Charter schools sometimes have been accused of trying to force out lower-achieving students while retaining their cream of the crop. In an effort to address this, a new bill in the Assembly would require charter schools to show their student demographics are appropriate for to the neighborhoods they serve.
The legislation, AB 440, is one of three bills that would, along with increasing demographic requirements, make charter schools pay for the same type of financial audits as public schools, require stricter academic accountability standards, and hold charter schools accountable to state open meeting, public record and conflict-of-interest laws.
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The bill's author, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, previously passed similar legislation through both houses, only to have it vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brownley said her continued efforts are in part a response to ongoing concerns that charter schools have not been serving the most challenging students to the same degree as their public school counterparts.
“This bill will help bring transparency to this issue during the charter renewal process,” she said. “AB 440 will require charter school authorizers during renewal of a charter school to consider the degree to which a school serves similar pupil populations as compared with the local community, the district or the population identified in the charter petition, especially with regard to high-need pupils.”
Currently, charter schools have to maintain a racial and ethnic student population proportional to the general area they serve. This new bill would expand that to include English as a second language, low-income and special-needs students. It would then allow districts to consider this demographic data when a school’s charter comes up for its five-year renewal.
This bothers Charter Schools Development Center Executive Director Eric Premack, who thinks local, county and state authorizing districts already have too much power when determining whether to renew a school’s charter. He said that if the demographic requirements became law, certain schools would be in “deep trouble.”
Barring a few exceptions, the bill’s current language would require a charter school’s student body to be “similar to the local district pupil populations or similar to pupil populations in the school's local community, or similar to the pupil populations identified in the charter petition.”
“That, to me, is very unclear,” Premack said. “The district could pick any of those three. And we think that would leave most charters prostrate, unless the school has a good relation with the district.”
Premack said he has “concerns about creaming” and criticized some charter schools for “bragging about their performance,” especially when the student body is dominated by the financially privileged. But he said he doesn’t see anything wrong with charters that distinguish between career and college preparatory goals, pointing out that those respective student bodies might not proportionally reflect neighborhood demographics.
“Core to the charter concept is that founders could, within reason, define the school's key instructional goals. This is considered to be the fulcrum of the movement.” Government regulation, he said, is “lobotomizing these efforts.”
However, the bill does make exceptions for schools whose approved charter mentions a particular demographic. The California Charter Schools Association, which worked closely with lawmakers to craft the bill, endorsed the legislation. It argues that local school boards already are penalizing charter schools for having student populations that don’t exactly match neighborhood demographics, and this new clarification will allow for schools that want to serve particular ethnic groups.
“The legislation provides greater flexibility to the charter school to identify intended student populations that best reflects the mission of the school while giving authorizers clearer guidance to review how charters are progressing toward serving those populations and that are mutually agreed upon in advance, during the petitioning process,” said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association.
Echoing that sentiment, Brownley said the bill would expand the scope of existing law while also providing flexibility for charter schools to serve specific pupil populations.
“AB 440 will allow charter schools that intend to specialize in serving English learners or other populations to specify that in their charter petitions, even if that population doesn't mirror the local district," she said.