California Board of Ed Tramples on Local Control, Pushes Charter School on Poor Community That Doesn't Want It

For more than an hour on Thursday afternoon, the California Board of Education sat stonefaced while a parade of local and county school board members, top administrators and principals, English language and special education teachers, Latino community outreach workers, parents and others urged, pleaded and begged the board to reject an application from Rocketship Education to open a computer learning-centered charter elementary school in their low-income community near San Francisco.

“This is the opposite of local control,” said Nellie Meyer, the superintendent of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, who called the proposal deeply flawed and was followed by MDUSD’s general counsel, Deborah Cooksey, who said Rocketship had collected its petition signatures “under false pretenses,” by telling people—including parents who were non-English speakers—their kids could get kicked out of school if they didn’t sign.

“This is going to be something that will divide our community,” said Gloria Rios, who has lived in the Monument Corridor near the northeastern Bay Area city of Concord for 20 years and has three children in the district’s public schools. “Our children will suffer the consequences, and these funds can be used for the schools we already have.”

“This is the most serious decision you will make over a charter school. They have been around for several years, but never in a community that didn’t want them,” said Ken Burt, California Education Association governmental relations representative. “I have been doing this for 24 years. This is the first time I have ever seen an attorney charge fraud. The state Board should investigate this, not the CDE [California Department of Education], since they made their recommendation.”

That recommendation was to override the objections of two elected school boards—one local, one countywide—and allow Rocketship to come into a divided community where the local professional educators and others said their computer-software centered curriculum taught by young and inexperienced teachers was not right for their students, especially bilingual grade schoolers whose first language wasn’t English.

“We have a divided community. This is a tough decision,” Tom Torlakson, California’s elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who is the state’s top education policy maker and who sat on the dais with the Board of Education members, said. “We see a hard-working district and excellent leadership in the team they have assembled.”

But it wasn’t a tough decision. By the time the Board convened its public hearing on Thursday, its mind was already made up. It knew it was going to reject the local control arguments, the findings of the elected school boards—including Rocketship’s record of underperformance with English learner students—and rubber stamp its application.

Torlakson knew this too and felt pressured. California’s top education official started his career in the Mount Diablo school district (where he remains a teacher on leave) before he climbed the political ladder. After two-thirds of the 44 people who signed up to testify had spoken against Rocketship at the Board of Education hearing, Torklason tried to exact more concessions from Rocketship executives before the board voted to approve its application. “I am satisfied,” he said, after getting their verbal assent. “Cindy Chan [director of the Charter School Division of the California Education Department] and I talked ahead of time. We’ve worked up some additional language…”      

In other words, the Board of Education’s hearing was previously decided, as one dissenting and frustrated board member said. But the big-picture issue here is not just how charter schools are able to step on democratically elected school boards and force themselves on communities that don’t want them. It’s also how the charter industry has wired state governments, epitomized by California’s treatment of Rocketship despite an impoverished community that tried to fight back. 

“You haven’t gotten any better at explaining what your program is supposed to be… I don’t believe you know how to do the things identified as flaws in your petition,” said Board of Education member Patricia Rucker, before the Rocketship vote. “Today, your petition is going to be approved… You stand here today and make a promise to fix the English learner program… Your process tore a community apart.”     

Local School Boards vs. Silicon Valley

The proposal from Rocketship, whose "tech-heavy, teacher-light" curriculum revolves around putting grade school children in large computer labs for an hour or more a day, where software developed by business peers of its board members is used to “personalize” the learning for each child, had more than roiled the Mt. Diablo school district for months before Thursday’s state Board decision.

The school district is located in a racially mixed, working-class area known as the Monument Corridor near the northeastern Bay Area city of Concord. Rocketship, which is based 50 miles away in Silicon Valley near the city of San Jose, and has 5,500 students in nine charters in the region. The Mt. Diablo district has 32,000 students, 55 schools and 1,700 teachers. Three of those schools are charters; Rocketship would be the fourth.

Last June, the locally elected Mt. Diablo School Board rejected Rocketship’s proposal in a stunning decision. It found not only that its petition “contains an unsound educational program,” but concluded that it was “unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth.” The heart of Rocketship’s curriculum, its computer-centric “Learning Lab” would “be supervised not by certified personnel, but by non-credentialed Instructional Learning Specialists.” It questioned “the soundness of having students spend 50 minutes on a computer engaging in an online adaptive curriculum… as opposed to direct classroom instruction by certified teaching personnel.”

Their rejection went deeper. It said ambiguities in Rocketship’s petition about its future expansion plans were “a Trojan Horse in which the Charter School would be allowed to significantly increase enrollment.” And perhaps most important of all, it concluded that Rocketship’s petition was lacking in a critical area of instruction for a district where a high proportion of students do not speak English as their first language. “There is no reference in the daily class schedule… or dedicated time allotted to English Language Development Instruction,” the district found. What there was, instead, was language in the proposal that appeared to be lifted from Rocketship’s application to open schools in San Jose that talked about Vietnamese students—who are not prevalent in their district.

