Two new charter schools will be coming to Redwood City in 2015, much to the dismay of opponents who fear they will take away resources from already struggling schools, while others are pleased to have more choices.
Much of the criticism of the KIPP Bay Area Schools and Rocketship Education, which could both enter the Redwood City Elementary School District during the 2015-16 school year, is centered on the fact that the district could lose money to the charters that might not have better programs than that already exist in the district. Still, the board voted unanimously for conditional approval of the charters to run through the 2019-20 school year Wednesday night, as many saw the decision to approve the charters as a matter of following state law since the board cannot approve or deny a charter based on its philosophical belief about charter schools or whether the charter school will negatively affect funding.
The decision was very difficult, board members said at the meeting. The district went back and forth on what was thought to be the right thing to do, said Trustee Shelly Masur.
“I’ve been on the board for nine years and have made a lot of difficult decisions, but this one is the hardest,” she said. “I don’t believe in privatizing public education, but I do believe in listening to families, learning and following the law is my responsibility as a school board member. I prefer to start off a relationship like this on a positive note on something I would never choose and worked really hard to keep from happening.”
Board President Maria Diaz-Slocum said as a union member and with teachers in her family not happy with her decision to vote yes for the charters, she still had to vote yes as school boards can only deny a charter petition if it can demonstrate in writing that the charter school presents an unsound educational program. Additional grounds for denial include that the petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition; the petition does not contain the required number of signatures; the petition does not contain certain affirmations required by the education code section; or the petition fails to set out reasonably comprehensive descriptions of what are referred to as the “16 elements” of a charter petition set forth in the education code.
Although the district doesn’t know the full financial impact, it does know that if per student funding is $10,000 in the 2019-20 school year, the loss of 925 students to KIPP will cost the district about $9.25 million per year, and the loss of 650 students to Rocketship will cost the district approximately $6.5 million per year. The law requires that district students have top priority for admission to a charter school approved by our district, but students from other districts are also permitted to enroll in charters approved. It is possible that some charter average daily attendance (ADA) will be students from other districts, which would reduce the total loss of ADA from the district, according to the district website.
What makes the decision difficult is the sheer number of students that both schools would be hosting and the financial impact, said board Vice President Dennis McBride.
“The loss of revenue is monumental,” he said. “We will not know what the financial impact is because we don’t know how many students are coming from other districts. I’m pretty certain the county will approve the charter and it does not seem prudent to fight in case we can’t win. Contact legislators — they’re the only ones who can change the law. With the charters, if you do not find it to be what you thought it was, you’re always welcome to come back to the schools.”
District Superintendent Jan Christensen recommendation was to conditionally approve Rocketship.
“I have to say while I definitely support the concept of choice, there is an unequal set of rules for charter schools and other public schools,” Christensen said. “It is a reality that charter schools can offer things that we simply cannot. Charter schools don’t have to comply with some of the regulations we do. Unfortunately, the district losing funding is not one of the criteria we can use in making a decision on charters. … California sets a very low bar for accepting charter schools.”
Meanwhile, Redwood City charter supporters with children who attend charters in San Jose noted that the charters have improved their kids’ academic performance. Some parents started pushing for charter alternatives after coming to the conclusion that the district’s offerings were not sufficient. Rocketship board member Marcus Cole noted the charter is not interested in replacing district schools, but in trying to provide the district with an additional tool. A Rocketship student, Kayla Gomez, spoke in favor of the school.
“I really like the way teachers help you when you’re struggling,” she said. “I hope you will give students in Redwood City the same opportunities I’ve had.”
But others spoke out against the charters and their potential effects on the district, including the Redwood City Teachers Association.
“As a union, we have urged our district for more than 10 years to no avail to contact all parents at the beginning of the year with a welcome message,” according to a statement written by union president Bret Baird Wednesday night. “We are not surprised that so many parents have organized to have their voices heard. It’s a shame it had to come to this. Our superintendent and school board tonight acknowledged that they had failed too many parents in our school district by approving both charters. Not a single school board member lives east of El Camino, where too many of our parents feel disenfranchised.”
The crowd erupted in boos Wednesday night when district staff member Maria Stockton said the district will have to blame parents who don’t understand how education works.
“I want to see the information given that says Rocketship has proven its success,” she said. “It’s out there that Rocketship is not a proven success. With approval of this charter, you are casting the future of this district and education further into financial follies. … Let’s hold tight to the known and proven pathway for success and continued success.”
In addition to the loss of per student funding, the district is required by law to provide school space if requested in accordance with a specific legal process. The district may impose certain charges for use of the physical space provided. While these amounts are less than fair market rent, they do offset some of the costs to the district. Exact costs would have to be determined. Rocketship’s petition states that it does not intend to request space from the district; nonetheless, if requested, the district would have to provide it. KIPP plans to request space from the district.
The charters have until November to submit requests for a district facility for the following school year. The district would then conduct an analysis of space options, and work with the charter to identify an appropriate space. Although the district is not required to provide a specific facility requested by a charter school, it must provide space that is sufficient to house the resident district students who attend the charter in space that is “reasonably equivalent” to the type of space they would have in a regular district program.
The district still needs to approve the charters’ memorandum of understandings, which will come back to the board in August.
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