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Whom do charter schools serve?

Posted: October 18, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: October 18, 2012 2:00 a.m.

As the superintendents of three school districts in the Santa Clarita Valley, we are concerned with any charter school applications — known as petitions — that come before our local school boards for approval.

The geographic reality is that a kindergarten-sixth-grade charter school would draw students from all four elementary-grade school districts in the Santa Clarita Valley.

A superintendent’s responsibility is to advise school board members so they can make a reasoned decision based on fact, legal criteria and, ultimately, their judgment.

Approval of charter schools is not a popularity contest — the process and criteria are defined in law. No amount of Facebook “likes,” media advertisements, pamphlets, heartfelt testimonials and letters of general support can take the place of a rigorous review process.

Superintendents and board members have an obligation to assure Santa Clarita Valley residents that charter schools comply with the law.

California’s Charter Schools Act states the intention of the Legislature to:

(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 (Education Code 47600-47616.7, emphasis added).  

The California School Boards Association provides guidance and advice for school boards in the publication “Charter Schools, A Manual for Governance Teams (2009).” It summarizes one of the key requirements of the law and explains that a charter school asking a school board for approval must describe:

The means by which the school will achieve a racial and ethnic balance among its pupils that is reflective of the general population residing within the territorial jurisdiction of the school district to which the charter petition is submitted (page 23, emphasis added).

The Einstein Academy petitioners who recently sought approval for a K-6 school from the Saugus Union School District, and were denied, had previously been denied by the Newhall School District, Ventura Unified School District, Saugus School District, Los Angeles Unified School District and the Ventura County Office of Education.

Last year the Los Angeles County Office of Education indicated its intent to deny an appeal of this charter, and the appeal was withdrawn by the applicants.

The William S. Hart High School District declined to consider its petition for an elementary school. There are other charter petitions that have been submitted to our districts, and they have been denied as well. It’s fair to ask why.

Petitioners must address 16 defined areas in their applications. The previous denials of charters by Santa Clarita Valley districts, including the most recent by the Saugus board, have been based on the inadequacy of the petitions, fiscal errors and concerns, inaccuracies, and findings that the proposed school could not and would not meet the intent of the law and the claims of the petitioners.

And there’s a large, over-arching reason for the denials. All the school boards understood the intent of California’s Charter Schools Act. It was passed to provide special emphasis on the learning experience of low achievers.

This should be a fundamental element of charter petitions. The petitioners we have reviewed have no experience with English-language learners, low-achieving students or students who are socio-economically disadvantaged.

They have little experience with those with disabilities.

Two existing charter schools in the SCV, one that currently serves K-12 students and Einstein, which currently serves grades seven through 11 and had petitioned Saugus to serve K-6 students, serve to verify that the local school boards’ concerns are valid.

The intent of the law and the requirement for racial and ethnic balance cited above are meant to prevent the establishment of exclusive schools built on segregation by wealth and self-selection. We can look at the existing SCV charter schools’ ability and/or willingness to conform to the requirement of the law to judge how they’ve done.

Proponents like to “cherry pick” certain specific schools for comparison. But, as noted above, the law requires the comparison to be to the district because the draw of students to a charter is district-wide.

One can find the necessary comparisons of valid data (not just petitioners’ claims) at the California Department of Education’s Dataquest website.

English-language learners whose first language is Spanish represent the bulk of low achieving students in the SCV. Until they are fluent in English they will not be proficient. So how do the two local charters compare to school districts on this demographic?


District    # of ELL students    Percent of total student population

Castaic    310    11%
Hart     2,344    9%
Newhall     2,044    29%
Saugus     1,280    12%
Sulphur Springs     1,062    19%

School    # of ELL students    Percent of total student population

Einstein Academy Charter    1    <1%
SCVi Charter     32    4%

How about the school and district’s poverty level based on the number of socio-economically disadvantaged students who attend?


District    Disadvantaged students    Percent of total enrollment

Castaic    529    23%
Hart    3,877    21%
Newhall    1,704    34%
Saugus    1,322    18%
Sulphur Springs    1,720    46%

School    Disadvantaged students    Percent of total enrollment

Einstein Academy Charter    2    <1%
SCVi Charter    73    13%

And the enrollment of Hispanic students, the second largest ethnic group in the SCV?


District    Hispanic students    Percent of total enrollment

Castaic     1,051    36%
Hart      8,885    34%
Newhall     2,977    43%
Saugus     2,855    28%
Sulphur Springs     2,533    46%

School    Hispanic students    Percent of total enrollment

Einstein Academy Charter    27    10%
SCVi Charter    166    23%

Are the current charters in the SCV serving these students at levels that are reflective of the local districts? Or upon stepping through the charter school door, did students become middle class, White, fluent and proficient English speakers?

Local demographics indicate that Hispanic, poor, English learners, and disabled students should be significantly represented at these charter schools. Increased diversity was one of the Hart district’s conditions of renewal for the existing Einstein seventh-11th grade charter school, but to date we have not seen any meaningful action on the part of the charter to change its demographics.

A charter school has an obligation to reflect the population of the district from which it will draw students. The law requires the charter to enhance the opportunities of low achievers.

We think it is reasonable to compare charters to all our districts because the charter schools currently operating in the Santa Clarita Valley draw students from across the valley, regardless of home district.

It is a reasonable conclusion, based on the existing charters’ student body profiles, that the proposed Einstein K-6 charter school recently denied by the Saugus board would not have reflected the student bodies of the elementary school districts of the SCV.

James Gibson is the Superintendent of Castaic Union School District. Robert Nolet is the Superintendent of Sulphur Springs School District. Marc Winger is the Superintendent of Newhall School District.

In Friday’s Signal, Gibson, Nolet and Winger examine in greater depth charter schools’ obligation to serve all students.


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