California charter school aims to shut down successful public school

Guest post by Molly Black, parent, Los Altos, Calif.

Founding Member of LASDVoices

Los Altos, Calif., is a sleepy little town in a quiet part of Silicon Valley where shops close by 6 p.m. and the few restaurants in town are dark by 9 p.m.  Families move to Los Altos to take advantage of the excellent public school system and tight-knit community. The Los Altos School District (LASD) has a neighborhood school model. Each school is relatively small (400-600 students), every school is a California Distinguished School, and everyone seems to know each other. The community is safe and many children walk to school. Despite continued state budget cuts, district test scores are at the top of California’s Academic Performance Index scale, and the district’s innovative programs are recognized at a national level.  The public school system is alive and well in Los Altos.

Now our small community is faced with the unthinkable – we may be forced to close a high-performing public school to hand that school lock, stock and barrel over to a charter school.  Shocking, isn’t it?  How could this happen?  Charter school law was originally intended to help children who are underserved and falling through the cracks of traditional education systems.  Unfortunately, across the country there are more and more charter schools popping up which are taking advantage of loopholes to create pseudo-private schools with questionable admissions practices, high “suggested donation” requirements from parents and low representation of truly underprivileged children.

In our case, a small group of parents created Bullis Charter School (BCS) in 2003 when their neighborhood school was closed due to low enrollment and budget cuts.  In accordance with California state law, the district provided BCS with facilities and co-located the school on the campus of one of the district middle schools.  BCS does not like this location and hired some very sophisticated lawyers that are trying to leverage the loosely written state charter laws (and Prop 39, for those reading this from California[1]) to force LASD to close a high-performing school and give that campus to BCS.  This would displace hundreds of children and impact all 4,500 children in the district, as the remaining school boundaries would need to be redrawn in order to distribute the displaced children among the remaining schools—some of which will struggle with overcrowding and traffic problems.

BCS calls themselves a public school; however, with the exception of the public funds they use, they act and govern themselves like a private school. BCS does not have the same percentages of English Language Learners, socioeconomically disadvantaged children, or special needs kids as the district in which it resides.  BCS has a self-appointed, in-perpetuity school board that rules with  no community input and no elections.  BCS receives tax dollars from the district; however, they do not have to abide by the same accountability and transparency rules that are required by law for public schools. BCS heavily pushes on the parents to donate $5,000.00 per student per year. They once even used a “wall of shame” to display the names of those families that did not donate. BCS maintains a geographic preference for families living in adjacent Los Altos Hills, one of the wealthiest enclaves in California, where the original neighborhood school resided.

Most recently, BCS has asked LASD for a 10-acre site on which to place their K-8 school.  As is typical throughout most heavily populated areas in California, there is little or no room that is not already developed; the only 10-acre sites easily available to the district are those on which public schools already exist.  Not wanting to displace students at an existing school, the district has offered to keep the BCS K-6 program at the middle school site and move the BCS 7-8 grade program to the other middle school campus across town.  BCS does not approve of this plan and is calling it unlawful.  Lawyers on either side of the issue are arguing their interpretation of the charter law.

The precedent set by the final outcome of this situation will determine the future of high- performing, non-charter schools in the state of California.  As it stands, it seems as if the current laws will allow a charter school to legally enter a district and potentially shut down a high-performing school. The current laws severely harm high-performing and resource-limited districts in California by forcing school closures.  Legal fees used to protect the district schools drain resources, and administrators spend time in courts instead of focusing on innovative education strategies. And there is nothing to prevent charters from continuing to grow and take over more school sites, even to the point of bankrupting one of the top school districts in the state.

Which brings me back to my original thought, “How can this be happening?”

[1] As quoted in California School Boards Association, July 1, 2005: “The stated intent of Proposition 39 (approved by voters in November 2000) is that “public school facilities should be shared fairly among all public school pupils, including those in charter schools.” Pursuant to Proposition 39, school district-provided facilities are to be reasonably equivalent to those of other public schools in the district and are to be contiguous. State Board of Education regulations define “contiguous” as on one school site or adjacent to a school site. If the charter school’s students cannot be accommodated on one site, contiguous can mean available facilities at more than one site, provided the district minimizes the number of sites and considers student safety.”

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