The board also questioned Rocketship’s claim of better education outcomes, saying its English learners in “five of the [chain’s] eight schools had a significant decline… while it appears that math [test results] goes up and down from year to year.” And it questioned how low-income parents could meaningfully interact with Rocketship’s board in the South Bay, “a location so remote from Concord it creates access and equity issues.”

These conclusions were consistent with academic studies of Rocketship's record in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which have also noted that Rocketship's program and expansion plans have been rejected in wealthier communities, including the Bay Area.  

In other words, the Mt. Diablo School Board wanted no part of Rocketship. Their district had been improving its schools, including this year winning a major award for bilingual grade school education in one school whose enrollment was likely to be undercut by Rocketship's opening nearby. But the charter chain was undeterred.

Rocketship appealed to the Contra Costa County Board of Education, where its staff drew up a list of 14 conditions to fill in its application’s gaps. On the issue of whether the chain had the financial wherewithal to open and operate a school for 500 kindergarten to fifth graders, Rocketship revealed in 2011 it had received a $6.26 million grant from the federal Department of Education to open six new schools by September 2016—but “only spent about 50 percent of this grant thus far.” County Board of Education members, who also are elected officials, visited Rocketship schools and noticed the same deficiences as the local Mt. Diablo board. Last fall, they voted against Rocketship, saying it was not their staff’s role—nor procedure under the state’s charter authorizing law—to rewrite its petition. They also voiced concerns about the proposal to have its school board meetings “held outside the district area.”      

Pretty Words, Ugly Reality

Needless to say, Rocketship—under pressure to use its federal grant, and with a business plan that anticipates rapid expansion, including eventually opening seven charter schools in Contra Costa County—did not take no votes from the elected boards and subsequent letters signed by dozens of area educators and elected lawmakers for an answer.

California’s public education system is a bundle of contradictions when it comes to the charter school universe and traditional public schools. The state’s initial charter school laws envisioned districts experimenting with locally oriented charter schools—like the Montessori charter in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District; not franchises with rapid growth plans like Rocketship. Like many states, California’s Legislature created separate statewide charter authorizing agencies, and a Advisory Commission on Charter Schools (ACCS) to, among other things, hear appeals on local school board decisions. Most of its members, appointed by the state Board of Education, are charter industry leaders. (The governor appoints members to the Board of Education).

In other words, Rocketship knew it could appeal the two rulings rejecting it and face an entirely different and friendlier reception at the state level. That was what unfolded in February, when it held a hearing and recommended the Rocketship plan be approved. That opinion, in turn, set the stage for Thursday’s state Board of Education meeting, where Rocketship’s opponents believed the system was not hard-wired against them. They showed up expecting to testify and expecting the Board to honor local control, because, if anything, California’s education policies had been pointing that way.

As several dozen people in yellow t-shirts saying “Stop Rocketship” waited in the lobby of the California Education Department building, Guy Moore, the local teacher’s union president, recounted how in the 2013-14 legislative session, Gov. Jerry Brown, drew on an old word from his days as a Jesuit seminarian as he called for a sweeping realignment of the state’s public school funding formula and governance standards. Brown said public schools needed to be guided by “subsidiarity,” which, as Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters wrote, was “a religious theory about the worth of the individual that he’s reinterpreted as relying on local government and school district officials to make decisions.” The Legislature adopted Brown’s refinancing plan, which included requiring school boards to create “Local Control and Accountability Plans” with input from teachers, parents and the public. 

“This totally flies in the face of local control, subsidiarity,” said Moore, speaking about Rocketship’s heavy-handed push. “The Board of Rocketship is 60 miles away in San Jose. It has members in Washington, D.C., in Milwaukee, in Nashville and San Jose. When they have a board meeting, it’s a virtual teleconference. There is no school board to take up problems with… This is a national franchise chain.” 

Brown’s concept of elevating local control in public education stopped with charter schools, Moore explained, because the governor is pro-charter. As Oakland’s mayor, he created two good small-scale local charters—a military-style academy and an arts school—Moore said. “But the charter movement has changed and morphed and gotten away from the local roots of local charters to solve local problems. They say it is about giving back. It makes them feel good. But their underlying connection is to unbridled capitalism, and of taking those dollars and diverting them to corporate interests… These charters are parasitic.”

Kangeroo Court

Across the Education Department’s lobby were Rocketship’s backers—a mix of two-dozen mostly Latino women with young children in purple Rocketship t-shirts saying “I’m a Rocketeer” and a bevy of Rocketship executives in crisp business suits. By the middle of the afternoon, the Board’s agenda turned to Rocketship and both sides filed into a long conference room, with 80 chairs for the public and the officials at an opposing dias. Each side was given 10 minutes to make their case, and then each member of the public was given 60 seconds to address the board.

The first indication that the proceedings were tilted to Rocketship came when Cindy Chan, who oversees the California Education Department’s charter school program, summarized Rocketship’s petition and, using the same legal terms that the Mt. Diablo and Contra Costa County Boards used to reject Rocketship, concluded the opposite. Rocketship’s prograns were “sound” and they “will implement it,” she said.

