FW: Analysis: Why a charter school trumped a neighborhood school for space |
An award winning neighborhood pub schl in CA forced to close b/c charter schl wanted the space.
Published: Feb. 4, 2012 Updated: Feb. 5, 2012 4:29 p.m.
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District: Charter law forced school's closure
Mission Viejo’s award-winning Barcelona Hills Elementary School will close in June to allow the 5-month-old Oxford Preparatory Academy charter school to grow.
/ THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
MISSION VIEJO – Barcelona Hills Elementary is closing in June, but not because it's an underperforming school or because neighborhood parents are demanding sweeping changes.
The 34-year-old Mission Viejo school, a 2010 California Distinguished School recipient nestled in a middle-class Mission Viejo neighborhood of families who cherish and support their school, is closing because a charter school needs space to expand – and there isn't room for both schools.
These Barcelona Hills Elementary parents have led a months-long fight to save their school, pleading their case to the school district and school board in emails, phone calls, in-person meetings and public hearings. Pictured, from left, Lisa Middleton, Marcela Alcaraz, Sharon Mata, Monica Alvarez, Valinda Accetta, Jim Reynen, Linda Shepard, Gary Middleton, Patrick Mallon and Debbie Lackie.
LEONARD ORTIZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
The Capistrano Unified School District made the gut-wrenching decision to close Barcelona Hills in January, following a five-month experiment in which Barcelona shared its 25-classroom campus with the district's new Oxford Preparatory Academy K-8 charter school.
Behind the unusual outcome is a series of state laws designed specifically to empower public charter schools and guarantee them classroom space in public school districts, many of which historically have been unwelcoming and unfriendly to charter schools.
In Capistrano, however, these same state laws – including one that guarantees charter schools "reasonably equivalent facilities" – have forced the school district's hand, experts say, creating an unusual and unfortunate situation where the school board was compelled to choose an independently run charter school over a district-run school.
"The law basically creates a default position to approve a charter school," said Brian Edwards, a Mountain View-based private educational consultant. "I'm reluctant to second-guess what the district has done because the district cited Proposition 39 in its decision, and Prop. 39 says we need to make room for charter schools."
In 2000, California voters approved the landmark Prop. 39 law guaranteeing charter school start-ups access to comparable classroom space. The law was intended to correct for the difficulty that many charter school operators faced in obtaining affordably priced classroom space.
"These facilities are supposed to be for all public school students, regardless of whether they attend traditional or charter schools," said Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association. "One of the biggest challenges for charter schools still is trying to identify and pay for facilities."
In practice, when a district doesn't comply with Prop. 39, Waters said, a charter school often decides the issue is not worth fighting and instead voluntarily leases its own building, eating up typically 10 to 15 percent of its overall budget. That sum is often far more than if the charter used a district-supplied building, Waters said.
Oxford, for example, will pay Capistrano Unified just $122,044 next year for use of the entire, 25-classroom Barcelona campus. The formula for calculating these rates is codified in state charter school laws.
Prop. 39's intent questioned
The Barcelona Hills parents who have been fighting to keep their beloved school open say that when voters approved Prop. 39, they couldn't have anticipated this outcome, nor intended it.
"Nowhere does it say Prop. 39 is meant to enable and expedite something like this," said Barcelona parent Patrick Mallon of Mission Viejo. "Under the law, we all should be treated equally."
Charter schools are public schools that operate free from many of the legal and educational regulations of traditional schools.
Capistrano Unified authorized opening Oxford in spring 2011 in a unanimous school board vote. At the time, trustees knew the district did not have an empty campus on which to house Oxford, but citing state law, insisted they had no choice but to bring Oxford to the district.
After Oxford opened in September on the shared Barcelona campus to overwhelming parent demand, including a waiting list 600 names long, the charter school petitioned the school board to increase its enrollment by 23 percent, to 772. (Oxford draws its families from across the 56-campus school district.)
Again, citing state laws, trustees approved the increase in January, effectively squeezing out Barcelona and putting it on a path to a June closure.
"You want local control, and yet as far as charter schools are concerned, it's a state-mandated issue and there's very little a local school board can do to deny or reject a charter school," said Capistrano Board of Trustees President Gary Pritchard, reflecting on trustees' tough decision.
"There was no easy way for us to do it – we either had to close a school immediately (last year), or there may be a lower-enrolled school site where the charter has to share the campus first," Pritchard said. "It bothers me at some level that I don't have clear answers."
Uneven track record
A lingering source of confusion and frustration among Barcelona parents is why Capistrano Unified voted to allow Oxford to open when two neighboring school districts rejected the school.
Mission Viejo-based Saddleback Valley Unified was approached by Oxford in 2009, but Saddleback trustees said the plan was educationally and fiscally unsound.
