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Have Charters Already Gamed Gavin Newsom’s Schools Task Force?

Rather than senior researchers, public finance experts and classroom learning specialists, seven of the governor’s 11 appointees appeared to have been recruited from the charter-industrial complex.

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Governor Newsom after signing charter school transparency law.

“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.


 

No sooner did author-academic Diane Ravitch expose this month the charter leanings of Governor Gavin Newsom’s task force studying the fiscal impacts of charters than California schools superintendent and panel chair Tony Thurmond found a Twitter blowtorch pointed his way. With seven of the task force’s 11 appointees appearing to be recruited from the charter-industrial complex, had the findings already been gamed? Judge the task force and him by results, Thurmond reasoned, promising that the panel would deliver recommendations for a charter code overhaul. His message was even more explicit a week later when he pointed out the gaping inequity of laissez-faire ed reform: “You cannot open enough charter schools or new schools to serve every single student in our state,” he told CalMatters. “If you take the competition approach, it means some students — a lot of students — will be left behind.”

Governor Newsom did come through on Senate Bill 126, signing into law long overdue charter transparency and public disclosure requirements that had been repeatedly vetoed by Jerry Brown. Just don’t expect Newsom’s signature on any more of the raft of reforms wending their way through committee rooms — at least not before the summer recess. Newsom has already indicated that he’s taking a timeout on charter reform until Thurmond’s task force releases its recommendations in July. Something that is expected: plenty of pushback by the California Charter Schools Association. In the face of collapsing national support, the group has been spinning the groundswell backing reform — while scaring the bejesus out of charter parents — as bent on an outright charter ban. That sense of existential panic was on full display at CCSA’s recent annual conference in Sacramento, when conventioneers and T-shirted kids massed on the Capitol building steps to protest their plight.

Last week’s certification of the Los Angeles Unified March 5 primary results finally reveals who else besides first-place finisher Jackie Goldberg qualifies for the May 14 special school board runoff. At 13.13 percent, second-place finisher Heather Repenning had claimed victory over Huntington Park councilmember Graciela Ortiz two weeks ago on the basis of a 31-vote margin. Now her campaign must crack a far more daunting puzzle: Namely, with little more than six weeks to go, how in the world does a candidate who has drifted steadily rightward in a predominantly progressive district overtake Goldberg’s relative 48.18 percent primary landslide — or slow the veteran educator’s momentum? Indeed, on Tuesday Goldberg won the key endorsement of fourth-place primary finisher, Southeast L.A. high school principal Dr. Cynthia Gonzalez.

One possible answer emerged this week in an interview Repenning gave to the pro-privatization news site LA School Report. Abandoning her primary refrain of not accepting charter money, Repenning now seemed to invite the financial support of privatizer megadonors like billionaire L.A. businessman Eli Broad, who wrote a last-minute, $100,000 Election Day check to the independent labor PAC bankrolling Repenning’s run. “I built a really big, strong coalition of diverse kinds of people from every corner of this district,” the candidate boasted of the Broad donation, “and I’m going to continue broadening and diversifying my coalition.”

By the way, any task force studying charter fiscal impacts will definitely want to read “Asleep at the Wheel,” a jaw-dropping examination of federally mismanaged largesse that authors Carol Burris and Jeff Bryant estimate has squandered as much as $1 billion in charter school “seed” grants. The study, which was released on Tuesday by advocacy nonprofit Network for Public Education, focuses on the 25-year administrative and oversight disaster known as the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). Launched during the Clinton administration to jumpstart the nascent charter school movement, the program has dumped wheelbarrows of dollars on startups that either never opened (so-called ghost schools) or later closed because of mismanagement, lack of enrollment or fraud. The report documents a deeply flawed application process in which serious concerns raised by reviewers were routinely ignored and that didn’t allow the verification of applicant claims. In California alone, nearly 40 percent of the schools funded by CSP between 2006 and 2014 were either ghosts or failures — a loss estimated at over $100 million. Thirty-four California CSP schools even made the ACLU of Southern California’s 2016 survey of Golden State charters with discriminatory — and often flagrantly illegal —admissions barriers. NPE’s recommended fix? Shut it down.


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