Legislature reacts to charter school problems

By Jessica Brice, The Associated Press
Monday June 24, 2002

Decade of issues leads lawmakers to call for tighter restrictions 


SACRAMENTO – California’s decade-old experiment with charter schools is entering a new stage, as lawmakers angered by a series of revelations about flawed schools are calling for tighter restrictions of the publicly funded schools. 

Since the state’s first charter school was approved in 1993, the system has expanded to include 130,000 students in 360 schools across the state. 

Mixed with that batch, however, is a list of more than 50 charters that failed, including many that made headlines because they acted in ways that were questionable, if not illegal. 

A Fresno charter was closed because it hired convicted felons. In Union City, a school that taught creationism was shut down. In Los Angeles, a school’s charter was revoked after it used public money to lease a sports car for the school principal. 

Perhaps most striking among them is the GateWay Academy, which closed in January after it racked up a $1.3 million debt, charged students tuition and hired teachers without checking their criminal backgrounds or credentials. At one point, the Fresno-based charter operated 14 schools with nearly 1,000 students from Oakland to Pomona. 

“People believe (charter schools) are doing a good job, but they also know there are some problems,” said Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes, D-Fresno, whose district has one of the highest charter school failure rates in the state. “People are going to start asking, ’What’s happening with my taxes?”’ 

In response to the spate of recent problems, Reyes and other legislators are pushing a handful of bills that seek to limit how and where charter schools operate. 

Charter schools are public schools funded with state dollars but run by private organizations. They are given contracts, called charters, by school boards in exchange for promises to improve student performance. 

Disappearing charter schools have left students and parents scrambling to find a new school and saddled districts with massive debts. They have even prompted a statewide audit by the Bureau of State Audits due in August. 

When the Renaissance Charter School in Fresno closed last month — the most recent charter to be revoked — teachers and staff were left without jobs or paychecks. 

“We found out that our deferred paychecks for June and July had disappeared, and then our May paychecks also didn’t make an appearance,” said Nancy Hudleson, a part-time English teacher at Renaissance, who estimates the school owes her $6,000. 

Hudleson said the charter’s employees are considering a lawsuit, but she doesn’t “have a lot of hope that we are going to see anything.” 

While charter schools have the freedom to decide what to teach and how, they still must follow the same set of laws that govern public schools. But monitoring schools to make sure they obey the rules hasn’t been easy, said Eileen Cubanski, manager of charter schools for the California Department of Education. 

“In theory, school districts are the ones that are supposed to be on top of what’s going on at the schools,” she said. 

But many districts have enough trouble watching their own schools and say they don’t have the resources to police the charters, which can spread out with multiple campuses across the state. 

“The (Fresno) school districts were created to take care of their own students. Why are they providing services up in Ukiah and Santa Cruz?” said Fresno County Superintendent Peter Mehas. “There is really no ultimate accountability regarding fiscal oversight of these schools.” 

Mehas is pushing for a state takeover of the West Fresno School District following a string of doomed charters. It comes as tensions between other districts and school boards heat up. 

On Wednesday, a southern California school board unanimously approved the five-year renewal of the Desert Sand Charter School in the Antelope Valley Union High School District, despite the superintendent’s warning that the school was misusing funds and hiring unqualified teachers. 

At least a dozen bills have been introduced this year to deal with a range of issues from how schools are funded to how they spend their money and how they are monitored. 

Reyes has a bill, AB1994, that would prohibit charter organizations from operating satellite schools in counties where they are not chartered. It would also outline a process for dealing with finances, teachers and students if a school closes. 

Another bill, authored by Assemblywoman Lynne Leach, R-Walnut Creek, would give the county superintendent the power to oversee charter school operation. 

Both bills passed the Assembly and will be considered by the Senate Education Committee on June 26. 

Other states, like New York and Massachusetts, have created a statewide agency to oversee the schools, rather than requiring over-stressed school districts to do it or establishing restrictive laws. About 36 states and Washington, D.C., allow charter schools. 

Charter advocates have criticized the California bills, saying schools operate best without the bureaucratic red tape that bogs down public schools. 

David Patterson, director of government relations at the California Network of Educational Charters, said the problems of a handful of charters shouldn’t be allowed to hurt the majority of charters that have improved student test scores and offered educational alternatives to parents and students. 

“The frustration here is that charters need to follow the law, and the overwhelming majority (do),” he said, noting that his organization supports increased oversight rather than tighter restrictions. “Sometimes they get off track and then it’s important that the district does their job. When it’s done well, it’s an excellent system.”