Student needs not applied

greenAt the October 2013 Charter Schools Study Workshop convened by the Santa Clara County Board of Education, new member Darcie Green asks a clarifying question about official Board Policy on Charter Schools.

“On page number one of the Policy, in Purpose and Scope: ‘In granting charter petitions the County Board shall give preference to schools best able to provide comprehensive learning experiences for academically low-achieving students.’ What does that mean to us? What does ‘preference’ mean? This is just my ignorance. I would say we give preference to charter schools, but how does that play out in our values as a Board?”

“Do we want to focus more on truly serving the academically needy student? Or does that word preference really not… I don’t know why it’s in there… it doesn’t seem to be what we do, so I don’t know way it’s in there. But I like that it’s in there.”

Uh oh, now you’ve done it. You asked a serious question, in public no less, about the County Board’s values and intent vis-a-vis serving unmet student needs, with a particular focus on under-served or academically low-achieving students.

Careful, Ms. Green, you’re dangerously close to thinking rationally about the actual written words of (a) SCCBOE Policy and (b) CA Charter Law:

(a) SCCBOE Policy

Purpose and Scope 

It is the policy of the Santa Clara County Board of Education to give appropriate consideration to petitions for charter schools to be operated under its jurisdiction. Pursuant to Education Code provisions, the County Board shall review all petitions in light of the envisioned effects the proposed schools may have on the education of the identified student population.

The County Board desires to support innovations which improve student learning and recognizes the legislative intent to provide charter schools as an opportunity to implement school-level reform. In granting charter petitions, the County Board shall give preference to schools best able to provide comprehensive learning experiences for academically low-achieving students.

(b)  CA Charter Law

EC47601.  It is the intent of the Legislature, in enacting this part,
to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community
members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently
from the existing school district structure, as a method to
accomplish all of the following:
   (a) Improve pupil learning.
   (b) Increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special
emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are
identified as academically low achieving.

I once tried, with rather surprising results, to probe the County Board’s perspective on serving unmet student need with charter schools. Below are short excerpts from a lengthy email exchange I had with then-Santa Clara County Schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Weis, Ph.D. that was both enlightening and shocking at times.

When I was just starting my study of California Charter Law and Bullis Charter School, having read the plain text of charter law, it seemed perfectly clear to me that the intent of the legislature was to remediate shortcomings in public education, not to completely, and without educational justification, deregulate California’s system of K-12 public education.

With a focus on closing gaps in public education, I contacted Superintendent Weis to ask whether he could provide an archive copy of the original charter petition submitted by Bullis Charter School. I was curious to learn what the educational basis was for the original BCS charter petition. What unmet student need was claimed by BCS founders? What pedagogical shortcoming did Bullis Charter School intend to fill?

The short answer was: None. Bullis Charter School never claimed any unmet educational need because the County never requires such a claim.

Me: In my discussions with other interested parents, these questions of need and the role of the SCCOE come up often, and I am only now beginning to ‘peel the onion’ on the topic, and I want to represent the facts and the perspective of you and the Board accurately. So can you confirm that the Board makes no assessment or judgement of educational need when reviewing a charter application?

Weis: I believe, from reading your writing, that you have read some Education Code sections that relate to the authorization of Charter Schools.  Therefore, you have seen that laws relating to district Charter School petitions support the direction that petitions shall be approved unless they do not meet the criteria established in law.  As you also seem to know, unmet educational need is not one of those criteria.

Me: Does SCCOE have, either by law or by custom, a duty to students to make quality of education paramount in its policy decisions? If so, how can it be that charter applications can be reviewed and approved with no regard for the quality of education already available to students in the schools they currently attend?

Weis: As I stated above, there is no requirement that the proposed Charter School fills an unmet educational need and only the established criteria for denial can be used to deny a Charter Petition.

Me: I’m trying to understand just how it could be possible for no one issuing charters to be required to consider actual student need – since that is so blazingly obviously the intent of charter law.

Weis: The guidelines and laws regulating charter school decisions do not allow denial based on the degree of success of existing (non-charter) schools.

Me: Introducing “school choice” in public education without grounding it in demonstrated student needs is an irresponsible administration of the statute. This is really the central point: The SCCBOE has prescribed a remedy for which there was no demonstrated need. Parents can ask for the moon and stars, but it’s the responsibility of the SCCBOE, as public trustees, to make responsible, wise decisions about administration of public policy.

Weis: Please keep in mind that the provision of charter schools to accommodate school choice was a political solution by the legislature not a pedagogical solution.

Me: Are you saying that comparing an education “problem” to a proposed “remedy” is beyond the scope and duty of the SCCBOE? How about when the “remedy” causes community division, discord, dislocation and resource reallocation? What about a case of racial inequity? Would you likewise ignore statistics showing de facto racial segregation or other “problem” when deciding whether to enforce an integration “remedy” on a district? If assessment and understanding of what already exists for students in a given community is deemed irrelevant to the SCCBOE, how can the Board claim to serve the needs of students?

Weis: Your metaphor of “problem” and “remedy” does not fit this circumstance.  The Charter School is not a remedy for a problem.  It is an option for public school choice.  Racial segregation in schools has one been one outcome of the charter school movement in many places in the state according to a recent Stanford study.

Me: In the mission, goals and history of the SCCOE, I see a lot of indirect reference to an emphasis on high quality education (and a little direct reference), which is very likely because it’s assumed by us all. The same situation appears to be the case in the text of the Charter School Act of 1992 – a lot of indirect reference to serving unmet educational needs of students, but little or no direct reference, and no explicit requirement of demonstration of need. That being said, the success criteria for operating charters makes very clear that achieving certain performance benchmarks qualify a charter for renewal – so assessment and target outcomes were obviously on the minds of the Legislature.

Weis: Your reading and interpretation of Charter School law is similar to mine.  There is no requirement in this section of law to fulfill an “unmet educational need of students” in order to propose a Charter School. 

I should add that various members of the County Board of Education were included on these emails. Apparently, none of what Weis told me in our correspondence was controversial or too sensitive for the Board’s eyes. In fact, because the County Superintendent and Staff “serve at the pleasure of the Board” we can assume that what Weis wrote was—and likely is—the prevailing view of the County Board.

The plain and shocking truth that flows from all this is that interpretation and administration of Charter Law in Santa Clara County (in stark contrast to other CA counties) has become politicized and unhinged from the rest of K-12 public education, from student need specifically, and contrary to the language of the statute, lacks any emphasis whatsoever on serving “students who are identified as academically low achieving.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Santa Clara County is a unique outlier in being so disruptive of and confrontational with traditional districts in our county. And just as the county Superintendent and Staff “serve at the pleasure of the Board,” the Members of the County Board of Education serve at the pleasure of the voters of Santa Clara County, and can be recalled at any time.

Pro-charter advocates and “charter management organizations” aggressively lobby our County Board to create and support a separate, adversarial system of quasi-private schools under CA Charter Law, and the Board’s process of approving new charter schools denies any burden or responsibility to true public school students and districts.

This is the consumerization of public education: Have it your way. Special orders don’t upset us. Not even when they result in ethnic and/or economic segregation.

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