act was instead seen in most news coverage as the biggest blow yet to the California charter school movement, which began slowly in 1992 but now includes 1,300 schools that educate about 660,000 of the state’s K-12 students.

One modification to the original bill by Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, was a huge win for charter schools. It allows charter applicants and charters seeking renewals to appeal rejections from local school boards to county and state officials. A provision on requiring all charter teachers have formal credentials was revised to give charter schools until 2025 to comply.

Trustees can cite fiscal concerns in opposing charters

But the single most important part of the new law is the provision most sought by teacher unions and most feared by charter advocates. That is language that allows district boards to reject charters solely on financial grounds.

In an era in which annual school spending has soared — up from about $67 billion in 2014 to a record $102 billion now, a 52 percent increase — it would nominally appear that charters don’t have much to worry about from such a provision. Yet many state school districts are struggling to make ends meet now as much as they did during the Great Recession a decade ago, when state spending plunged nearly 20 percent in a single year.

Analysts say one reason districts are in trouble has to do with the increase in special-education students, who cost significantly more to educate and whose statewide budget got a 21 percent boost in May.

But the main headache is the enormous cost of the Legislature’s 2014 bailout of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. It mandates that districts increase their CalSTRS payments by 132 percent from 2014-15 to 2020-21. Yet partly because of a significant increase in the number of retiring teachers getting pensions, the actual hit on district budgets over that span is much worse — 196 percent, the Legislative Analyst’s Office said earlier this year.

Pension bailout eating up surge in school funding

This has had the effect of pushing the total cost of compensation to 90 percent or more of the operating budgets in some districts, with by far the state’s largest district — Los Angeles Unified — among the hardest-hit. In May, LAUSD officials warned that a state takeover by 2022 was likely unless voters approved a parcel tax. Voters opposed the tax despite a heavy lobbying campaign. LAUSD’s fiscal reserves may not even cover the next three years unless state education spending keeps going up, district watchers warn.

But the problems are statewide. The state’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team — which helps districts in distress — has had to focus on problems in the counties of San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland and more.

In response, a union-led coalition is seeking to qualify a November 2020 ballot measure modifying Proposition 13, the state’s famous 1978 tax-limitation law. It would allow the valuation of commercial properties to go up each year to reflect their value instead of the maximum 2 percent increase allowed under Proposition 13, generating potentially $5 billion or more in new annual funds for schools. 

The coalition had already qualified a similar measure for the 2020 in fall of last year, but decided to withdraw it because of the fear that its harsh potential effects on small businesses would make it a hard sell.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com