Charter Leaders Connect with Senate Education Chair Carol Liu
November 21, 2013 Representatives from diverse charter schools across Los Angeles recently had the opportunity to have a deep and thoughtful discussion with Senator Carol Liu (D - Pasadena), who plays an important leadership role in the Legislature. A two-hour conversation touched on issues from SB 740 funding to charter-district collaboration, teachers unions and Code 1090.
"We deeply appreciate Senator Liu and her staff taking the time to dive into some critical issues that will likely come up in the Senate Education Committee this year. Nothing is as powerful as hearing from school leaders directly about how state policies affect their schools and their students," said Myrna Castrejon, SVP of Government Affairs for the California Charter Schools Association, which coordinated the meeting. "Senator Liu's passion for education and deep knowledge of California education policy history was evident in the discussion."
Senator Carol Liu (D-Pasadena) is currently chair of the Senate Education Committee. Virtually all critical charter school legislation will pass through this committee in the legislative process. Senator Liu grew up in the Bay Area where she attended public schools. She went on to teach in Richmond public schools and ultimately became a school administrator.
The roundtable included charter leaders from Liu's district: Shawn Brumfield, founder of Pasadena Rosebud Academy, Kate Bean, Executive Director of Aveson Global Leadership Academy, and Lauren O'Neill, Executive Director of Odyssey Charter School, which hosted the visit at their school. Several charter leaders from other parts of Los Angeles also joined, including Ana Ponce of Camino Nuevo Charter Academies, Parker Hudnut from ICEF Public Schools, Michelle Jasso of Endeavor College Prep and Marco Petruzzi of Green Dot Public Schools who talked about their work on school turnaround. Senator Liu was joined by her Education Advisor Ed Honowitz, who is a former Pasadena Unified School District board member, as well as Lenin Del Castillo who works for the Senate Committee on Education.
Performance and Impact of Charter Schools
Senator Liu started the discussion by pointing out that one of the key ideas behind the creation of charter schools was that they would be laboratories for innovation, coming up with effective new approaches that could be shared and adapted across the traditional public school system. She asked whether that vision was being realized, especially collaboration.
Several leaders talked about the impact that charter schools are having, especially for low-income and minority students. Parker Hudnut from ICEF pointed out that many big changes in the public school system at large had started in charters - for instance, the increasing adoption of blended learning and the funding flexibility in the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).
Charter leaders shared that there is actually a lot of collaboration going on between charters and districts - some of the most effective collaborations happening informally. For instance, Michelle Jasso said she has enjoyed participating in a learning network with traditional school principals. Marco Petruzzi said that he had invited Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to have administrators go through Green Dot's academy to prepare leaders for turnarounds, but that there had been political barriers and he has yet to see that collaboration fully develop.
Unions in Charter Schools and Teacher Evaluations
Sen. Liu and her staff were also interested in the work environments that charter schools provide for teachers and how charter schools are taking on the issue of improving teacher evaluations.
Lauren O'Neill from Odyssey shared that she originally came to the charter movement as a teacher. She grew up in Pasadena and was teaching in Pasadena Unified, but couldn't find a school with the approach she wanted to take. She ultimately founded a charter school, working to create an environment where teachers would really have the power to shape the school program. "I just couldn't find that in the traditional district," she said. Ana Ponce and Marco Petruzzi both lead CMOs with teachers unions. Both said they have more of a thin contract than local districts and have done a lot of work in partnership with teachers to develop more effective teaching evaluations. Several Los Angeles charter operators have done work in this area coordinating through The College-Ready Promise.
Myrna Castrejon told the Senator that about 30 percent of charter schools in the state have some sort of collective bargaining agreement; 20 percent are district conversions or dependent charters and 10 percent are independent charter schools.
Kate Bud and Lauren O'Neill, whose smaller teacher staffs aren't unionized, said that they've heard district staff claim that charter schools have an unfair advantage over districts because they can more easily hire the staff they want and dismiss teachers who are not doing well, but that they haven't seen that to be the case. Both said that the key was retaining great teachers and that providing a great work environment was essential to having excellent teachers and a strong school - not dismissing people.
Charter leaders flagged two issues for consideration: allowing SB 740 funds to be used for debt service and lowering the threshold for eligibility.
Ana Ponce said that one of her schools had been in a leased facility for 12 years and was recently able to move into a permanent home. While great news for the school, financially it is tough because now the school won't receive SB 740 funds. She said it absolutely would make sense for the funds to be used for debt service.
Government Code 1090, which has to do with conflict of interest, will likely come up in the Legislature in some form this year. Charter leaders shared that they all already comply with this code under agreement with their authorizer, as do many charters across the state.
Lauren O'Neill shared a very real impact of having to comply with this code -her teacher representative had to step down from the board of directors. She said this was very unfortunate since teacher leadership and voice in the school was such an important part of why she founded the school.
The conversation wrapped up with a tour of Odyssey Charter School, which is located in a closed district school under Proposition 39. Lauren O'Neill showed everyone through the school's amazing garden and showed how a creative approach turned portables into comfortable, light-filled spaces for their middle school students. CCSA's Government Affairs team will continue to follow up with Senator Liu and her staff as the legislative year moves forward.