Charter schools soon will have open meetings and records. Gavin Newsom says that’s just a ‘start’

California parents may soon be able to learn more about charter schools in their communities under a new law that forces those schools to hold open meetings and make records public.

Charter backers say that’s a good thing in principle. The California Charter Schools Association stood behind Gov. Gavin Newsom as he signed the bill last week after it was fast-tracked through the Legislature with his support.

But charter backers are warily eying other bills in the works at the Capitol. They include a plan to cap the number of charter schools in the state, as well as a proposal to let districts consider how much a charter will cost when deciding whether to approve one.

Newsom signaled he’s interested in doing more to change the state’s charter school laws. At the signing ceremony for the transparency bill, he touted a task force he’s asked state schools chief Tony Thurmond to lead to study the financial impact of charter schools. Newsom says the the task force will represent pro- and anti-charter views.

“We need to start with transparency,” he said. “The goal over the course of the next few months is to work to address a number of these vexing issues that frankly need to be addressed.”

Charter schools have drawn ire from striking teachers in Oakland and Los Angeles, who argue the publicly-funded but independently run schools siphon money from their districts. Nearly 10 percent of California students attend charter schools, which are exempt from most state and district rules traditional schools must follow. Supporters say that lets them innovate and tailor their work to help underserved students.

Newsom declined to endorse any specific proposals in the Legislature. But charter advocates say they’re particularly worried about a group of four bills that would give districts more power to block new charter schools and shutter existing ones.

Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center, described the bills as “extremely toxic.”

“We believe that this is an extreme package of bills that, taken together, threatens the very existence of charter schools in California,” said Myrna Castrejón, the California Charter Schools Association president.

But supporters of curtailing the proliferation of charters, like California Teachers Association president Eric Heins, say the bills will have a positive impact. “We’ve been trying to push for more of this accountability that’s really sorely missing” he said.

The bills represent the latest political battle in which teachers unions and pro-charter school groups are on opposite sides. Charter school backers spent more than $20 million last year in an effort to elect Newsom opponent Antonio Villaraigosa, although the former Los Angeles mayor didn’t make it out of the gubernatorial primary. They spent more than $30 million backing former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck, who was defeated by Thurmond in the race for state superintendent of public instruction.

The California Teachers Association, the state’s biggest teachers union, was among the biggest backers of Newsom and Thurmond.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta said the teacher strikes have created an ideal moment to debate the state’s existing charter school law. He’s authoring a bill that would let school districts consider how much money a charter would cost when deciding whether to approve one, which they’re currently barred from doing.

“It has led to financial stress and detriment,” Bonta said of the existing law. He pointed to the effects in his Bay Area district where Oakland teachers recently went on strike.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, has a bill to cap the number of charters, which he says would help alleviate the financial strain they put on school districts. He’s still working out the details of his proposal, but says he wants both statewide and local caps.

“It will give school districts some breathing room,” he said, although he added his bill doesn’t seek to end charters in California. “Charter schools have a role in California, and I respect that.”

McCarty said his office is working with the governor’s team as it hammers out details of the proposal, but that the governor’s office hasn’t endorsed the legislation.

Meanwhile, the California Charter Schools Association is backing its own set of bills that would affect charters, including measures to increase funding for African-American students and students with disabilities.

It’s not clear which proposals will get official backing from the governor, but Newsom has made it clear he wants to be involved in the process. His support iced the way for the the new charter transparency law, which supporters say will hold charters to the same transparency standards as traditional public schools.

Lawmakers fast-tracked the bill, SB 126 by Sen. Connie Leyva, to the governor’s desk in the first couple months of the legislative session, an unusually quick process. Newsom “took a leadership role in helping get this bill to the finish line,” his spokesman Nathan Click said in a statement.

“On the issue of charter schools and public education, we’ve been at it for a long time,” Newsom said during the bill-signing ceremony. “I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a new conversation, where we can, forgive me, turn the page.”

Hannah Wiley contributed to this report.

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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