CA Legislator takes charter school reform bill off the table

A controversial charter school bill that was meant to prevent the kind of fraud highlighted by the A3 charter school scandal is temporarily dead in the state legislature.

Assembly Education Committee Chair Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, asked that his charter school reform bill, AB 1316, be moved to the inactive file on Thursday. The action means it’s unlikely the bill will be voted on during this legislative session.

O’Donnell made the bill inactive as part of a working agreement with Gov. Gavin Newsom to extend a current moratorium on the creation of new non-classroom based charter schools until January 2025, legislative officials said.

Charter schools are publicly-funded, privately-run schools. A non-classroom based charter school includes online schools, home school charter schools and independent study schools. A3 was a network of non-classroom based schools.

The bill was meant to address weaknesses in state law addressing school audits and enrollment practices that San Diego prosecutors said A3 executives exploited to fraudulently obtain at least $400 million in state school dollars, from 2016 to 2019.
The two main A3 leaders pleaded guilty to conspiracy earlier this year.

The bill went beyond trying to address enrollment and auditing issues; it would have imposed a plethora of new restrictions on charter schools.

For instance, it would have limited how many students a non-classroom based charter school could enroll. It also would have increased how much an authorizer could charge charter schools and it would have required non-classroom based schools to offer in-person instruction to some students.

The bill’s authors had said those additional restrictions were needed to curb inappropriate activities found with other charter schools besides A3. For instance, some legislators wanted to curb the Inspire charter schools’ practice of letting parents spend school dollars on enrichment and recreational activities like horseback riding.

Charter school supporters celebrated the bill’s move to the inactive file, saying it would have financially threatened charter schools and cramped the flexibility and independence that charter schools are meant to have.

“AB 1316 would have reduced and diverted education funds away from students and classrooms to be spent instead on bureaucracy and would have limited flexibility and educational opportunities,” said Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association in a statement. “It would have effectively forced many schools to close down.

“AB 1316 would have caused more disruption and instability in our public schools at a time when students are returning to in-person learning and when families are requesting more flexible schedules and options,” she added.

As part of the agreement with legislators, Newsom included in his May revised budget trailer bill a three-year extension of the moratorium on new non-classroom charter schools, meaning no new online charter schools would be allowed to open until at least January 2025.

The legislature has yet to approve a state budget.

“Extending the moratorium will allow additional time during this pandemic-impacted Legislative session to craft the strong solution that closes loopholes, protects public money, and ensures students have access to a quality education whether they attend a traditional brick and mortar or an online school,” O’Donnell said in a statement.

O’Donnell said there still needs to be reform of non-classroom based charter schools.

“It’s clear that we need to reform non-classroom based charter schools, given the scope of fraud that’s been uncovered and the lack of oversight and safeguards that are needed to prevent future fraud,” he said.

There is a narrower bill progressing further through the legislature that also aims to prevent the abuses highlighted in the A3 scandal. Senate Bill 593, authored by Steve Glazer, D-Contra Costa, passed the Senate last week by a vote of 35-0 and is currently in the Assembly for consideration.

SB 593 would require auditors of non-classroom based schools to choose their own samples for auditing enrollment data, rather than allowing schools to choose the samples. Auditors also would take training on recognizing “irregular practices,” identifying large transfers of money from schools to outside parties, and sampling credit card statements and other electronic payments.




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