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Learning Curves

Are California’s Charter Wars Over?

Governor Newsom hopes a legislative agreement will set the stage for a political ceasefire in the state’s long fight over charter schools.

Bill Raden

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There was something decidedly different in Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement of a political breakthrough last week on Assembly Bill 1505, the most far-reaching of the charter law reform bills still in play in the Capitol. For one thing, unlike the governor’s July compromise, the new agreement came with a pledge by the powerful California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) to drop its longstanding opposition to the bill. And though the amended legislation still must pass floor votes, that alone made the deal a historic about-face from the last overhaul of the Charter School Act, which created a California-sized test bed for the never-proved, and now largely debunked “pure market” education theories of radical libertarian economist Milton Friedman. “A lot of hard work has gone into this, and all that matters to me is the result,” Newsom said of negotiations he hopes will set the stage for a political ceasefire in California’s decades-long charter wars.


Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


Public school advocates were understandably quick to cheer. Having the governor’s weight behind the bill, whose sweeping reforms significantly tighten all key areas of the charter law, would have been unimaginable only a year ago. In addition to beefing up standards and accountability for charters, the pact promises to restore to school districts the authority enjoyed by all other government agencies to weigh the potential impacts to existing programs and services when they approve (or deny) new charter schools. “All along, our goals have included ensuring locally-elected school board members have the discretion to make decisions to meet the needs of local students,” state labor and teachers unions declared in a joint statement. For its part, CCSA pointed to “important protections for existing high-quality charter public schools that have demonstrated success,” and cited concessions that preserved for charters denied by districts an appeals path to newly empowered county authorizers and the state Board of Education, whose decisive role has been diminished.

But will the passage of AB 1505 (and companion reform AB 1507) really translate into a truce that can rally a deeply divided Democratic supermajority for the remainder of the governor’s ambitious legislative agenda? Not if recent school board elections in highly contested battleground districts like L.A. Unified is any guide, cautioned an analysis by L.A. Times education reporter Howard Blume. Expect, Blume said, any outbreak of cordiality along Sacramento’s neoliberal divide to be paid for in local escalations of all-out electoral warfare.

The banality of elitism: The University of Southern California found itself again at the center of the ongoing college admissions bribery scandal  Tuesday when federal prosecutors made public internal USC admissions documents. According to the New York Times, the cache revealed the access to top USC officials enjoyed by bribery ring “mastermind” William Singer, while athletic department emails to admissions officers routinely highlighted applicant-families’ donation histories.

The timing is particularly awkward for the university, which has been fighting a subpoena from attorneys for indicted bribery parent Robert Zangrillo. The Miami financier wants USC to cough up all documents related to the school’s secret admissions system for “special interest” applicants. The defense hopes to sell a jury on the idea that by making a $50,000 donation after his “competitive rower” daughter’s admission, Zangrillo is no more guilty of fraud and money laundering conspiracy than the “dozens, if not hundreds, of parents” whose checks were similarly welcomed by USC after their kids were.

A mysterious pandemic is being blamed for a one-day spike this week in statewide school absenteeism. The likely suspect? Green flu caused by the refusal of the $227.8 billion California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) to divest its holdings of over $6 billion in what environmentalists maintain are risky and financially underperforming fossil fuel companies. Or at least that’s why student activists and teacher allies from around California played hooky on Thursday and converged on CalSTRS’ September Investment Committee meeting in West Sacramento. The activists, who ranged in age from 10 to 18, arrived armed with testimony, asserting that the system’s investments in Big Oil make the educator-only pension fund complicit in robbing young people of their generation’s childhoods. To drive home that point, the group planned to abandon dozens of stuffed toys at the hearing room microphone. “I’m skipping school to speak to the board, hoping they will hear our voices, because we are the ones who will be impacted most by their decisions,” Magdalena, an 11-year-old activist with Earth Guardians Bay Area, told organizers from the Fossil Free California campaign.


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