Then, in late January, just one day before Capistrano trustees approved Oxford's expansion plan, Oceanside Unified rejected Oxford's proposal for a campus there.
Oceanside Unified cited a litany of problems with Oxford's application, including inadequate budgeted start-up costs, overstated enrollment projections, "unreasonable" spending estimates and a likelihood of promoting a "disparate impact" on minorities and poor families.
Barcelona parents say Capistrano's fondness for Oxford, while other districts rejected the school, has only one explanation.
"Absolutely it was (the district's) master plan to close Barcelona," said Barcelona parent Monica Alvarez of Mission Viejo, a Los Angeles Unified school psychologist. "We knew all along their intention was to close Barcelona – they didn't want to have a shared campus for more than one year. I know it was a very difficult decision for them, but just because something is hard doesn't mean it was the right thing to do."
Pritchard said he didn't know why the other districts had rejected Oxford's application, emphasizing Capistrano Unified officials had fully vetted Oxford's application and determined it was a sound fit for Capistrano.
Oxford, meanwhile, has pointed out it was the district's decision alone to close Barcelona and that Oxford never asked the district to close a specific campus.
"We significantly reduced our enrollment the first year so we could fit within the (shared) space," said Oxford spokeswoman Erika Schulte, a parent at the school. "We can't presume to try to manage the district's resources. That's what they're tasked with."
Schulte added that Oxford, which admits children by random lottery, is in such high demand among district parents that some families were only able to get one of their children into Oxford, while their others go to a different school.
Even when its enrollment grows to 772 this fall, the K-8 school likely won't be able to accommodate everyone on the waiting list, officials say.
Oxford operates on the theory of multiple intelligences, which suggests children learn in at least eight different ways – including through music and role-playing – but traditionally are taught in two main ways, linguistics and mathematics/logic.
The school was founded in Chino 1-1/2 years ago by two veteran public school administrators, Sue Roche and Jason Watts; the Mission Viejo campus is their second school.
"We have an innovative, very successful educational program that has proven itself through Sue Roche's 30-plus years as a public school educator," Schulte said. "There are not very many charter schools that can come in with that kind of pedigree and track record, and I think that's why there was such a tremendous parent response."
Potentially disruptive, but valuable
Education leaders say that while the Barcelona decision appears to be a rare and perhaps unintended consequence of charter school law, it does not necessarily mean charter schools wield too much power under the law.
Michael Stone, a board member with the California Teachers Association, said the teachers union is concerned about how the presence of a charter school can be disruptive to a community, but also cognizant that charter schools can be important and vital vehicles of education reform.
"We're not opposed to charter schools; we have members who work in them," said Stone, an Aliso Viejo Middle School math teacher. "At the same time, one of the concerns is we don't want an outside charter management company coming in and making promises and infringing on our school sites. At Capo, we've had a really good reputation – many of our schools are Blue Ribbon and California Distinguished Schools – so it's surprising and disappointing this (Barcelona decision) turned out the way it did."
The California Charter Schools Association says charter operators still face an uphill battle to win approval and secure classroom space – and that the Barcelona decision isn't likely to become more widespread.
The fact that Oxford was rejected by two other school districts, in particular, speaks to the difficulties and discrimination that many charter school operators still face, officials say.
"Capo worked very cooperatively with Oxford to come up with a program that would meet the demands of the community and that they felt good about approving," said Schulte of Oxford. "I think in Oceanside and Saddleback, there wasn't that level of collaboration."
The challenge of opening a charter school could get even tougher. Under a bill approved by the state Assembly last month, a school district could legally reject a proposal for a charter school if the district itself is strapped for cash. Right now, districts are only permitted to reject charter school applications that present a financially and educationally unsound program.
For the displaced Barcelona families, their main concern now is deciding where to transfer their kids this fall – and figuring out what they can do to prevent existing charter schools from taking over more traditional schools.
"We're going to meet with legislators in our area, let them know what happened to us," said Barcelona parent Debbie Lackie of Mission Viejo. "We lost our fight, but we absolutely don't want this to happen to anyone else."
O.C. charter schools
Oxford Preparatory Academy is the fifth charter school to open in the Capistrano Unified School District. Charter schools are public schools that operate free from many of the legal and educational regulations of traditional schools. Orange County is home to 14 charter schools in all:
Capistrano Connections Academy, K-12, Aliso Viejo
Community Roots Academy, K-8, Aliso Viejo
Journey Charter School, K-8, Aliso Viejo
Opportunities for Learning, 6-12, Dana Point
Oxford Preparatory Academy, K-8, Mission Viejo
Santa Ana Unified
Edward B. Cole Sr. Academy, K-5, Santa Ana
El Sol Science and Arts Academy, K-8, Santa Ana