California to require more transparency from charter schools

Gavin Newsom is preparing to take the reins from Jerry Brown. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

California's 1,300 charter schools will soon face stricter transparency requirements under legislation pushed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

State lawmakers sent Newsom, a Democrat, the bill Thursday, on the sixth day of a teachers strike in Oakland, the second major teachers strike for California this year.

California law has until now been unclear on whether charter schools must hold public meetings, respond to public records requests and adopt conflict-of-interest policies. Teachers unions have demanded more transparency and argued charter schools drain money that should go to traditional public schools.

"More transparency and higher ethical standards for charters is certainly needed, but the charter schools transparency bill doesn't go far enough," said Ismael Armendariz, 1st vice president of the Oakland Education Association, in a statement.

Charter schools groups are split on the measure. The California Charter Schools Association doesn't have a formal position, while the Charter School Development Center said the bill sets onerous restrictions designed to "cripple" the state's charter schools.

California passed its charter school law in 1992, calling public charter schools a way to increase student opportunity, promote innovative teaching methods and provide "vigorous competition" for public schools. Beyond California, a debate has raged nationally over whether charter schools enhance student opportunities or diminish the overall quality of public schools.

Beyond holding open meetings, the bill would require charter schools to adopt conflict-of-interest policies aimed at preventing board members from profiting. It says teachers can still serve on charter school boards, as many do, but may not vote on anything that would directly affect their employment.

Carlos Marquez, senior vice president of the California Charter Schools Association, told The Sacramento Bee that many charter schools already open their meetings and that he hoped the law would end "falsehoods" that people who run charters are "looking to line their pockets."

He praised Newsom for finding compromise.

But the Charter School Development Center, another charter lobbying group, said the bill sets onerous restrictions. Eric Premack, the group's executive director called it a "rock in the charter school back pack."

"I view this as another attempt by anti-charter folks to impose burdens on charter schools in the name of supporting something very positive, in this case transparency," he said.

The conflict of interest requirements in particular may be difficult for charter schools to navigate, he said. As an example, he said if a charter school board member offered the school a building he or she owed for a discounted rate it would be a prohibited conflict of interest.

While Premack said he doesn't think Newsom is anti-charter school, the state's charters are used to past governor's "playing goalie" against attempts by the Legislature to regulate them. Similar bills in the past died in the Legislature or were vetoed.

Whether or not charter schools are subject the same transparency laws as public schools is a yearslong debate. Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued an opinion saying they were in December - seven years after Lassen County's district attorney requested a ruling on the matter. Robert Burns, a former district attorney, didn't immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment about what prompted the question.

Newsom's spokesman, Nathan Click, said the governor plans to sign the law.

"The governor took a leadership role in helping get this bill to the finish line," Click said in an email. "He is pleased that this effort has received support from a broad coalition of teachers, parents, charter school supporters and open government advocates."

Democratic State Sen. Connie Leyva, the bill's author, said it will provide communities and parents "fair and open access to participate in the decisions and collective missions of their charter schools."