Opinion by Timm Herdt /Ventura County Star
12-16-2009 -- There are 10,129 public schools in California, attended by about 6.3 million students. There are about 850 charter schools, attended by about 200,000 students.
The current hang-up in Sacramento over accessing up to $700 million in federal funds to improve education for these 6.5 million kids is mostly about the 3 percent who attend charter schools.
For all the bluster that has emanated in recent weeks from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and others, the controversy over legislation to bring California into compliance with federal Race to the Top funding guidelines is mostly about charter schools.
There have been two Race to the Top bills in play. The Senate-approved version, backed by Schwarzenegger, would eliminate the current 1,350 cap on the number of charter schools that can exist in the state and leave it at that.
The Assembly-approved measure, which Schwarzenegger has vowed to veto, would also lift the cap, but would also establish some financial and academic-performance accountability standards for charter schools.
It is those standards that have Schwarzenegger stomping his feet and are mostly responsible for a legislative stalemate that has put at risk the ability of California to meet a Jan. 19 deadline for applying for the first round of Race to the Top grants.
In the middle of all the controversy is Ventura County Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee and is the author of the bill that Schwarzenegger has vowed to veto, presumably even if that action were to eliminate the state’s ability to tap into the federal funds.
“We’re asking very little, in my opinion,” Brownley told me Monday as she took a short break from trying to negotiate a compromise before the Senate Education Committee takes up the issue today.
Her bill, Brownley said, “looks at some very modest accountability measures and tries to bring a level of parity in the accountability of traditional public schools and charter public schools.”
Some specifics: Underperforming charter schools in the third year of what is called “program improvement” status could have their charters renewed for only three years instead of five, and charter schools in their fifth year of program improvement status would have to demonstrate that their academic performance index increased by 50 points over five years in order to have their charters renewed.
“Fifty points is not really a significant amount of growth,” Brownley said. “We don’t want to be too punitive.”
But charter school advocates don’t like the idea of the Legislature stepping into the accountability issue. They say they’re fine with the concept, but the details should be left to the state Board of Education.