Simitian bill boosts charter school oversight

In 'education update,' state senator discusses state budget outlook

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, has introduced legislation -- favored by charter school interests –- that would boost oversight and accountability for the 912 publicly funded charter schools serving 365,000 California children.

The bill establishes minimum performance criteria charters must meet, or face hearings before the State Board of Education and the local chartering agency.

The bill is backed by the California Charter Schools Association but opposed by the California School Boards Association.

Simitian raised the topic to a somewhat skeptical roomful of school board members Saturday, who had gathered in Palo Alto for the senator's semi-annual "education update."

The support of the Charter Schools Association "has surprised everyone ... and it makes some people nervous," said Simitian, the son of two public-school teachers and long viewed as an ally of traditional interests in the rift that has grown between traditional schools and the more experimental charters.

"The reason (charter interests) are supporters is, their view is, 'We know we're subject to criticism, and we think if we can prove we're prepared to meet the high expectations people set for us, people will be more accepting of what we're trying to offer.'"

Simitian expressed disappointment there has not been more cooperation between traditional and charter schools.

"In a perfect world, the hope was the folks would step up and say, 'We've got a wonderful opportunity to provide education and partner, but in the real world it didn't always turn out that way.

"Sometimes it did, but more often than not folks viewed charter schools and districts as competitors, things got confrontational and it's been a struggle along the way."

More than 100 people -- at least half of them school board members or administrators from districts from Santa Cruz to San Carlos -- gathered for two hours to hear Simitian's update.

Simitian said he sees "the basic outlines" of a deal for the Legislature to agree to a state budget by June 15, involving compromises on public-employee pension reform, a state spending cap, and some changes to the California Environmental Quality Act.

But Gov. Jerry Brown's failure to get a June ballot measure to extend $12 billion in taxes for five years presents the potential for a "world of hurt."

Although state income and property-tax receipts have come in somewhat higher than expected, a serious budget gap remains if the Legislature refuses to unilaterally extend the taxes pending a statewide vote.

"Bleak doesn't begin to describe it," he said.

"There's going to be a lot of scrambling to make the unworkable work," including furlough days and a shortened school year, he said.

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