Saving our Schools?

With the California public school system in turmoil, parents and teachers are turning to charter schools to try to improve education for their kids. It’s a contentious battle—and it’s coming to a neighborhood near you.

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“I just don’t feel that charters overall have proven that they’re the magic bullet,” says Contra Costa County Board of Education vice president Richard Asadoorian. A former teacher and high school principal in Fresno, he saw charters open—and sometimes close due to mismanagement.

Locally, the Livermore Valley Charter School, founded in 2005, has seen its API test scores go up 35 points over the past three years. Those at Eagle Peak Montessori, which opened in Walnut Creek in 2001 and serves grades first through fifth, have gone up 54 points in the same amount of time.

Perhaps the most vocal opponents of charters are school district officials, who make up the first board that approves or denies a petition. Of course, no board wants one of its schools to secede. But the real stickler comes down to money. Because of complicated state funding formulas, districts lose money when a school becomes a charter. That can hurt the remaining schools—and the other students—in the district.

“As long as you’ve got agencies that would be approving a competitor, it’s almost impossible to eliminate that conflict,” says Bill Batchelor, chief operating officer of Tri-Valley Learning Corporation, which runs two charter schools in Livermore. Both schools have stellar test scores, and one has a waiting list of 800 students. The group is applying for two more charters in the area.

“It’s a challenge for the petitioners, and it’s a challenge for the boards,” Batchelor says.

Gary Eberhart voted against the effort to make Clayton Valley High a charter school. Like Middendorf, he is intimately aware of the troubles at the school: His daughter graduated from there last year. Eberhart is also a member—and until January was president—of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District’s Board of Education.

“I knew there were problems. I sat in the room with the charter organizers when they first came to the district, and said I agree with you; I agree something needs to be done,” Eberhart says. “But I don’t believe a charter is the right move.” Instead, he says, parents should have become more involved in governing the district themselves and lobbied the state for more money to solve the problems.

He blames both a lack of funding and the complexity of running a 36,000-student system for the district’s handling—or lack of handling—of the problems at Clayton Valley High. Because of state budget cuts, Eberhart says, the district had to cut administrative positions and simply didn’t have the manpower to address individual schools’ problems.

“It’s like a Rubik’s cube,” Eberhart says. “When the district solves a problem, it has to solve all six sides. That’s the difference between a school district and a charter school. The district has to make sure all the kids are taken care of, that by doing a they don’t inadvertently do b and screw something else up.”

Middendorf says this is exactly why she and her co-petitioner, Neil McChesney, proposed the charter. “Now you have the students, the parents, and the community working on this problem together,” she says. “We have no more blame anymore. We’re the buck-stops-here people now.”

Not surprisingly, the hearings before the Mt. Diablo Board and the Contra Costa Board of Education on the Clayton Valley charter petition were ugly. For every pro-charter parent, teacher, and student who lobbied passionately for the charter plan, opponents assailed it. Some opponents—principals and students from Clayton Valley’s sister high schools in the district—decried the unfairness of a system that could take money out of the district, potentially cutting classes at their schools. Given the level of anger at the hearings, one Clayton Valley mom worried about what would happen when students from two sides met at, say, a basketball game. Would they remain civil after such a heated hearing? A single police officer watched for trouble from the back of the room.

Other charter groups have met similar resistance.

In April 2010, the charter petition for the aforementioned Flex Academy currently looking for space in Walnut Creek was denied by the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. It was a relatively civil meeting, following the district’s issuing a memo, stating the charter had an unrealistic financial plan and an unsound educational program. The petition was approved later by the County Board of Education.

In Dublin and Livermore, things got uglier. The Tri-Valley Learning Corporation recently had its petitions for two separate charter schools denied by the district, with appeals pending for both. At one hearing, parents from local schools lined up to speak out against the charter, fearing its financial impact on the district. Online, bloggers on both sides of the issue went to war.

As for Clayton Valley, the Mt. Diablo Board voted down the charter petition in November, and the proponents appealed to the county board. In early January, after three hours of comments, the county board unanimously approved the charter, making Clayton Valley the third (and by far the biggest) Northern California charter conversion high school and the first in Contra Costa County.

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Added: 2012-09-25

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