Rocketship’s Cheye Calvo, its chief growth and county engagement officer, then led the board through a powerpoint presentation filled with all the buzzwords of the charter school movement. He talked of closing the “achievement gap.” He said that most “Rocketeers” learn more than one year’s worth of studies every school year. He said the school collected 1,100 petition signatures from district residents. He said the computer labs were “personalized learning,” saying they were “no substitute” for instruction. He called their teachers “purposeful, focused.” He said they rely on data to “assess students” and focus on the “whole child.” He acknowledged that Rocketship has high turnover—losing 20 percent of its faculty annually, but said their “teachers are performance-driven professionals who strive to achieve gap-closing” results. Finally, he put up graphs that compared the test scores from Rocketship’s San Jose schools with students in the Mt. Diablo district, saying they can do better than the traditional public schools.

The opponents, lead by the Mt. Diablo School District superintendent and local school board president, said Rocketship’s persistence was an affront to local control. They recounted the major flaws in its curriculum, especially its shallow approach to teaching English to students who did not speak it at home or as a first language. The district’s programs, especially in the Monument Corridor, were appropriately bilingual and award-winning, they said, adding their approach was seen by Rocketship as a liability. They said that Rocketship was not invited by parents to come into the community, but was lured by local real estate developers.

But mostly, the critique was aimed at Rocketship's overreliance on its test-centered curriculum and its lack of attention to the needs of what was working in a low-income, bilingual community, and one where special education also was a challenge.

“We are outraged at Rocketship’s lack of information on special education,” said Cheryl Hansen, president of the Mt. Diablo School District Board. “This is not Rocketship’s first school. Rocketship has not been able to answer special education questions at the school board and county board level.” And returning to their English language instruction, Hansen said, “More than 75 percent of their charter schools show declining achievement in the last four years.”   

In the hallway, outside, Jeff Belle, a Contra Costa County School Board member, said he visited Rocketship schools in San Jose and found four things: there was a lot of student engagement “but they had a minimal amount of instruction;” their English learner success rate was appalling, with “less than 10 percent” moving to the next level compared to 76 percent in the Mt. Diablo schools; he said Rocketship parents were active in the school but not seen in classrooms—“they were involved in bringing out food;” and he said the far away location of Rocketship’s board meetings was a real problem. “There’s not a clear pathway to maximum inclusion and transparency at the local level.”

“We had the widsom to listen to people on both sides of the aisle and the courage to make a decision,” he said. And when asked if it looked like the state Board of Education was going through the motions of holding a public hearing when it appeared to be heading toward a foregone conclusion, he replied, “They are ignoring the facts. If you were to juxapose both proposals, you’d see something has to be wrong to do this.”

Hansen, who joined Belle in the lobby, didn’t want to concede defeat before the board voted—especially when so many educators and parents came to Sacramento to personally speak up. “If we see a no vote vote, there is hope,” she said. “The problem is the ACCS (California Advisory Commission on Charter Schools). That is for charter schools. And many Board (of Education) members here are for charter schools.”

But in the end, the state Board showed how California’s legal process was tilted to favor charter schools and override local control—notwithstanding Gov. Brown’s “subsidiarity” philosophy and school reforms. The charter division staffers at California Department of Education said they made no effort to verify the petition signatures submitted by Rocketship—despite earlier testimony that people were bullied into signing out of fear their kids would not be able to attend public school next year of they didn’t sign. And the best that the state’s top education official, Superintendent of Public Instruction Torlakson was able to do—in front of a room filled with people who knew him as a colleague and as their locally elected legislator—was to get Rocketship to agree to two site visits a year by state inspectors, instead of one, and a commitment to revise its English language learner plans.

Rocketship’s growth and community involvement officer, Calvo, repeatedly said they would comply with the state’s requirements, would create a local advisory board for parents, would meet locally with parents, and would set up video-conferencing for parents to participate in their faraway school board meetings.

After the board made a motion to approve Rocketship—with only Rucker, a teacher’s union staffer, voting no—the board chair actually had the audacity to ask if there were any more comments from the public. Ken Burt, the California Education Association’s longtime lobbyist, was so angry he got up to speak, before the board cut off his microphone.

“There are two troubling things here,” he said. “First of all, the issue of allegations of [petition] fraud. The argument that you have 1,100 signatures, so half of them have to be good? That’s not how you do ballot initiatives in California. And teleconferencing? This is a case of first impression. That is a very bad thing, the notion that—.”       

Then Isabel Lara, a school community outreach worker who spends her days speaking with Latino parents, rose. “This is about equity and serving our Latino parents,” she said, visibly shaken about the approval and glib answer that parents who do not speak English will meaningfully participate via teleconferences. “I go to the parent’s homes. I make sure their issues are heard. Having a school board in San Jose? How will that serve our kids? How will that serve our parents.”

After the vote, Rocketship’s executives and supporters gathered in the lobby for pictures to be taken. When asked how Rocketship was going to run a school in such a divided community, their vice president for marketing and communications, Chris Murphy, replied, “We’re having parents speak. They’re having teachers speak.” 

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