Greater local control over charter schools

The Orange County School of the Arts, a charter school. (Photo: Lunasee Studios, via Shutterstock)

When Sacramento’s Paramount Collegiate Academy abruptly closed in February and sent families scurrying for new schools, it wasn’t the first time the charter school had disrupted the local public education system.

In fact, the publicly funded but privately operated school began by creating a commotion. In May of 2015, its charter was approved by the California State Board of Education, despite being denied the year before by both the San Juan Unified School District and the Sacramento County Board of Education.

California’s state board is approving charter schools that were denied by local decision makers at a high rate.

Local decision makers had issues with Paramount’s proposed financial plan — which in hindsight appear justified, as the school’s board of directors initiated bankruptcy proceedings moments after closing.

After San Juan Unified’s board voted unanimously to deny the new charter, the county board denied Paramount’s appeal three months later, concluding that the school’s financial and operational plan was “not realistic.”

But the state board, which under current law can overrule districts and counties by approving new charters, found Paramount’s proposed budget “reasonable” and signed on to oversee the school. The decision meant that San Juan Unified would have no authority over a new school that intended to serve 875 students within its boundaries.

But Paramount didn’t make it that far. Two and half years in, its 70 students were handed a letter moments before dismissal that announced their school was closing, citing “financial, facility and low enrollment challenges.

The story of the school’s demise is important because it spotlights an alarming trend: California’s state board is approving charter schools that were denied by local decision makers at a high rate — 71 percent —and a number of those schools have failed, just like Paramount.

Last January, the Synergy Education Project charter school in Pittsburg, California, shuttered with nearly $1 million in debt on the books after three and a half years of financial and management issues. Like Paramount, the school’s financial plan had been considered “unrealistic” by both the local school district and county, yet the state board approved it anyway.

In June of 2017, the Bay Area’s Tri-Valley Learning Corporation filed for bankruptcy and closed its schools, leaving families scrambling for options in multiple districts. In 2004, the state board granted Tri-Valley a charter for two schools in Livermore after local decision makers had denied the chain’s petition, which, according to the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District, was a “divisive event for the Livermore community.”

But the divisiveness didn’t stop there. Eventually, a state auditor exposed an entrenched culture of self-dealing orchestrated by the chain’s former CEO, finding in early 2017 that Tri-Valley had failed to disclose numerous conflict-of-interest relationships and misappropriated public funds, including tax-exempt public bonds totaling over $67 million.

According to auditors, internal controls were “so weak” that the CEO was able to divert $2.7 million in public funds without any supporting documents over a span of five years.

California’s charter approval process is broken. Democratically elected officials who make decisions in the interest of their communities are being routinely ignored. This leaves Sacramento saddled with oversight responsibilities for charter schools strewn about statewide, which clearly isn’t working: a third of the charter schools approved by the state board are no longer in operation.

This issue has real consequences for students and families. “A lot of parents had to take time off work and drastically rearrange their schedules,” said Ida Christian, parent of four Paramount students. “One of the things that possibly lead to this is it felt like there wasn’t any oversight.”

It’s also urgent — the state board plans to consider six appeals for new charter schools this week, all of which were denied at the local level.

State law must be reformed to return authority to local decision makers. There are a number of reforms being proposed that could help, including SB 1362 proposed by Sen. Jim Beall, which would promote local control of charter schools.

Parents, teachers, and democratically elected school boards should be able to decide what’s best for their students and communities.

Eds’ Note: Clare Crawford is senior policy advisor with In the Public Interest, an Oakland-based nonprofit that studies public goods and services. Chris D. Funk is superintendent of the East Side Union High School District.


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