Charter Schools Target of Lawsuits, Possible Extinction

California charters are the subject of litigation from school districts and a new state initiative

JCS Alpine Academy

California has more charter schools than any other state in America. Now, that might be a product of the fact California also has the largest population in the U.S.A.

But charter schools are arguably more popular in in California than they are anywhere else. There are 41 states that operate charter schools, but 17.5% of all campuses are located in The Golden State (according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools).

Now a series of lawsuits threatens to stop the growth of charters. Three lawsuits are pending in San Diego County with three others pending in Los Angeles County.

The argument is over "non-classroom based" Resource Centers/Meeting Centers/Satellite Facilities and their locations. School districts are claiming many charter school facilities, including Diego Valley, Julian Charter School Alpine Academy and San Diego Academy Charter Homeschool, are operating in violation of the Charter Schools Act of 1992.

“They're creating ambiguities that aren't there to open wherever they want,” says Sarah Sutherland, an attorney at Dannis Woliver Kelley, the law firm that is representing the school districts. “The law is written one way, something else has been allowed to happen for years, and people who took it to the extreme are what forced litigation.”

San Diego Unified School District and Grossmont Union High School District are among the districts that are trying to make charter schools adhere to California Education Code Section 47605, the legislation establishing charter schools. The districts claim the law places geographic restrictions on where a charter school can open a campus. The charter schools argue that only applies to a full-time school sites, not so-called satellite facilities.

“They're Resource Centers used strictly for non-classroom based independent study students,” says Jennifer Cauzza, director of the Julian Charter School. “Our La Mesa facility houses the Innovation Centre La Mesa program 74% of the time and 17% of the time the facility is used for learning center classes with different students so the facility is used five days a week but for two different kinds of 'non-classroom' based students (which is) defined as less than 80% of the instruction in a classroom with a credentialed teacher.”

The districts claim this is one of those ambiguities that do not meet the letter of the law.

 “47605 never says that if you're a resource center or independent study you can do that,” says Sutherland.

According to the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) the popularity of charter schools has skyrocketed. Just five years ago there were 341,000 students attending charter schools in California. In the 2015-16 school year an estimated 581,100 students are enrolled in charter public schools across the state.

The CCSA also says approximately 158,000 students are on charter school wait lists in California, so to meet the demand an additional 80 new charter schools opened their doors this school year, bringing the total number of charter schools in California to 1,230.

Charter schools believe this is the real reason they’re coming under increasing fire from school districts. Charters feel the litigation is financially-motivated.

“In my opinion, charters have hit the "tipping point" where we're taking enough students that traditional public schools are beginning to feel the financial effects, and they have been using their reserves to help offset the fiscal impact,” says Cauzza.  “Now they are looking at it long term and see that it can have drastic impacts over the next five years if the charter movement continues at this rate.”

California public schools receive on average (and there is great fluctuation from school district to school district) about $9000 per year for each student, according to numbers from Governing Magazine. San Diego Unified School District says charters currently have 20% of their former population and they expect it to be 30% in the next 10 years.

The charters feel the districts are simply fighting back to keep their students and a large chunk of their funding. The districts say that’s not true.

“It’s so far from an attack of charter schools,” said Sutherland. “It’s $50,000 to $100,000 to pursue this for the district. That financial incentive is kind of a red herring.”

The first court date is set for late May but there is another threat lurking. Even the California charter schools that are not the target of litigation, the 5-day-a-week facilities like High Tech High and Helix High, are facing a threat, and this one is much larger than relocation. They’re looking at elimination.

An initiative recently went in to circulation that would repeal the laws governing charter schools, effective July of 2017. The initiative is now in the signature-gathering process and would, “Require charter schools to convert to traditional public schools or close, at local school districts’ discretion.”

The motivation for this initiative would also seem to be money. Part of the verbiage states, “About $5 billion in state funding and operational costs would shift from charter schools to school districts. Ongoing facility costs also would shift from charter schools to school districts.”

The proponent of the initiative, Diana Mansker, did not respond to multiple requests for comments by NBC 7. She needs to gather the signature of 365,880 registered voters in order to put the movement on the November ballot.

While people like Mansker, who works with the group Voices Against Privatizing Public Education, try to end charter schools others wonder why because they think it’s not in the best interest of the people who seem to be too often forgotten in these scenarios: The students.

John Carroll used to work with as a Gang Suppression Team Officer with the San Diego Police Department. Part of his job was to put gang members in jail. He’s now transitioned to finding ways to keep gang members out of jail, and San Diego youth out of gangs.

Care to take a guess as to where he sends a lot of his kids who are at-risk of life in a gang?

“I’ve worked with several charter schools in the area and there’s no doubt for the kids that have special needs, the kids that don’t have the background to have success, charter schools have been an unbelievably great learning tool,” says Carroll. “It’s a lot more one-on-one learning, which is exactly what the kids need, to be in that learning environment.”

One of the charter schools Carroll uses with regularity is Diego Valley, which is currently the target of litigation from Grossmont Union High School District. GUHSD feels Diego Valley is operating outside of its authorizing school district and wants it to stop, something that Carroll disagrees with.

“It’s been awesome,” said Carroll. “Charter schools have definitely been a positive.”

The CCSA would like to end the division between traditional and charter public schools and bring the two ideologies together.

“It's a shame we continue to suggest two separate scenarios for public school students - those who attend traditional schools and those in charter schools,” said the CCSA in a statement. “It is time to put the school model aside and recognize they are all public school kids, all deserve great schools and none should be denied access to a quality learning facility.”

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