News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

May 17, 2019

Buffy Wicks balks as legislature considers new laws to rein in charter schools

By Jamie Gardner

Teachers have been striking across California — in LA, Oakland, Sacramento, now Union City, and elsewhere — to fix the broken system that underfunds our schools and hands them over to corporate interests. In LA and Oakland, the local pro-charter school boards have often been gleeful participants in this project. Billionaires have been advocating for charter schools for decades in order to open up opportunities for corporate enrichment, control curricula, break teachers’ unions, and justify tax cuts. The wealthy and their front groups devote large sums of cash to elect pro-charter candidates to school board, with the ultimate goal of completely privatizing public education.

Teachers have won support for a moratorium on new charters with their strikes. But even where elected school board members want to protect public education, state and federal laws often bind their hands and let would-be charter school operators avoid democratic accountability to get what they want. Thankfully, teachers and defenders of public education are pushing for three bills in the California state legislature this session to close those loopholes.

Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) helped co-author one of the bills. Rep. Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) sponsored one of the bills and has come out in support of all three. But Rep. Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) has only voted for one of them.

Wicks was elected last fall with massive financial support from charter advocates. Her coziness with pro-charter interests puts her in a difficult position. She risks either angering the wealthy donors who helped put her in office or facing the wrath of a mass movement against school privatization represented by the recent teachers’ strikes.

Assembly Bill 1505

When you want to open a charter school in California, first you petition the local school board. If they turn you down — whether it’s because your plan is half-baked, the district doesn’t need or can’t afford another school in its budget, or some other reason — you can go over the head of the district to the state and get them to give you a charter. This school then reports only to the state for oversight. Some charter operators intentionally exploit this loophole, submitting flawed plans to the local school boards so they can operate indefinitely without local oversight. AB 1505 would close this loophole by ensuring that all decisions about whether to authorize or renew a charter school must be made by local or county school boards.

Where our reps stand: This bill is sponsored by Bonta and co-authored by Skinner. Wicks’s office says she does not yet have a position on the bill. Perhaps Wicks’s hesitation has something to do with the position of the pro-charter lobby: Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), called this bill and the others “poison.”

Assembly Bill 1506

AB 1506 caps the total number of charter schools — statewide and in each district — to their current number. If a charter school closes down (which they do, often) the district could allow a new one to replace it or strengthen the public schools instead. But there would be no net expansion past the current number of charters, either statewide or in any individual district.

Where our reps stand: Bonta’s office says he plans to vote for bill and supports the whole package of charter reforms. Wicks is still undecided. Again, it’s hard to not believe that charter advocates’ stance is influencing her. After all, ultrarich privatizers like Greg and Carrie Walton Penner funded Buffy’s campaign—among many other pro-charter groups, they have been active in CCSA. CCSA president Castrejón complained that teachers’ unions were treating charter schools as a “scapegoat” and that the teacher-backed bills would “kill us.”

Assembly Bill 1507

AB 1507 closes an egregious loophole that allows charters to operate outside the district that approved them. This vote is something of a no-brainer: The reform is obviously good, but voting for it takes little political courage since on its own, it does little to stem charter school expansion. It is likely that many representatives friendly to charters to will vote “Yes” on AB 1507 but against the more powerful AB 1505 and AB 1506, then take credit for supporting charter reform.

Where our reps stand: Reps. Bonta and Wicks both voted for it.

What happens next?

AB 1505 and AB 1506 have passed all their committee votes and are awaiting a vote by the whole assembly, which must happen by May 31 for the bills to have a chance of becoming law. AB 1507 has already passed the assembly. After passing a vote there, the bills then go to the state senate and then to the governor for final approval.

Teachers, students, and supporters from across the state will be converging on Sacramento on May 22 to pressure legislators to stop school privatization and fully fund public schools. These bills do not go far enough to stop charter school expansion: for that, we need a complete moratorium. But these reforms are a crucial step in the right direction.