Spotlight

15 Years as an All-Charter District in California

by MARK S. FORD

”What is it like to oversee an all-charter district?”

 

I have been asked this question numerous times over the 15 years that the Kingsburg Elementary Charter School District has operated under its all-charter status. When I consider the ever-more restricting nature of charter school legislation in California, my response is usually this: “It’s not that different from that of a noncharter district.”

FordMark Ford

However, there are enough exceptions to this easily repeated testimony that I realize I may have been unintentionally misleading my colleagues for years.

Changing Prescriptions
The process to become an all-charter district in California begins by obtaining the approval of the majority of the district’s teachers or the majority of its parents. The petition also must be approved by the local school board and include a solicited letter of support from the county school superintendent. This collection of information is sent to the California Department of Education’s legal department and charter schools division. If the petition is supported at this level, it is forwarded to the state superintendent of public instruction and the state board of education, both of which must sign off to grant charter status to the school district. Because nowhere within the thousands of regulations in the education code is the concept of all-charter districts described or regulated, each new state administration has the latitude to interpret the qualifications in its own particular way. The renewal process, required every five years, takes about 10 months.

To place this in some perspective, Kingsburg is now seeking its third renewal and fourth petition overall. During this 15-year period, California has elected four governors, each of whom has appointed his own state school board, creating four different state boards of education with political appointments reflecting the governor’s perceptions of charter schools; and four different state superintendents, elected at large in a statewide partisan election. The state superintendents then reconstruct large portions of the state education department. They may or may not have ever worked in or around public schools, yet are charged with reviewing all-charter district petitions.

A Worthwhile Pursuit
I am convinced the effort to retain our charter is worth it. Even though the last 15 years in California have seen ever-increasing legislative restrictions regarding charter school operations, we have found our capacity to be a successful education organization has thrived under this status.

In 1996, our self-declared independence in Kingsburg, a school district with 2,200 students in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley, from state bureaucracy was as heady as it was liberating. We established our own standards of expectations, which were higher than those being mandated for other public schools.

We enjoyed flexibility in being able to offer components of education that were losing emphasis across the state but were still important to the community we served. These included rigorous physical education and visual/performing arts as well as the use of community resources (musicians, artists, scientists, photographers, etc.) to teach electives even though the instructors were not credentialed teachers.

During those early years, we proved through these innovations to be correct in assuming local control could be more successful than implementing one-size-fits-all mandates dictated by a faraway state bureaucracy.

As charter regulations became more stringently controlling in nature, our district’s “can-do” attitude allowed us to adapt far more quickly than many other schools in the surrounding area. When No Child Left Behind began to take hold, we were able to react to new mandates in ways we didn’t see in other districts. The district’s teachers and administrators knew they could successfully educate students in any climate and under virtually any circumstance because of the attitude that blossomed under our charter status.

To borrow a phrase from 2011 National Superintendent of the Year Marc Johnson of Sanger, Calif.: “Every child, every day, whatever it takes!”

One illustration of student-centered innovation is the way Kingsburg serves students who are absent from school. Because charter schools in California can access independent-study resources the first day of a child’s absence (noncharters do not have such access for five days), the district can respond to the student and parents each day of absence with classroom course work. These assignments are monitored and graded by the classroom teacher, who has the vehicle by which to address student academic progress, even though the student might not be in the classroom for multiple days. This program results in an annual attendance rate exceeding 99 percent in Kingsburg.

Expanded Flexibility
Current fiscal challenges created by California’s state government, along with a myriad of new legislative controls imposed on charters, have reduced much of the original self-determination of the all-charter district concept. An irony of these legislative changes is that the fiscal flexibility initially given to charter districts has served as a model for temporary flexibility in categorical funding for all districts in California to help weather the current state fiscal maelstrom. School districts statewide have been able to reallocate categorical funds to best fit local needs in mitigating some of the harmful effects created by reductions of more than 20 percent in public school aid over the last three years.

Even if the state removes charter-based flexibility in all areas, Kingsburg still would pursue designation as a charter district. Over the years our unique status has become thoroughly embedded in our culture. Staff maintain a “we can do anything” mindset that has flourished with our original independence from state mandates.

This pride of culture also affects the community in which our organization exists. Even the local city government has since achieved its own charter status and enjoys the same attitude of accomplishment as has the Kingsburg Elementary Charter School District.

Mark Ford is superintendent of the Kingsburg Elementary Charter School District in Kingsburg, Calif. E-mail: mford@kingsburg-elem.k12.ca.us