Charter Schools
by Leslie Reynolds, SJUSD Trustee
April 17, 2010

The term "Charter School" is increasingly becoming part of the conversation when folks discuss education, but what exactly is a Charter School?  A Charter School is a public school.

The Charter Schools Act states that the intent of the Legislature is to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure, in part, as a way to increase learning opportunities for students who are identified as academically low achieving. 
They can be created by a group of parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders, or a local community-based organization.  Traditional public schools can convert to become a charter school (such as Bachrodt Elementary in our own San Jose Unified School District).  Charters often employ non-union teachers, thus eliminating the many bargaining issues that regular public schools must negotiate, and they are not bound by many of the state's education code mandates.  Charters are given the freedom to "experiment" with teaching techniques that sometimes results in better student achievement.

Charter Schools may not charge tuition and may not discriminate against a student on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, gender or disability.  They must also be nonsectarian in their programs, admission policies, and employment practices, and they cannot teach religion.  Currently there are 809 charter schools operating in the state of California, serving approximately 340,000 of our 6.4 million school children, with about 4,000 charter schools nation wide. 

This past January, I helped organize and participated in the first ever, Charter Schools Summit, which was held at the Santa Clara County Office of Education.  We had 230 attendees, ranging from school board members, charter school operators, superintendents, teachers, and Mayor Chuck Reed. The purpose of the summit was to start a dialogue between charter school proponents and regular school districts, as there are many unintended consequences of the charter school movement.  Some of the concerns regular public school have with charters are:

1) Charters take money away from school districts.  Currently this is not a consideration for a district to deny a charter petition.  Regular public schools are funded through a system called the Average Daily Attendance, and is paid on a per pupil basis.  Frankly speaking, charters can be devastating to a regular district school, particularly in this harsh economic climate. 
2)There is no legal mechanism for charters to share best practices with district schools, thus not allowing the entire "experiment" portion of the process to play all the way through.  If charters would share their best practices with districts, then districts could demonstrate the need to rid themselves of that particular section of the education code.  If its good enough for charters, it should be good enough for regular public schools.
3) Charters are the only publicly funded agency that is not governed by publicly elected officials.  Although they do have private governing boards, they have little to no real public accountability verses the districts who are under close scrutiny by the public they serve.
4) Competition doesn't actually improve education unless you are on an even playing field.  Charter schools do not have to bare the handcuffs of the state accountability standards that districts have (although this is slowly changing), as well as the many bargaining points brought on by the unions.
5) Some charters do the very same thing that districts do.  According to the California State Board of Education only 15% of charters preform better than regular public schools, 37% are preforming worse than regular public schools, and the rest are doing about the same.
6) Charters are approved too easily and too quickly.  A district is allotted 60 days to evaluate a charter petition, and must pull staff away from important projects and at a great financial cost to the district.  If the Board of Education chooses not to authorize a charter, the charter simply approaches the county, who helps them with their petition and then handily approves the charter. 
7) As a matter of practice, Charters actually do choose their students.  Unlike regular public schools, charters can require parents of students to volunteer hours to the school.  Studies prove that parent involvement is the key to student success.  (Look at our own San Jose Unified Williams Elementary with their 30,000 plus hours of parent volunteerism and their API score of 965)  Additionally, students who cannot or will not preform, will be removed from the charter school, with bad test scores and or behavior problems, and returned to the regular public schools.  Regular public schools must educate each student, regardless of situation, desire or background. While this is not typical, it does occur.

These are just some of the issues that were openly and honestly discussed at the summit.  It is my belief that most charter operators do want what is best for students, and can provide a way to increase student achievement.  I appreciate the fact that if a charter teacher is not the best fit, that teacher can be removed quickly, much like an employee in a private sector company.  Having parents play a large part of the education of their child is always a plus, and it is unfortunate that all parents don't step up the plate here in regular public schools.  In conclusion, the debate continues, and by providing a platform, such as this summit, we can begin to all work together for the good of ALL the students under our care.

Leslie Reynolds
Board of Education Trustee
San Jose Unified School District