The Ravenswood City school board in East Palo Alto unanimously approved Thursday night a charter school moratorium that throws their support behind a raft of state legislation that they insist is not anti-charter, but rather pro-local control.
The controversial legislation aims to increase oversight of charter schools in California, which has more charter schools and students than any other state, accounting for 10% of the state's K-12 enrollment. Supporters of traditional public schools say this growth is threatening the fiscal and educational health of neighborhood schools, while charter school advocates defend charters as autonomous alternatives that can meet low-income and minority families' demands for better public education. The divisive fight between the two camps is playing out throughout California, from the halls of the state Capitol to school districts across the state, including in East Palo Alto.
"I am not anti-charter but I am pro-public schools," said Ronda White, president of the Ravenswood Teachers Association, which along with the district's classified employees union brought the moratorium to the board. "No school district should have to take on financial burdens that reduce resources for students who attend the local public schools."
The resolution supports four state bills that would: enact a five-year statewide cap on charter schools; allow agencies to consider the facilities, fiscal and academic impacts on districts in granting charters; remove the right to appeal if a charter's application is denied; and ensure local governing boards have control over all decisions related to charter schools' authorizations and renewals, doing away with charters ability to appeal denials at the county and state level (This last bill, Assembly Bill 1505, passed the Assembly this week on a narrow 44-19-17 vote). Gov. Gavin Newsom also signed into law this spring a bill that requires charters to follow the same laws governing open meetings, public records and conflicts of interest that apply to school districts.
Several Ravenswood teachers advocated for the moratorium on Thursday night, including one who delivered a list of signatures from her colleagues in support.
"It frustrates me to think that your hands are tied when a charter comes," said Costaño Elementary School teacher Jesusita Rivera. "I'm not against charters. I'm just against not having the transparency and I'm against the board not being able to make decisions ... and not being able to say 'no'" to new charter schools.
Several local charter school leaders and parents attended the meeting and urged the board against approving the moratorium. Kate Belden, principal of Kipp Valiant Community Prep in East Palo Alto, told the board that the resolution "seeks to cut off school choice for the thousands of East Palo Alto families you represent.
"We share your beliefs that public charter schools should be held accountable for results," Belden said. "We believe in transparency and accountability and gladly comply with ongoing requirements."
The proposed legislation, she said, is "misleading and too far-reaching and any board resolution in support (of it) would be against the interest of East Palo Alto students and families."
Noting that the resolution will not prevent any existing charter schools from operating in East Palo Alto, trustees maintained that their action does not limit parent choice.
"I see it as bringing equality," said Vice President Stephanie Fitch, who has taught in both public and charter schools. "Everyone wants the same great things for our kids and this helps with that."
Trustees lauded the resolution for bringing more transparency to charter schools, which they argued should actually empower parents to make more informed choices for their children.
Under the resolution, the district will conduct a public analysis of existing and potential new charter schools, including the demographics of charter school students in East Palo Alto, the net fiscal impact of existing charter schools on the district, student discipline statistics at charters, the number and reasons why students leave charter schools and teacher credentialing and retention.
"This is not saying we're anti-charter," said board President Tamara Sobomehin. "This is saying the same expectations we have of ourselves in this public school district we need to have the same expectations for the public charters also. This is something I'd expect in my children's school or anywhere else."
Other school districts, public agencies and organizations have approved near-identical charter school moratoriums in recent months, including the Los Angeles Unified, West Contra Costa Unified and Anaheim Union High school districts; and the cities of Richmond and Huntington Park.