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If it’s spring then it must be time for the California Teachers Association (CTA) to make another one of its frontal assaults on charter schools, the independent public schools that promise better results in exchange for greater freedom to operate. The CTA’s chosen vehicle this time around is Democratic Assembly Member Ed Chau’s AB 1531, which eliminates the autonomy of charter school governing boards and gives control of charter boards to local school boards that are often dominated by the teacher unions.
Under the state’s current law, charter schools appoint the members of their governing boards. AB 1531 would radically change this process.
Under the bill’s provisions, the chartering authority, which in most cases is the local school board, “shall appoint a majority of the members of the board of directors,” which would be drawn from a pool of nominees contained “in the charter petition, charter renewal, or material revision application.” Thus, school boards, many of which are grudgingly supportive or openly hostile to charter schools, will have the final say on the composition of the decision-making majority on charter school governing boards.
If charter-school organizers know that local school boards have the power to pass final judgment on who sits on their governing boards, they will be less likely to nominate people who possess talent, vision and commitment, but who are not likely to be confirmed by the local school board. Only people politically palatable to the school board will likely be nominated. There will be a chilling effect on the variety of people put forward to serve on charter-school governing boards, with the result that governing boards would end up becoming extensions of the school board.
AB 1531 supporters claim that the legislation is needed to protect the eligibility of charter-school employees for public pensions under new IRS regulations. This weak argument fails to mask the true anti-charter-school objective of the bill.
As U-T San Diego recently editorialized: “This is a laughable cover story for an obvious attempt to emasculate charter schools. Who is the only institutional supporter of this bill? The California Teachers Association. The CTA has no history – none – of offering constructive assistance to state charter schools. Instead, it is far and away the biggest creator of headaches and obstacles for charter schools.” Parents and charter-school officials also understand the real purpose of AB 1531.
At a protest in front of the office of Democratic Assembly Member Lorena Gonzales, who voted for the bill in the Assembly education committee, Adria Williams, an African-American mother of a charter school student, laid out the case against AB 1531: “It binds charters back to the school district. That’s not what we want. We want to have the freedom for our children to be in a creative innovative environment.”
In addition, Ms. Williams said that AB 1531 “abolishes the charter’s right to have flexibility and control over their charter, and then hands it over to the school districts.” She asked, “That’s why we left [district schools], right?” “We’re losing our freedom,” she warned, “by allowing this bill to be passed.”
In a letter to charter-school supporters, Judy Burton, president and CEO of Alliance College Ready Public Schools, a Los Angeles nonprofit that runs 22 charter schools, wrote: “AB 1531 is a drastic reversal of the stated intent of the Charter Schools Act ‘to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing district structure” (Education Code Section 47601). This bill would compromise the autonomy and independence of charter schools.”
In March, a month before the Assembly education committee passed AB 1531, Stanford University released a study that found that the typical student in a Los Angeles charter school gained significantly more learning in a year than his or her peer in a regular Los Angeles district school. The gain among charter-school students amounted to about 50 days of learning in reading and an additional 79 days of learning in math. Yet, AB 1531 threatens to turn higher-performing charter schools into pale district-school look-alikes. According to William Melton, president of a charter-school governing board, under AB 1531, his charter schools “would convert to being district schools.”
Judy Burton says, “Currently charter schools select their own board members based on who they believe will best uphold the mission and values of the organization.” AB 1531, which will be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee on April 30th, threatens to upset that fundamental requirement. The result, William Melton warns, “would undo 20 years of education progress and choice for California’s parents and students.”
— Lance T. Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.