Since the Charter Schools Act of 1992 was passed, lawmakers in the state have been looking at ways how best to handle oversight issues and loopholes that have spawned from it.

In recent years, some bad apples have emerged in the charter world.

The founder of Los Angeles charter school network Celerity Educational Group, Vielka McFarlane, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to misappropriate and embezzle public funds in December 2018, according to the Los Angeles Times. Additionally, just last month prosecutors alleged two charter school leaders took more than $50 million from the state by falsely enrolling thousands of students to earn additional funds, according to the San Diego District Attorney.

Schools in Kern County, however, appear to be doing what they intended on from the start: educating and serving children. One is Wonderful College Prep Academy, which has 90 percent of its graduates attend a four-year college or university, according to Noemi Donoso, executive vice president of Wonderful Education.

But a package of bills in the state Legislature has several local charter school advocates worried that passage would harm educational opportunities for students who need them most.

Maintaining local control

What began with four bills is now down to two bills currently being considered in the state Senate. 

Under the Charter Schools Act of 1992, a petition to establish a charter school would first be considered by a school district. If it is denied, a petition can be appealed to a county board of education or the state Board of Education. Assembly Bill 1505 would take the state out of the appeal process. 

Another bill, AB 1507, closes a loophole that has allowed districts to approve charter school sites outside their boundaries.

Both bills hope to restore oversight at the local level, according to Chelsea Kelley, principal consultant to the Assembly Education Committee.

"The schools the state board approves and monitors, their staff has to get on a plane to visit these sites," she explained. "You can have an impromptu visit when it’s controlled locally."

The two other bills, AB 1506 and Senate Bill 756, have been put into the inactive pile.

Charter school advocates see more harm than good being done with these package of bills. Brittany Chord Parmley, of the California Charter Schools Association, believes passage would "absolutely rip public schools from kids who need them most."

"Kids need great schools. Period," she said. "Limiting those choices and options, it hurts our most vulnerable kids and that’s unacceptable."

Local impact

The Kern County Superintendent of Schools oversees four charters: Wonderful Academies in both Delano and Lost Hills, Grimmway Academy in Arvin and the newly acquired Ridgecrest Elementary Academy for Language, Music and Science (REALMS).

It also has its own charter, Valley Oaks Charter School, explained Kathie Morris, of the KCSOS. More than 2,000 students are enrolled in these five schools.

Kern County has 15 charter schools total, according to the California Department of Education.

AB 1507 would have a large impact on a school district such as Maricopa Unified School District, Morris said. The district in Kern County supports three charter school affiliates, according to its website, that have satellite sites outside its boundaries. 

The district could have limited opportunities to continue running these satellite sites or adding additional ones if the bill passes, Morris explained.

With AB 1505, however, she believes taking the state out of the appeal process makes sense because the state "doesn’t have the capacity to monitor a charter that’s 400 miles away."

From Ridgecrest Charter School to REALMS

KCSOS's newest charter has had a long history in Kern County, but under the state Board of Education's oversight.

In 2001, Ridgecrest Charter School petitioned to the Sierra Sands Unified School District to open, but was denied. The school ultimately appealed to the state board and was approved. Ridgecrest Charter School Executive Director Steve Martinez said the charter would not exist if AB 1505 was law back then.

REALMS incoming Chief Executive Officer Miriam Hogg said the relationship between the school and the state was positive.

"They would come out for yearly visits," she said. "We knew they wouldn’t be able to do personal relationship building ... but everything they asked for we provided."

When it came time for the charter to renew its contract this year, the state recommended it be denied due to poor academic achievement on state tests.

"In the past when we’ve been asked to improve academics, we’ve always done that. It was a bit of a surprise when we weren’t given that opportunity," Martinez said.

The charter decided to redesign its program to put more of an emphasis on early literacy, early intervention with reading and STEM learning. It also changed its name to REALMS. Its petition to the KCSOS was unanimously approved in April.

Despite its rocky past, without the state board seeing its potential 18 years ago, Hogg said the school would not have been able to provide additional educational options for students in Ridgecrest.

Keeping up the work

Though the bills' futures are uncertain, officials from local charter schools say they will continue to be an outlet for rural families.

Both Grimmway Academy and Wonderful College Prep Academy are tuition-free, and Wonderful sees several first-generation students go to college each year.

"Nearly 100 percent of our graduates go on to college ... Perhaps the most remarkable statistic is that nearly 90 percent of our graduates are the first in their families to attend college," Donoso said.

Barbara Grimm-Marshall, founder and CEO of Grimm Family Education Foundation, said on "One on One" that Grimmway "continues to be one of the higher performing schools in Kern County."

While she believes in having some regulation among bad apple schools, it should be without impacting and taking away choices for families.

"Charter schools are primarily located in underserved communities. Those are the students that have the least choices and have many struggles with their home situation, with language barriers," she said. "Charter schools are really committed to help address those needs and ensure that every child is successful."

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Take a look at the AB 1505 highlights on the sidebar. The ask yourself: Is this intended to improve educational opportunities for students (including disadvantaged students), or is it designed to protect the education establishment?

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