Getting to Know: Senator Gary K. Hart, Author of the California Charter Schools Act

May 3, 2011

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In the fall of 1992, history was made in California, as the Charter Schools Act (SB 1448) was approved by the Legislature, and then signed by then Governor Pete Wilson. The road wasn't easy, according to former state Senator Gary K. Hart. That year, opposing legislation in the Assembly by fellow democrat Delaine Eastin, brought the issue of charter schools to the forefront, and through grueling negotiations. Governor Wilson, however, favored SB 1448 because it gave charter schools and their supporters--parents, teachers, leaders, and educators--more autonomy and flexibility to build good schools.

Those same core values are the backbone of the charter school movement, which has grown exponentially over the past 19 years. In 1993, when the law officially went into effect, California had 31 operating charters. Today, there are more than 900.

Although Sen. Hart is now "retired," he is very much active in the education community. To commemorate National Charter Schools Week, CCSA recently approached former Senator Hart for his thoughts on charter schools, then and now.

Senator, you wrote the charter schools bill almost 20 years ago. What compelled you to take it on as an issue?

(I had) many different reasons for initiating the charter legislation, including complaints from many in the school establishment that state laws and regulations were overkill and were preventing school folks from being educators and turning all of them into bureaucrats. At the time, there was also a voucher proposal that was going to be on the ballot which I opposed and I felt an alternative to vouchers was important politically. Also, Al Shanker (former head of the American Federation of Teachers) spoke eloquently about the need for experimentation in public education and charters could provide an appropriate vehicle for new instructional, management and governance strategies.

What was the biggest challenge, at that time, in getting the bill passed?

Unions were our biggest obstacle because we did not protect the status quo concerning collective bargaining. I felt charter teachers ought to be able to decide for themselves whether they wanted to be part of collective bargaining.

What was your original vision for charter schools, and how does that compare to where charter schools are today?

My original vision was for charters to be a creative alternative within public education--an 'R & D' (Research and Development) lab, if you will, from which policy makers and educators could, on occasion, gain valuable insights. In addition, I have always had a strong belief that no one has a corner on educational excellence and that some significant educational variety in a state as large and as diverse as California was a good thing, and charters could help promote such variety. Finally, I knew that some parents felt their local schools were not meeting their children's needs and providing an alternative to such parents (besides private and parochial schools), I felt, was important.

In your opinion, what are some of the things that have worked in charter schools? What are some things that haven't or could be done differently?

I have been impressed by the variety of charter schools and, especially, the flourishing of charter schools in low-income communities and with students, especially in secondary schools, who don't seem to do well in large comprehensive high schools. I have been disappointed that charters have not been embraced by more school districts (given their concern over regulation) and wonder if the accountability model we constructed (where local school boards grant and monitor charters) should have been done differently, perhaps with a state body responsible for granting charters and monitoring progress.

In 1993, when the law went into effect, there were only 31 charters in operation. This year, there are 912. Across the nation, charter schools are also growing. Does this rate of growth surprise you?

When we passed the original law, I had no idea whether it would take hold. 'What if we throw a (charter) party and no one comes?' Well, almost twenty years later--some party!

I had no idea charters would grow as they have; I had no idea that home-schooling and distance learning would become an important part of charters; I had no idea that charters would become 'famous' with movies, books, politicians, research institutes all making charters part of conventional educational parlance today. I am humbled.

What are some of the biggest challenges in education today?

The biggest challenge, I believe, remains the education gap facing African American, Latino and low-income children, and with our demographic changes and economic downturn, these challenges remain huge. I also believe that engaging student interest is a major issue and that perhaps technology can help as long as academic rigor is not sacrificed. (There are) lots of other challenges, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the precarious funding situation facing our schools everywhere, but especially here in California. We need to re-order our priorities and invest in research and education first and foremost.

What role do charter schools play in public education?

They provide an important alternative approach to public education and a valuable outlet to parents dissatisfied with existing choices. I don't view charters as a panacea nor necessarily appropriate for all students and teachers.

Did you see the film Waiting for "Superman?" If so, what was your reaction?

I did see "Superman," and my reactions were mixed. On the positive side, it highlighted the plight facing many poor parents and urban communities as well as the absurdity of some union contracts/practices and introduced the value of charters to a much wider audience.

But I had some reservations, notably there were few examples of classroom instruction (and how challenging effective teaching is in poor communities) and all the 'role model' schools were charters, which I think was unfortunate (and implied that charters are the panacea for our education woes). The director/producer of "Superman," Davis Guggenheim, did another education film about a decade ago ('TEACH') about six first-year teachers in LAUSD that is my favorite education film--as it documents accurately the successes and failures of dedicated, smart young teachers working in urban communities with a large, bureaucratic and often unresponsive school system.

You are still very much involved in education these days. Can you tell us what's been keeping you busy lately?

I serve on a number of boards, some of which are doing important education work: The Cotsen Family Foundation in Los Angeles that helps good teachers become great teachers through mentoring and professional development activities; the Campaign for College Opportunity a statewide organization committed to college access and success for California young people; and the Public Policy Institute of California which does rigorous education research (most recently on school finance reform, the need for more college grads in California, and the value, in certain early grades, of grade retention).

I also do volunteer teaching in the Sacramento City Unified School District--I created a high school book club program and currently participate as a book club mentor at Kennedy High School. Also, this summer I will again be leading a series of summer seminars for incoming high school juniors on important issues in American history. I enjoy working at the school site-level. I owe a lot to my own public education experiences and I enjoy attempting to return the favor.

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