Districts lack community outreach authorizing charters

Districts lack community outreach authorizing charters

(Calif.) Loopholes in state law allow school districts to authorize new charter schools outside district boundaries without any show of support from the community where the school will operate, according to a new state audit.

At least 10 percent of the state’s 1,246 charter schools had at least one campus authorized by their district’s board that is located outside of their respective district’s boundaries, the California State Auditor reported Tuesday.  

In addition to citing issues including a lack of academic or financial oversight on the part of some districts, auditors also found charters that were authorized with little to no community outreach to families that would actually be impacted.

“Nothing in state law requires the authorizing district to hold public hearings within the potential host district,” auditors wrote. “Moreover, because the parents of students in an out of district school cannot vote for the authorizing district’s board members, the authorizing district is not accountable democratically to the charter school’s community.”

One example highlighted in the report involves New Jerusalem Elementary School District, which planned to authorize and operate an out-of-district charter within the boundaries of Stockton Unified School District, but held its public hearing in Tracy, 26 miles from where the district ultimately established the charter school.

The audit marks the second time in recent years in which districts and lawmakers have been called on to reel in the spread of charters to districts outside where they were originally granted authorization.

Last year, the California Supreme Court let stand a 2016 appeals court decision that an independent study charter authorized in one district’s boundaries cannot open a “resource center” to serve students living in other districts in the same county.

The State Board of Education approved a policy earlier this year to issue temporary waivers to online or independent study charter schools affected by the decision to comply with the law by June 30, 2018.

While state law requires charter schools to operate within the geographic boundaries of their authorizers, it allows for limited exceptions. For instance, a charter school can establish one out-of-district site within the authorizing district’s county if there is no available site or facility to house the entire school program in the area in which the school chooses to locate, or if the site is for temporary use during construction.

However, state law doesn’t provide host districts–those where the school will be located–with a process for challenging the authorization of out‑of‑district charter schools, even if the host districts have previously rejected prior petitions from the same school.

The state auditor was tasked with determining the adequacy of the financial and academic oversight that authorizing districts provided to three out‑of‑district charter schools: Acacia Elementary, Assurance Academy and LA Online.

Auditors found that two of the three districts reviewed—Acton‑Agua Dulce Unified, which authorized Assurance Academy, and New Jerusalem, which authorized Acacia Elementary—expanded their enrollment by using exceptions in state law to authorize out‑of‑district charter schools.

Comparing U.S. Census data, the total population of school‑age residents within New Jerusalem’s geographical boundaries was only about 330 people in 2010. However, the district increased its enrollment from 686 students in fiscal year 2010–11 to 5,015 students in fiscal year 2015–16 by increasing the number of its out‑of‑district charter schools from zero to 10.

Authors of the report note, however, that neither district was able to demonstrate to auditors that the schools they authorized actually qualified for the exceptions granted by the state to approve of out-of-district campuses.

To ensure that districts obtain local community support for out-of-district charter schools that they authorize, auditors recommend the Legislature requires districts to notify the school’s host district 30 days in advance of the board meeting at which the potential authorizing district is scheduled to make its authorization decision. Lawmakers are also recommended to require the potential authorizing district to hold the public hearing within the host district’s boundaries.