Bills would pressure charter schools on test scores

July 27, 2011 

Two new bills in Sacramento could put more pressure on charter schools to scrap their alternative curriculums and improve standardized test scores.

The proposals also would shift some of the power to shut down failing charters from school districts to the state.

Legislators in the past have introduced bills to regulate charters more tightly, but nearly all were vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a staunch supporter of charter schools. With Jerry Brown in office, regulation proposals are re-emerging.

The heightened scrutiny is "like living under a microscope," said David Childers, principal of the Fresno Academy for Civic and Entrepreneurial Leadership (ACEL), a charter school in downtown Fresno.

California was the second state to allow charter schools. They are smaller, generally have a focus such as technology or music, and have more freedom in setting their curriculums.

Since 1992 more than 900 charter schools have opened their doors statewide, serving 286,000 students. Five percent of Fresno County's students – 9,877 – attend charter schools.

But charters' most strident critics say many charters use public funds to teach too few students, or are simply ineffective.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Assembly Member Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, say their bills will help make charters more accountable.

"There are some great charter schools out there – and most perform about as well as the public schools," Simitian said. "But a significant minority of charter schools are underperforming by every reasonable measurement."

The bills would set a threshold for achievement on standardized tests, create a state board to decide the fate of poor-performing schools and scrutinize enrollments of English learners, special needs and low-income students.

Simitian's proposal would require a charter to prove its academic performance in one of four ways: reach a score of 700 on the state's Academic Performance Index (the top score is 1,000; 800 is the minimum goal for public schools); improve test scores by 50 points over three years; score in the top 40% in all schools with similar demographics; or be classified as an "alternative" school, which focuses on students at risk of dropping out.

Simitian said he estimates 40-50 charters statewide would not be renewed in the next five years if the bill becomes law.

He and Brownley say they expect their bills will pass the Democrat-controlled Legislature. A spokesman for Brown said the governor's office does not comment on pending legislation.

Locally, 13 of 33 charters in Fresno County would meet the new requirements for standardized test scores and another seven would be exempt from the testing requirements because they serve at-risk students. The remaining schools in the county might meet standards using other criteria in Simitian's proposal or are too new to have enough data available for analysis.

Childers criticized the testing requirements, saying they would force charters to scrap curriculums that focus around themes and instead "teach the test." ACEL Academy's API was 549 last year.

"It's not that we don't teach our students what's on the test – we do – but we don't allow the tests to drive our instruction," he said.

Many charters enroll a wide range of students – from high achievers to many who are at risk of dropping out, which might account for lower test scores, Childers said.

"It may force some schools to re-evaluate the students they serve in order to boost their test scores," he said.

To keep charters from what critics call "cherry-picking" students, Brownley's bills would add to student enrollment requirements. Chartering agencies could look at whether the schools enroll as many English learners, children with special needs or low-income students as other schools in the district when considering a school's charter renewal.

California law already requires charters to have the same ethnic makeup as other schools in the district.

If a school failed to meet standardized test standards under Simitian's proposal, it would be unable to apply for a renewal and would need to appeal to the state Department of Education.

The bill has drawn fire from the California School Boards Association.

"We feel it is supplanting the autonomy of the local districts," said Brian Rivas, a CSBA spokesman.

But Simitian and Brownley have an unlikely ally in their push for more stringent standards – the California Charter School Association, the state's most prominent charter advocacy organization.

"This is a win for charters, as the bills provide clarity on a number of issues," Vicky Waters, CCSA's spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement.

The CCSA's endorsement of the bills exposes a deep divide within the charter community over whether the schools should be truly independent of the traditional school system, or merely an extension of it.

"We're more than mildly unhappy," said Eric Premack, executive director of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center. "We view it as a fundamental fight over our principles."

Premack, whose advocacy organization represents 21 charters in Fresno County that include Edison-Bethune Charter Academy, Big Picture High School and W.E.B. DuBois Charter Academy in Fresno, said the proposals severely compromise the way charter schools do business.

The concept "was about innovation and flexibility," Premack said. "We were supposed to be exempt from the rules governing traditional schools – that was the point of the law."

The reporter can be reached at vgibbons@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6378.

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