Proposed Charter School Reforms Spark Backlash

Local Santa Barbara Charters Against Assembly Bill 1316

Students at the Santa Ynez Valley Charter School learn about gardening by tending to their iris patch. | Credit: Courtesy

[Update:] Assembly Bill 1316 was dropped on June 3 and will not be moving forward.

A state Assembly bill that is meant to prevent the abuses revealed in a California charter school fraud scandal and create more accountability is facing extreme backlash from charter school supporters.

The bill, Assembly Bill 1316, includes several measures that mostly address non-classroom-based charter school accountability, finances, and operations. It was created in light of the A3 Charter School case, when the online charter school network operators altered enrollment numbers to pocket hundreds of millions of state education dollars.

But charter school families and supporters across Santa Barbara and the rest of the state are fiercely against the bill, claiming that incidents like the A3 Charter are isolated and the bill doesn’t really create more accountability, but rather restricts too much and will hurt their schools financially — some to the point of shutting down.

“It’s full of all this stuff that will end up leaving students without a charter school,” said Anastasia Stone, a Santa Barbara mother of five whose children are enrolled in a charter. “They’re trying to say it won’t shut it down, which I guess in a sense you could say it won’t completely shut down schools, but it will hurt them so badly I don’t know how some will survive. Thousands of students across Santa Barbara County will lose their charter.”

Stone’s children are enrolled in Heartland Charter School, a TK-12 non-classroom-based charter in Kern County. Because Kern is adjacent to Santa Barbara County, Stone is able to enroll her children in the school. Courtney McCorkle, executive director of Heartland, said that of all the issues she finds with the bill, the funding cuts are the worst.

Under AB 1316, non-classroom-based programs like Heartland Charter could lose up to 30 percent of per-pupil revenue depending on how much of the school is non-classroom based. The idea is that online schooling is cheaper, but McCorkle and other proponents of charter schools say there is a difference between online classes and the homeschool programs they offer.

“It’s disproportionate. Brick-and-mortar schools don’t spend 30 percent of their budget on buildings,” McCorkle said. “I looked at the budget, and the only part that we can cut 30 percent is from students. We currently offer individualized curriculums, and we wouldn’t be able to offer that anymore. What it does would take away our ability to individualize education completely, which is the reason we’re open.”

Laura Donner, director of education at Santa Barbara Charter, said that the bill would also require charters to pay more in oversight fees — ranging from 3-5 percent in revenues. The school currently pays one percent in fees. 

“The bill would impact us because it’s like layer upon layer upon layer. In addition to the 30 percent cut, there is also a tripling of our fees,” Donner said. “So there’s a lot of income that would be taken away from children, and we operate kind of on a shoestring already as it is.”

In addition to the financial impacts, the bill would require charter schools to give additional information during annual audits, like a school’s enrollment and attendance by month and its biggest transfers to organizations or individuals.

Kate Ford | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Kate Ford, president of the Santa Barbara Unified School Board, was one of two people who testified against the bill at the Senate Education hearing on AB 1316. She testified as an individual and not as a member of the board. 

Ford called the financial impacts and additional auditing procedures “unnecessary bureaucracy.” She also touched on the bill’s credentialing requirement, which would require that every teacher and even every tutor, since many of the charter schools are tutor-based, would be required to have a credential. 

“It’s like an 88-page assembly bill that is basically this huge, wide net thrown to capture anything that might possibly in the wildest sense go wrong in a charter school as a result of what happened with this school called A3,” said Ford, who has spent the vast majority of her career as a charter school leader both locally and in Los Angeles. “I think many charters, if it passes, will be forced to close down because they live on the margins anyway.”

Steve Bennett | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Local Assemblymember Steve Bennett is trying to walk the middle ground. Though he wasn’t elected at the time the bill was being created, Bennett said he is trying to make changes to the bill that will quell concerns from critics. The original bill required that a charter school could only operate out of a facility in one county, but Bennett made sure the bill was changed to accommodate charters with facilities in multiple counties. 

So far, this is the only change he’s made, but Bennett said he plans to make more. Ultimately, he said this bill is about accountability to him. 

“I think almost everybody agrees after the problems that charter schools had, that there are changes that need to be made to make sure that there’s good accountability, particularly because of the online nature of charter schools,” Bennett said. “I’m not trying to put charter schools out of business. I’m trying to make sure that this is a good bill when it ultimately is in its final form.”

Bennett said he has asked local charters to provide him with information detailing just how bad the bill could impact them so he can continue working to make changes to the bill. 

The full bill can be found here.

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