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A priority of Obama's education plan, charter schools gain traction

By Diana Lambert
Sacramento Bee
November 30, 2009

Charter schools have come into vogue as an attractive alternative for parents and kids looking for innovative learning environments and higher test scores.

They've also become a priority in President Barack Obama's plan to overhaul the nation's education system.

And California legislators have pushed through laws that simplify charter funding and lift a cap on how many can operate in the state.

A new report by the California Charter Schools Association shows that more charters have opened this school year than in any year since 1992, when legislation first made them possible. The addition of 88 charter schools this year brings the total to 809 schools in California. Collectively, they enroll 341,000 students – about 5 percent of the state's student population.

"I think we are seeing a fundamental shift in the way our education system is being structured," said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association.

Will the shift toward more charters be the answer for a cash-strapped state where only 45 percent of its students passed standardized math tests last year and five out of 10 weren't considered proficient on English tests?

It's hard to tell from test scores. On the Academic Performance Index, California's primary yardstick for student achievement, charter schools and district-run schools score similarly, on average.

Sacramento County students at traditional district schools scored a little lower on standardized STAR tests this year than the area's charter school students.

Charters are part of the public school system and receive public money based on how many students they enroll. They don't have to comply with all the rules and regulations of traditional public schools but must meet student performance goals. Some, like the Performing and Fine Arts Academy at Natomas Charter School, offer a specialized curriculum. Others bill themselves as more- efficient alternatives to public schools.

"Charter schools could have a place in education if what they were were laboratories for trying new things," said Marty Hittleman, president of the California Federation of Teachers. "The problem is they aren't regulated and (aren't) held to any standards."

Teachers union leaders also say charter operators have an unfair advantage because they can be selective about who they enroll and avoid working with students who are difficult to teach or need more resources.

Despite the debate, the charter school movement is gaining traction.

In August, the Los Angeles Unified School District approved a dramatic reform effort that puts the operation of some of the district's lowest-performing schools up for grabs.

The school district has received 219 letters of interest from large charter companies, nonprofits and the United Teachers of Los Angeles union.

"We hope that spirit will spread across the state," Wallace said.

36 in Sacramento County

Sacramento County has 36 charter schools – the fourth-highest number in the state.

Among them is Sacramento Charter High School, a stately campus in Oak Park that was facing state takeover under the Sacramento City Unified School District because of low student achievement. In 2003, the district granted a charter to Mayor Kevin Johnson's nonprofit St. HOPE to run the school.

"The school wasn't serving students well," said St. HOPE's superintendent, Ed Manansala.

St. HOPE set high expectations and increased accountability for students and faculty, Manansala said. The school also set up a system to identify and help struggling students.

St. HOPE lengthened the school day by an hour, and college preparation became a priority.

"There is no room for 'I don't want to do my homework,' " said junior Ashley Leach, as she helped guide a recent tour of the campus.

Since the school reopened as a charter, its four-year dropout rate has decreased from 9.4 percent to 3.7 percent, and its API score has increased from 568 to 731. The state target is an API of 800.

Among schools with similar demographics – 91 percent of Sacramento Charter High's 952 students are minorities and 69 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunches – the charter school ranks in the top 10 percent.

But St. HOPE Public Schools, which also operates the K-8 PS7 school, has had high turnover in its leadership and was $729,742 in debt to Sacramento City Unified School District at this time last year.

District spokeswoman Maria Lopez said last week that St. HOPE is making timely payments.

Not all charters make it. In the past decade, 10 Sacramento County charters have closed, most within a few years of opening. Critics say closures and problems that precede them happen because charters are often run by people with little experience.

Pending state legislation may assuage some of those concerns. Last month, Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D- Antioch, introduced a bill that would make charter schools more accountable by connecting student academic performance to renewal of school charters.

In the past few months, the governor has signed a flurry of bills regarding charters, including a law that allows charters to hold title to their own facilities and legislation that simplifies their funding formulas. Another bill that would lift the state's cap on charter schools is still making its way through the Assembly.

State politicians are following the lead of Obama, who has vowed to replace some of the country's lowest-performing schools with charter schools. And he's made it clear that states need to make it easier to open and operate a charter school if they want any part of the $4.3 billion in federal Race to the Top funds.

"The administration and the department believe charter schools are an important tool in the education toolbox," said Justin Hamilton, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. "We're looking for them to play a significant role."

The government is doing that by pumping more money into charters. Federal grants for charters grew from $6 million in 1995 to $217 million in 2005, with Obama promising $400 million more for charters. These funds supplement state and local funding, and private donations.

Public schools anxious

The focus on charter schools and the movement of students to those schools is causing increasing angst among public school officials battling reduced budgets and declining daily attendance.

Many local charters, which must be allowed to use vacant school district facilities, are setting up on campuses shuttered by districts.

In the Natomas Unified School District, the success of Natomas Charter means 807 fewer students in district-run schools. The district of 12,000 students took additional hits this year when Natomas Pathways Preparatory School, another charter, added a middle school, culling 400 more students from the district's ranks. The preparatory school's high school already had taken 512 students, and Westlake Charter school has taken another 321.

Public schools now have to compete for students. School district open-enrollment fairs these days often feature slick brochures for public schools and elaborate performances and presentations.

Some reports say the competition is improving grades in regular public as well as public charter schools, but sometimes it cultivates hostility.

"There are districts in the area, where we advise folks you would have a rough ride there," said Eric Premack, director of the nonprofit Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento.

He cited Davis Unified as an example of a district where declining enrollment, budget cuts and the leadership make the district an unwelcoming place for charters. Natomas Unified and San Juan Unified districts are more supportive, despite their declining enrollments, he said.

Natomas Charter School started in 1993 with 80 students and has since been named a California Distinguished School and a state charter school of the year. The school's Performing and Fine Arts Academy program was one of five in the country to receive a National School of Distinction award from the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network in Washington, D.C., in 2004.

Natomas Charter School students must apply for admission, and those interested in the performing arts academy must audition. Students who fall beneath a 2.0 grade-point average are put on academic probation and given a year to improve before they are asked to leave the school.

Last year, only 3 percent of Natomas Charter students were English learners, and 23 percent were low-income.

Ballet instructor Anne David ticked off a list of required moves – plié, arabesque arms, pirouette – to her advanced ballet students on a recent Monday afternoon as they moved gracefully along metal bars.

David has performed with the Sacramento Ballet and still performs professionally, but five days a week she is a full-time instructor at Natomas Charter School Performing Arts Academy. She's an example of one reason kids and parents like charters. They offer students something they aren't necessarily getting at other schools, she said.

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commented 2013-12-30 23:15:01 -0800 · Flag
Thank you