School & District Management

Calif. Group Puts Muscle Into Charters

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 08, 2008 7 min read

In California, where a quartermillion students will attend charter schools this year, many charters have tapped a savvy advocacy group for support and expertise.

In the 16 years since the state first permitted the creation of the independent public schools, the California Charter Schools Association has evolved from a loose network of charter leaders and idealists swapping ideas and information to an influential political player with financial backing from such philanthropic heavy-hitters as the Walton Family Foundation. While most states where charter schools operate have some sort of umbrella charter group, the California association stands out for the range and sophistication of support it offers.

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The association arranges financing to help new charters secure buildings and pay for the first several months of operating expenses. It offers technical-assistance programs and training for charter school leaders. The group set up a system for charters to collectively buy insurance policies, such as workers’ compensation, more affordably. And it has built up a legal-defense fund, though the association keeps the dollar amount private.

“California’s association was the first to take a very dramatic turn to a much more professional and multipurpose organization,” says Nelson Smith, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based in Washington. “They had funders and business leaders there who wanted to see a single, major voice emerge for charters, and they have committed tremendous resources to supporting charter schools throughout their whole life cycles.”

Quality-Assurance Program

In May 2007, the association launched its Certified Charter Schools Program, the first time that a state’s charter school sector had agreed on a set of quality standards and said it would recognize schools that lived up to them. Now, 70 percent of the charter schools in California are CCSA members and are putting themselves under the scrutiny of an outside reviewer to judge how well they educate children, govern themselves, and manage their finances. Participation is a condition of being represented by the association.

This year, 70 to 80 new charters will open across California, joining nearly 700 others already operating. Of the 476 charter schools that are members of the association, 73 have already been “certified,” and 403 others are in the certification pipeline.

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The CCSA has evolved into a major force in California education since its formation in 2003, though the groundwork for the association had been laid by its predecessor, the California Network of Educational Charters. That organization, founded in 1993 to bring the state’s early charter leaders together, saw its profile rise in the wake of a scandal in Fresno. A charter school operator there was accused of engaging in financial improprieties, teaching religion, and opening satellite campuses up and down the state without informing local education officials.

The shutdown of GateWay Academy by Fresno school officials prompted a spate of legislation to rein in all charter schools. Though the board governing the charter network at the time supported the shutdown of GateWay Academy, it waged, with modest resources, a public relations and lobbying campaign to ward off attempts to regulate charters more broadly that it believed would erode such schools’ autonomy.

“In some ways, that legislation was the impetus to create the association,” says Caprice Young, who this month stepped down as the association’s chief executive officer. “We could see a situation in which every time one charter school caught a cold, the legislature was going to prescribe penicillin for everyone. Our first job was to end this pattern of re-regulation and to make sure that legislators even knew what charter schools were, and that they all had charters operating in their districts.”

The association’s power and influence has grown steadily. It now has an annual budget of $12.5 million, employs 60 staff members, including its own governmental advocates or lobbyists, and runs six regional offices.

“The irony is that in the 1990s, when grassroots charter activists were rising up in California and Minnesota, they would argue that the public schools were captured by special interest groups,” says Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “But now, the California association is its own powerful interest group that operates in the halls of the legislature and behind the scenes just like any other special-interest organization.”

The association’s growth has been fueled by the infusion of millions of dollars from the Walton Family Foundation, based in Bentonville, Ark., and the San Francisco-based Pisces Foundation, which expanded the association’s budget to pay for regional offices and hiring more staff members.

Another factor was the hiring of Young, a former president of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s board, to be the association’s leader and the chief spokesperson for California’s charter movement. And the high-profile involvement of entrepreneurs such as Reed Hastings, the founder and chief executive of Netflix, the online DVD-rental service, who served as president of the California state board of education, and Steve Poizner, who is California’s insurance commissioner, brought clout and credibility to the association and its goals.

“There was this core group in the charter movement from the beginning that believed that everything needed to be about the quality of schools, and that we had to make charter schools and high performance mean the same thing,” says Jim Blew, the director of K-12 education programs for the Walton Family Foundation. “Then when you start to give resources and get a leader like Caprice at the helm, that gets a lot of traction.”

Legal-Defense Fund

Since 2003, Walton has given more than $6 million for the association’s general operations, says Blew. The foundation has also contributed to its legal-defense fund and its insurance program, known as CharterSafe. Young serves on the board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and is a widely sought-after expert in other states that are aspiring to emulate some of the California association’s strategies and initiatives.

Fuller, the Berkeley professor, points to the association’s influence on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and cites its success in persuading the Republican governor to include a special set-aside for charter schools—nearly $500 million—in California’s most recent statewide school bond for education facilities.

“This governor, during his two terms, has come out with glowing press releases about charters, and he’s given them more operational dollars and boosted their facilities support,” Fuller says. “The association and Caprice Young are behind all of that.”

In the Democratic-controlled legislature, though, the CCSA has won few reliable allies in the majority party, Fuller says. But one of its frequent opponents says the association is still a formidable force in legislative and legal matters.

“They’ve been more effective at playing defense in the legislature and in influencing the actions of the state board of education,” says Scott P. Plotkin, the executive director of the California School Boards Association. And, Plotkin says, the association has been particularly good at wielding influence at the local level, sometimes in what his group sees as a negative way.

“There is a strong view among many school board members that charter people have managed to insinuate themselves to the head of the line, even though they say all the time that they don’t get their fair share,” Plotkin says. “And, more and more, there is a growing perception that with their growing legal fund they are going to go district to district and threaten major lawsuits.”

Earlier this year, the CCSA settled a lawsuit with the 708,000-student Los Angeles Unified district over what it argued had been the district’s failure to provide adequate space for charters.

Still, the association, in many ways, sees itself as the scrappy outsider that doesn’t have the same power as the California Teachers Association or the school boards’ group.

“[W]e are still aware of the fact that we could be crushed in a heartbeat,” Young says. “But the fact of the matter is that there are a quarter of a million kids receiving high-quality education in charters in this state, and the families of those students are not going to allow that option to be taken away.

“There is power in that.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Calif. Group Puts Muscle Into Charters

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